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It is a warm autumn afternoon and Molly Thompson-Smith is posing for a photographer on the lawn of her west London home. Her movements are fluid, confident; her manner is awkwardly smiley. She doesn’t seem to like posing for the press.
Thompson-Smith is 16 years old. She wears black leggings and a grey top. She lives with her parents and her 14-year-old brother in a three-bedroom basement flat near Ladbroke Grove. Nothing strange here. Except that Thompson-Smith is – very possibly – the best climber in the world for her age.
Inside the living area – dominated by an enormous TV tuned in to golf – she settles on the sofa and gets down to basics. She competes in lead climbing, which is her best event, and bouldering. Lead climbing involves a lead (Thompson-Smith), a belayer (her coach) and a very tricky route up an 80ft wall. Attached to a harness, the lead climbs, clipping the rope into fixed bolts as they go. Standing at the bottom, the belayer feeds out rope as the lead rises. In competitions – or “comps” as they are known – the higher you climb, the better you do.
Bouldering is like “figuring out a puzzle”, she says. The routes are shorter, it occurs nearer the ground – 12ft up, say – and you do not need a harness.
What do you need to become a great climber? You need strong fingers and strong biceps. You need to be fit and brave and quick at solving puzzles. Thompson-Smith’s climbing is stylish – like a cat, perhaps. Other climbers seem to expend more energy.
Her family is sports-mad. Her brother Noah plays football, her mother Angela plays netball, and Tony – Britain’s proudest dad (you sense) – is the assistant manager of Queens Park Rangers Ladies football team. Thompson-Smith plays netball for her school – “it’s good for cardio” – but she quit the county side because it clashed with her climbing. “I’m definitely committed to climbing, so . . . ”
All her life, she has had things to climb. “Even if it was just the kitchen counter, I’d just climb everything I could.” For her seventh birthday, she was taken to the Westway climbing wall – “right by my house” – and was “hooked”. Nine years on, she climbs at the Westway several times a week.
At 5ft 3in, she isn’t tall. Is she still growing? “I don’t know. I really hope so because I’m really short. I’m really tiny.” But being tall isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “The longer your limbs, the harder it is to control them.” Still, taller climbers have a better reach, which helps save energy.
How competitive is Thompson-Smith? “Extremely,” she says. “My parents are also extremely competitive. Everything is a competition really.” Even a family game? “I can never let my brother beat me.”
Competition is clearly in her DNA but what about the urge to climb? “My parents are both very scared of heights, so is my brother.” The teenager slouched on the sofa is, of course, not scared of heights – or competitions. “I’m always nervous, everyone’s nervous, but I like pressure.” Most nights before competing she dreams about winning.
Her bedroom is marine blue, airy, light. She has lived here since she was one but her walls are free of childhood paraphernalia – there’s just a mirror and a small framed poster of herself climbing. Bright and homely, the flat is every inch a family home.
Has she ever been crippled by nerves? She has been “really nervous” twice. Once was in the Austrian town of Imst during a European youth cup competition this June. “I was ill. I had a coughing fit on the wall – it was really embarrassing.” And yet she still won. Not long after that, she won silver at the European championships, and rose to number one in the world. “I can’t really believe it – it’s weird.”
Her second nervous moment occurred in September at the World Youth Championships in New Caledonia. After a splendid season, Thompson-Smith felt under pressure to return home with a medal. But she came 18th. “It’s my worst ever result and I’m really disappointed.”
Is she a good loser? “I try,” she laughs. “I’m a good loser in front of everyone; in my head, I’m really not.” Does a disappointing result knock her confidence? “No. It makes me want to train harder.”
The world championships couldn’t have come at a worse time for the British junior captain. She is coached during term time, not during the holidays – thus, in the build-up to New Caledonia, she had no belayer. “I had to train by myself for the summer,” she says. “I had no one to belay me, so I’d just boulder.” That’s a bit like a high jumper spending weeks rehearsing the long jump.
Thompson-Smith began competing when she was 10. “When I was 13, I started to win the national comps . . . I started winning and didn’t really stop that much.”
These statements are presented as light, curious facts. There is no hint of arrogance. If anything, she seems faintly bewildered by her achievements.
Lately, she has started competing with adults. “It’s definitely a massive step. I go from feeling in my comfort zone in the junior category to waaaayyy out of my depth in the seniors [sic].”
It’s easy to forget that she’s still a schoolgirl, just returned from school. Is training more important than schoolwork? “For me it is. For my parents, my schoolwork is.” Homework is squeezed in before school, at school and even during lessons. “I revised for my GCSEs at the climbing wall.”
She is now studying for A-levels in French, physics, maths and psychology. School will finish in two years (“I can’t wait”). Alongside world championships, A-levels aren’t daunting. “With exams I just try my best and whatever my best is, is what it is.” Her father is hovering in earshot and this might be meant for him. “I’m more relaxed about exams than about climbing,” she adds.
It is Friday and, if she wasn’t being interviewed, Thompson-Smith would be at the Westway pushing herself to extremes. Apart from Tuesday (her rest day), her week is a mix of “light pulse-raisers”, stretching, climbing, cardio and endurance – “up and down the wall multiple times for a couple of hours”. At weekends, she trains by herself. She is not on a special diet but she eats healthily. And she’s good at pull-ups and typewriters. Typewriters? “You do a pull-up and go from left to right in the pull-up position.”
How does she feel mid-comp, mid-climb? “It sounds weird and a bit funny but sometimes I say, ‘Aw, well done Molls, that was a hard part. Chill out and keep going.’ ”
Chill out and keep going is a good mantra for life – particularly if you’re as busy as Thompson-Smith. Apart from being a star athlete, she has appeared on billboards, TV and radio, she is an ambassador for the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) – tweeting and giving talks – and she campaigned for climbing to be made an Olympic sport. On Monday, she attended the Women of the Year lunch in London.
Most teenage girls are doing different things. “Sometimes I wish I could go out with my friends more, go to parties. But then when I go to places like New Caledonia it’s always really worth it . . . It was nice to be there. I swam with the turtles.”
What about round here? “It’s a really nice area. Portobello Market’s pretty cool . . . It’s busy but quiet, so I like it.”
Faster, higher, stronger – climbing fits the Olympic motto well. Yet in 2013 the Olympic body ruled to reinstate wrestling for the 2020 Games, leaving climbing in the cold. Thompson-Smith was unimpressed. But that’s not the end of it. Competition climbers tend to peak in their mid-to-late thirties, and climbing could become an Olympic sport by 2024. There is every chance, therefore, that Thompson-Smith will be an Olympian before too long.
After climbing, she says she might become an accountant – less pulse-
raising than climbing, maybe, but she is good at numbers. For now, she is a diplomat (BMC ambassador), a leader (British captain), and well-versed in public speaking – she ought to be prime minister, perhaps? “No, that’s really boring!”
Photographs: Victoria Birkinshaw; BMC/Alex Messenger