Just before they left for Tokyo, I caught up with James Barnes, Erin’s coach, and chatted to him about Erin’s climbing and his role as coach.
Tony Lourens: Can you give us some background on Erin with regards to her climbing and how she rose to this level of competition?
Erin started climbing in her first year of High School at Westville girls in 2017. The Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) climbing committee hosted a few competitions (boulder and lead) where other schools (mainly the Durban district) competed, and would select the best athletes in KZN to represent their province in a national event. This would go onto a selection event where the South African Youth team would be chosen to represent South Africa in the Youth World Championships (YWCH). She was selected to represent South Africa in her first YWCH in Moscow, Russia 2018. She was only selected for bouldering in this event, where she placed 61/67.
T: What was your coaching strategy to get Erin ready to compete at this level?
J: I only started coaching Erin from October 2018. I was mainly focusing on exposing her to real rock climbing. This teaches her the difference in terrain, styles, and the pure enjoyment of being outside, experiencing the community and finding appreciation for what rock climbing is really about. Southern Rock doesn’t have any lead walls, so to get more confident and comfortable, we spent most weekends climbing at the local crags. Umgeni Valley, located just outside of Howick, we dubbed ‘The School for Climbing’ as it was vertical and all about understanding the movement of your body, trusting the tiniest feet, while biting down on razor sharp edges. This forces you to learn technique very quickly, trusting bad foot holds, while composing on small hand holds. Then, on the opposite end of the styles spectrum we had the Wave Cave in Shongweni Valley: a mega steep cave feature, with routes only starting at 23, which meant you went in knowing you were going to try hard. This is what we called our gym. Running laps on some of the classic routes, working up power endurance where your back muscles get more pumped than your forearms. Fantastic style of climbing, teaching you to move your feet first before hand movements. This style of climbing is generally favoured in competitions as the walls you compete on are mostly overhanging.
T: Tell us about Erin’s competition journey?
J: Erin’s first ‘big comp’ was the South African Open Nationals, which was held at CityROCK Johannesburg with all three disciplines: speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing. This has now been dubbed the 2020 Olympic combined format. This was also the first qualifying event for the African Continental Cup (ACC). She won gold in lead climbing, silver in bouldering and bronze in speed climbing, earning her gold overall. This seeded her in 1st place for the African Continental Cup to be held in March 2020. Next, she went on to win the Youth Nationals in CityRock CapeTown, and Bloc11 in June, taking gold in lead, gold in bouldering and silver in speed in the U17 female category. Being on top of the podium for both comps gained her a slot on the South African Team, where she went on to YWCH in Arco, Italy placing 33/79 in bouldering and 48/72 in lead for female youth A (U17 in South Africa).
Once all the serious competitions were done in 2019, she went to compete in the CityROCKtober Festival comp. She won lead and placed second in bouldering. After all these comps, the training didn’t stop. If anything, it picked up. With both of us wanting to take part in the ACC, we turned up the training and set our sights on the Olympic qualification, which was to be held in March 2020.
T: How did Covid affect your training and the competition circuit?
J: When Covid-19 hit, we all went into a nationwide lockdown which meant the ACC qualifications event was postponed to the end of the year. Again, this didn’t mean sitting around playing X-Box, it was all about maintaining focus and dealing with the training at home and utilizing the outdoor crags while all training facilities were closed. When the gyms finally opened up again in late July, we started the process of getting back into indoor shape. The ACC cup took place in Cape Town in December. The first IFSC recognized competition in Africa. Another first for the sport. Erin went on to win this competition, crowning her the first lady (only 18) to represent Africa in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games in 2021.
T: Okay, so Erin had qualified for the Olympics. What happened then? Did you change training tactics in light of this? What was your MO?
J: This qualification event was just the first step into her training. She then had to start a very specific training plan, which included all three disciplines, working with general and full body strengthening, working fast twitch fibres to increase her speed climbing and help with coordination moves in bouldering and sometimes in lead climbing, as well as getting maximum muscle recruitment to improve contact strength with finger strength. Each phase took a total of six weeks with an overlapping layout. This required roughly five days of training a week with two rest days and one ‘de-load’ week.
Erin also did some training in Johannesburg with Dane Bishop, as well as getting more exposure as well as use of the full size speed wall. She spent a week in Cape Town before leaving for Salt Lake City in the USA for her first ever Open World Cup in May to compete in two IFSC Boulder World Cups and one Speed World Cup.
In the first WC she placed 42/50 with 3 zones out of 5. Erin was able to get to the last holds on boulders 1 and 2, just falling short on boulder 2 and timed out on boulder 1.
In the second WC the following weekend, the boulders were a lot riskier and seemed to make all the athletes on the day work hard. She placed 47/51 with only 1 zone.
She also participated in the first speed World Cup of the season where she set a new South African speed climbing record with a time of 12.04
After coming back from the USA, Erin spent a lot of time working on the weakness we identified in the two World Cups and has been working hard on her wall performance, as well as maintaining the strengths she has gained from the last two years of training – spending roughly 2–3 hours every two days with a rest day in between.
T: So how would you break down her training day by day?
J: Typically, Erin’s training included days of speed training on a seven-metre wall with a certain set-up of the route. We focused a lot on the start of the route, which is considered one of the most crucial parts, as it dictates the rest of your route speed. Erin has learnt the technique called the Tommoa skip which is quite a tricky double hand catch, getting your leg on the same hold and then shooting your body straight up, missing one hold. It is very powerful and for shorter climbers it can be a lot harder, thus making putting in the extra time so important.
On bouldering training days, I would set world cup-style climbs. I would try to replicate blocks from the world cups that were happening in Europe. Simulating movements that were given in the semi-finals and finals. She underwent a five minutes on, five minutes off simulation where she would have to try and figure out the climbs by herself. Once the time was done, we would watch the videos, see where she had made mistakes or made progress, and work on those areas to better them.
For lead there were two types of training. The first was a spray wall (a wall with all the worst holds we have in Southern Rock, placing them all on the one 30-degree wall) where 30/40 move boulders were made. She would do six sets of these to work power endurance as well as memorising a route. The other was heading to the Wave Cave where we would run laps on the routes and try harder routes to maximize time on a rope in tough terrain.
T: Your final thoughts?
J: Erin has worked extremely hard on her training, while also navigating her matric school year. She has shown an amazing amount of discipline and dedication to her training and school work. Matric is hard on most people, now even harder to balance training, staying safe from Covid, and being an 18-year-old girl. I am super privileged to stand beside her at the Games and watch her take South African climbing to the next level.
Main image: Erin’s Instagram
Erin is sponsored by: Black Diamond, Scarpa, ClimbOn