Climbing my way up: From co-curricular activity to the Youth Olympic Games

Mark (second from left) and his teammates

02 Oct 2018

Mark Chan – Singapore’s first sport climber at the Youth Olympic Games

August 22 is a day that I will never forget. That morning, I received a call from the secretary of the Singapore Mountaineering Federation, delivering one of the best news of my life: I was heading to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the Youth Olympic Games (YOG).

It was unbelievable. As sport climbing* will be making its debut at the YOG and Tokyo 2020, I’ll be the first climber to represent Singapore at an Olympic Games!

Tears were running down my face as I called my elder sister. She had to be the first to know, because she’s been the one who has been most supportive of my climbing exploits over the years. She watches climbing videos with me, and always encourages me to do my best.

It had been quite the journey to get to this point, especially after what I went through in the past 18 months.

Last year was particularly difficult. All my disappointments came in 2017. That July, I failed to make the finals for the Asian Youth Championships (AYC) for any event. In the previous year, I had finished fourth in the Youth A (16-17) boulder event at the same competition.

I also originally missed out on YOG qualification by two spots at the Youth World Championships in September.

On top of it, I injured my shoulder this April, and missed the trials for the Asian Games.

Those moments were extremely tough, especially missing out on the finals for the AYC, a competition which the climbing community had high hopes for me. And if there’s one thing I hate the most, it’s disappointing people.

So despite my injury, I competed in the Climbing World Cup in May, hoping to redeem myself. It was so painful that I was constantly asking for ice after I completed a route. The doctor gave me a good scolding when I returned.

When I was injured, I felt very weak and useless because I wasn’t able to climb. But I told myself, the focus now is not to get stronger, but to recover. To motivate myself, I watched videos of top climbers on YouTube, hoping that one day that I’ll be at their level.

Mark receiving his Singapore Olympic Foundation-Peter Lim Scholarship from Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth

Why do I feel so strongly for climbing? It is a big reason why my life changed. Today, I’m 18 years old and studying aerospace engineering in Temasek Polytechnic. But when I was in primary school, I was a troublemaker, getting into so many fights that I was visiting the principal every day.

After I started climbing in secondary school as part of the Outdoor Activities Club co-curricular activity (CCA) in 2013, the fights stopped. I even become Head of Manpower in my school committee. Climbing brought three things into my life: Discipline, focus, and commitment. It’s more than just a sport to me.

Through climbing, I’ve learnt not to do stupid things, and to use my time well. Even though physical training can sometimes be very tough, but you force yourself to stay focused and get it done. It’s even taught me independence as I plan my own training regimen.

For me, the most tiring part of climbing is waking up and knowing you have training every other day. I love sleeping, so I have to force myself to wake up at 7.30am for school, and then go for training in the afternoon and night.

At times, I feel envious of my friends because they have so much free time. Sometimes, they ask me out to eat shabu-shabu and I’ll turn them down because I have to train. But it’s okay. These things just determine how much you want something, and I don’t want to be disappointed at the end. I want to be proud of what I’ve done.

Besides, it’s all worth it for climbing. When you’re at the top of the wall, you feel as though it’s the top of the world. That leaves you feeling happy for the next few days.

I love the support as well, and the community has played a big part in my success. When I feel disappointed or angry during training, they’ll tell me “Hey bro, cheer up. Today’s just a bad climbing day.”

Mark with his team mates and coach

And when it’s competition time, I love the adrenaline rush when the audience cheers me on. When you feel all eyes on you, it psyches you up and makes you want to give your all.

The YOG will be my biggest competition yet, and I will take it step by step. The first mission is to get into the finals. Once you’re in it, all six finalists will be fighting for a medal – there’s no point being in the bottom three.

Four years ago, climbing was just my CCA in school. Going for a YOG never crossed my mind – I didn’t even think I’ll be at that level.

But next month I’m heading for Buenos Aires to represent Singapore. And in two years’ time? Hopefully Tokyo 2020. That’s my goal, and I know the list of requirements I need to meet. But for now, I’ll just look to give my all in Argentina.

Mark Chan was speaking to Justin Kor. The sport climber placed 10th at the World Youth Championships 2017 in the Youth A boulder event. His best result came during the 2015 Asian Youth Championships, when he finished third in the Youth B (14-15) boulder event.

*Sports climbing consists of three individual disciplines: lead, speed, and bouldering, which will be combined into one single event at the YOG and Olympics.

i. Speed climbing

Speed climbing sees two climbers race to complete a 15m wall in the fastest time possible.

ii. Bouldering

Climbers attempt to scale as many fixed routes on a 4m wall in four minutes. It is an event that tests both strategy and skill, as climbers need to plan for each route consisting of difficult holds and overhands, within the time limit.

iii. Lead climbing

This event sees climbers attempt to scale a 15m wall within six minutes. Victory is determined by being the fastest to complete the wall, or reaching a higher point than competitors.

The Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games start on 6 October to 18 October 2018.