Sport climbing will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo and Australia’s Tom O’Halloran wants to be there

Tom O’Halloran is in his natural place. In his natural state.

On an overhanging rock in Sydney’s west called Jessica’s, his left arm is stretched up hooking onto a tiny ledge, white with chalk dust. His right is bent by his side, a few fingers clinging to the tiniest of holds. His legs are dangling, bent, less than a metre above the ground.

With all his weight through his arms, O’Halloran swings his legs up and to the left vertically above his head. He hooks his toes onto a higher ledge, his body contorted upside down in the form of an ‘L’.

His left hand moves up to take a hold where his feet have hooked on, then his right arm.

Now, he can let his feet go down and dangle again. Once more, his feet swing up and now he has hoisted himself up to the top of the rock.

“Ah sick,” O’Halloran shouts.

“Yeeeeesss!”

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It is the exaltation of a man driven to take on a challenge and succeed. The rest of the world is irrelevant, like an artist who creates for their own satisfaction with no thoughts of an audience.

Tom O’Halloran is 27. He stands five feet, 11 inches tall and weighs 67 kilograms. Wiry and strong. Not an ounce of fat on him.

“I am an outdoor climber,” O’Halloran said.

Home for O’Halloran is the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, and a tight-knit circle of fellow travellers who have congregated around the mecca of Australia’s climbing world.

“It’s a way of life,” he said.

A video on O’Halloran’s YouTube channel shows him swearing in frustration as he tries and repeatedly fails a complicated and physically demanding move.

It is overcoming those obstacles that drive him and bring a glint to his eye.

“The thing that totally inspires me is taking on a challenge that seems like it’s not going to make it, that I’ve got to rise up and find something new,” O’Halloran said.

That love of a challenge is being put to a new test. As one of Australia’s highest-ranked climbers, he is aiming to become the first man selected to compete for Australia in the new Olympic event of sport climbing at next year’s postponed Tokyo Games.

A man hangs by one arm from a colourful indoor rock climbing wall.

A man hangs by one arm from a colourful indoor rock climbing wall.

O’Halloran began rock climbing as a sport during his childhood.(ABC News: Daniel Irvine)

It has been a year of challenges.

In March, the selection trials for the Games were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and in the same week O’Halloran lost his job on the maintenance team at a Blue Mountains tourist attraction and got put on JobKeeper payments.

“It was like, ‘wow’, I’m not sure there’s going to be too many weeks in my life where everything just gets upended,” he said.

“The sporting achievement that you’ve been trying to drive for, for so long is just totally evaporated and your work is just gone.”

It meant putting on hold a lifelong dream. There was some relief to have more time, but also “a little bit of anger and sadness”.

When O’Halloran found his calling

It was a journey that began when O’Halloran was 12 years old. He was a sport-mad kid and his parents gave him the option of having a birthday party or joining the kids’ club program at his local Brisbane climbing gym.

He chose the gym and was hooked. He had found his sport and his calling.

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After finishing school, he had an epiphany on a climbing trip in South Africa and decided the pursuit needed “to be a central point of my life”.

“I got home and three months later had saved up enough money to pack everything into my old Volvo and drive 12 hours from Brisbane down to the Blue Mountains,” he said.

“Suddenly I found my partner and we had a baby and bought a house and here we are after a nearly a decade of living in the Blue Mountains.”

Along the way there was even a brief segue into the world of reality TV where he appeared for two seasons on Australian Ninja Warrior, making the grand final in the second season.

“The whole TV experience was pretty full on,” O’Halloran said.

“We’re a bit of a quiet bunch us climbers. The night after we were on, we were down at a shopping centre in Sydney and we got recognised in the change room changing our daughter’s nappy and that was pretty full-on and strange.”

Now the self-confessed “outdoor climber” is working almost exclusively indoors to achieve his Olympic dream.

The new Olympic sport of rock climbing combines three disciplines: speed climbing (as fast as you can go up a 15-metre vertical wall), bouldering (solving “problems” on fixed routes in a given time frame) and lead (climbing as high as possible on a 15-metre wall in a given time).

It is a very different to the methodical approach O’Halloran takes to climbing outdoors.

“In competition you have to show up on the day no matter what’s happening in the world and you need to be at your best at that moment,” he said.

Commitment the key to sport climbing

O’Halloran’s partner Amanda Watts, who is also a competitive and top-ranked climber, has put her ambitions on hold to help O’Halloran achieve his goals.

Watts describes a typical day prior to the pandemic.

“He’d get up at 4:30 in the morning so he could be at the gym by 4:45,” she said.

“He’d train until 6:30, go straight to work at 7:00. Work a 10-hour day. Come home, have a snack, hang out with Audrey [their six-year-old daughter] and I and then go back to the gym for another two-hour session.

“Get home probably about 8:30, have dinner [and] go to sleep.”

The partner of Tom O'Halloran ulls on ropes at a training session.

The partner of Tom O'Halloran ulls on ropes at a training session.

O’Halloran’s partner Amanda Watts has put her career on hold to support his ambitions.(ABC: Daniel Irvine)

The long days were a product of trying to work and train for a sport with no government funding.

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O’Halloran admits to some envy when he compares himself to the rock stars of the Australian Olympic movement, who are funded to train full-time.

“It’s hard to not look at some of those fully professional athletes that are getting all the money and the opportunities with a little bit of jealousy perhaps,” he said.

No job, no funding

But O’Halloran does have more time to devote to getting that one spot and that is what keeps him going — the thought of fulfilling a dream that began as a child when he watched the opening ceremony at the 2000 Sydney Olympics on TV.

“Whenever I kind of sit there and really think about it … it almost makes you teary,” O’Halloran said with some emotion.

“To have the opportunity to realise that dream is pretty incredible, and not something that I ever thought was going to happen.”

O’Halloran joked he may become too emotional should he realise his goal of competing at the Olympics.

“I think they might need to put me on an IV drip to replace the amount of fluids with the amount of crying I might do if I took that spot,” O’Halloran laughed.

The postponed Tokyo Olympics are due to start in a year, but still have a massive question mark hanging over them because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

O’Halloran knows it.

“With everything that’s going on it’s about adapting and trying to remain positive,” he said.

“It’s something that no matter what’s going on in the world with all the conflict and … it really is a moment of pause amongst the chaos. It brings us together and gives us purpose.”