Ausnew Home Care | Australian paraclimbing champion Sarah Larcombe’s journey to the top of the world

Australian paraclimbing champion Sarah Larcombe’s journey to the top of the world

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Just four years ago, Sarah Larcombe embraced rock climbing for the first time.

The Australian paraclimbing champion — who has gone on to represent the country across the globe and win at World Cups — said it was something that she wished she had done sooner.

"Being up high on a climbing wall is the best feeling. It is so freeing," Larcombe said.

"Climbing is actually the perfect adaptive sport. I really wish that I started climbing when I was younger.

"I really feel like there are things that I can do up on a climbing wall that I can't do on the ground: The way that you can move your body and that freeing feeling is just nothing like you can experience anywhere else."

However, it has been far from easy.

Throughout high school, Larcombe wanted to fit in and struggled to come to terms with living with a disability.

Despite being an amputee her entire life and using a prosthetic right leg, the AL2 climber describes her journey as taking "a really long time to get there".

"When I was a kid, I was a tree climber. We had a massive pear tree in my backyard, and I just lived in that tree," she said.

"Sometimes, you just wake up, and you decide, 'I just really wish I had two legs today. It would just make my life so much easier.'"

Australian paraclimber Sarah Larcombe climbs a wall at Urban Climb, Blackburn
Sarah Larcombe fell in love with the sport after only taking it up in 2019.()

Pressure of feeling valued

Larcombe said it came down to a conscious decision one day to move on from living with a disability, to become happy with her body, and to want to be a role model who her younger self could have looked up to.

Feeling pushed towards taking up sport in her teens, swimming was her first choice, until she gave it up after tiring of endless laps on the line.

"There are a lot of amazing sporting programs for disabled kids, and I feel so lucky to have been a part of them," Larcombe said.

"But, growing up, it really did seem that the only way that you could be valued as a disabled person in Australia was to be successful in sports.

"You are, I guess, showing the non-disabled community that you are able to overcome whatever physical impairment you might have. And that is the easiest way to demonstrate.

"And I do really want to emphasise that sport is not the only way to be successful as a disabled person.

"Even though I have found myself back in sports, and I've achieved a lot through climbing, I just think that it's one part of a very rich life."

Australian paraclimber Sarah Larcombe sits down and puts on her shoe.
Sarah Larcombe felt pressured to do sport as a way of proving to non-disabled athletes she was valued.()

Fears of being turned away

Unlike many, it was not a fear of heights that made Larcombe hesitant to take on the walls.

Terrified of being rejected and knocked back from climbing gym clubs due to her disability, Larcombe said she was afraid to sign up when she did not know of adaptive climbers with a disability paving the way on the walls.

"I was genuinely afraid that, if I went to a climbing gym and tried to sign up for like a beginner's course or something, they would tell me that it wasn't for me and that I wouldn't be able to do it," she said.

Instead, it was the opposite.

"I think that's probably a limitation that I put on myself rather than anything that was coming from the climbing community.

"I eventually found a friend who also wanted to try climbing, and we went to the gym together.

"I always waited out the front for my friend to come so that we could go in together. But it turns out the climbing community is actually very warm and very inclusive.

"And I just I just fell in love with it from the first time I came."

Larcombe would aim to go for an hour climbing session and, instead, often stayed for up to six hours, lost in the moment alongside its supportive community.

"We just end up climbing all day, just skipping from partner to partner," she said.

"Before you know it, the gym's closing, and you've been there since they opened."

Australian paraclimber Sarah Larcombe climbs a wall at Urban Club, Blackburn.
Sarah Larcombe was hesitant to go to a climbing gym at first, due to fear of being turned away.()

World Cup wins just the beginning

It was not long until Larcombe started to find her groove on the walls.

However, after a few months came a crushing blow: Larcombe fell off a wall during bouldering, broke her left ankle and was unable to walk.

"As a lower limb amputee, the last thing that you want to do is injure your other leg," Larcombe said.

"That was a devastating injury for me. It put me out for at least three months and a long rehab to get back into climbing.

"So it did take me a little while to come back, but I always was going to come back."

From that point, a silver lining came from becoming a member of groups such as Adaptive Climbing Victoria and Women Uprising and finding a new discipline in competition rope climbing.

The COVID-19 pandemic struck not long after her recovery. Between the many lockdowns in Victoria, Larcombe was able to train on the walls, to work towards the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Cup in Salt Lake City, USA, held last year.

"Training for that World Cup, I was completely winging it. I didn't really have any coaching at that point. I was writing a lot of my own training plans, and a lot of that training was also during lockdown.

"I think failure is a big part of the sport, which is why I think that it can become so addictive, because failing is a great thing to happen in climbing — it gives you something to work on."

At her maiden World Cup attempt, she surprised many, even herself.

"I didn't think that I would be the top of the field at that point. All of my hard work had paid off," she said.

"I just remember that, even when I had found out that I made [the] finals, I was ecstatic."

It was not long before Larcombe went up against competitors again.

She won.

"I was just gobsmacked. I think I looked like a stunned mullet. And the person standing next to me, who was one of my competitors, she looked up at me, and said: 'You won!'

"I just put my face in my hands, and I just could not believe what had happened. It was an amazing feeling.

"Getting to stand at the top of the podium and hear the Australian anthem and see the Australian flag up on the screen, that was insane. I never thought that would happen to me."

A part of her first World Cup experience was meeting international adaptive climbers who had experienced competing in the sport on a global scale and had gone through the same journey Larcombe had begun a few years earlier.

"It was so special to share it with them," she said.

"I think rock climbing is one of very few sports where competitors actually cheer for each other, which is always really fun, because we want to see people get to the top of a climb and, you know, if you're not going to do it, someone else will."

Australian paraclimber Sarah Larcombe holds medals won at ISFC World Cup.
Sarah Larcombe went to her maiden IFSC World Cup in 2022, bringing home a collection of medals.()

Funding crisis for athletes on the big stage

Australia's paraclimbing team is assisted by the network of Adaptive Climbing Victoria, a key component in enabling the team to succeed overseas.

Although a bid has been put in for paraclimbing to be a sport at the Los Angeles Paralympics in 2028, there is still some way to go.

Currently, Sport Climbing is an event for athletes at the Paris 2024 Olympics, but the funding models do not align for paraclimbing to become a Paralympic sport.

With the Olympics and Paralympics run as separate organisations, para-athletes like Larcombe have to look elsewhere for support on the world stage.

While Larcombe will return to Salt Lake City for the World Cup in May to defend her crown, in terms of support and funding for that level of competition, it does not exist.

Australian paraclimber Sarah Larcombe climbs a wall at Urban Climb, Blackburn.
Due to the nature of volunteer-based organisations, Australia's climbers receive different pathways of funding to assist their development.()

Australia's member of the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), Sport Climbing Australia, is a volunteer-run organisation without the funding or resources to support paraclimbing.

"A lot of the funding they do get — for things like training camps, coaching and other supports — comes from Olympic pathways," Larcombe said.

"And, so, that funding is specifically for athletes who will be competing in an Olympic pathway."

While Sport Climbing Australia helps out where it can for all athletes, for Larcombe, the opportunities are reduced in comparison.

"I'm really hoping that we can get on that Paralympic track and get a little bit more support and funding because, if we can get to the Paralympics, I think we might win some medals," she said.

"It's just really disappointing as a member of the Australian team who has been so successful that I'm missing out on these really great opportunities that the rest of the team get to enjoy.

"I really do need more support to be able to keep training and climbing at my peak and to be able to get those wins overseas.

"It is an individual sport so, understandably, we're not always going to do things as a team, but there is an Australian sport climbing team that I'm a member of, and I would love to be able to train together and enjoy the same support that the rest of the team gets."

Australian paraclimber Sarah Larcombe climbs a wall at Urban Climb, Blackburn.
Sarah Larcombe says she wants to help others join the sport.()

Paying it forward to those next through the door

With the financial side of paraclimbing a continuous battle in an elite environment, Larcombe said she would not let it stop her assisting others in the climbing community, in both competitive and social environments.

"I really think that climbing is for everybody, and disabled people deserve to enjoy the outdoors as well," Larcombe said.

Australian paraclimber Sarah Larcombe climbs a wall with a friend at Urban Climb, Blackburn.
Sarah Larcombe says the sport has brought many positives to her life, and not just in the elite sports landscape.()

"Now that I've opened some of those doors for myself, I'm trying my best to hold them open for other people.

And, as a role model for adaptive climbers, there's no looking back as she looks to make it a more accessible, inclusive space both indoors and outdoors.

"I'm not ashamed of being an amputee. I'm actually proud of it," she said.

"It's actually brought a lot of enrichment into my life, and it's given me climbing and allowed me to achieve all these amazing things.

"It's given me an amazing community, both through the amputee community and the disability community more broadly.

"Now I just know that if there's anything else that I'm scared to do, it can't hurt just to give it a go."


Source: ABC

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