Janja Garnbret is the most successful competitive climber alive, bar none. It is likely no one will match her record for decades, if ever.
Garnbret, of Slovenia, has been redefining the word dominance since she burst into the adult competitive climbing field in 2015. In a few short years, she has set milestone after milestone in competition climbing.
She began her record-breaking streak following the 2019 Bouldering World Cup series by becoming the first athlete— male or female—to win every event in a single discipline of a World Cup season. After winning all six out of six events in Bouldering, she proceeded to also dominate at the recent World Championships held in August in Hachioji, Japan— winning three of the four gold medals on offer. In doing so, she became the first female athlete to win both the Lead and Boulder World Champion titles in the same year. She topped it off by also winning the gold medal in the Combined event. Her rise to glory has been so meteoric that little is known of Garnbret. Recorded interviews of her are rare and short and mainly focused on a specific competition. May Pang sat down with Garnbret to learn just who is Janja Garnbret?
Pang: One of the commentators in the Munich World Cup said, “look up the word “Dominance” in the dictionary, because it’s now got Janja Garnbret in it.
Janja: I started competing when I was 15 or 16, I don’t really remember. So, I have pretty much short career and I already have a lot of titles. Yes. And that’s crazy.
Pang: Jain Kim has 30 World Cup gold medals. So, you could probably break that record this year? [Editor’s note: as of press time, Janja has 32 gold metals].
Janja: I agree it’s possible, but I’m not [someone] who is trying to break records. I’m not competing because I want to break certain records. … I just want to enjoy every competition, and this is what I’m doing this year and all the previous years. And this is the most important thing to me.
Pang: Do you think that’s common? Do most World Cup climbers enjoy themselves?
Janja: It’s hard. This is something you have to learn as a young kid. And I think everybody is still learning to just enjoy and forget about all the pressure they have.
Pang: How did you learn this?
Janja: I’m the person who wants to have everything perfect, I’m really hard on myself, so I don’t need pressure from anybody else. I put too much pressure on myself already. This mental side of competition is the most important one, I would say. I learned always to say to myself that I’m competing because I love it. So, this is the mental aspect I have when I go to a competition—to just enjoy and give 100 percent. Because if I give 100 percent and if I enjoy it, then I know it’s going to be a good day.
Pang: Doesn’t it usually take people a long time to get to that point.
Janja: When I was younger, if I didn’t win, I would be upset, frustrated, sad, but now it’s different because every competitor is stronger every year, so it’s harder to win.
Pang: It seems like it’s easier to win for you.
Janja: Maybe it seems like that but it’s not easy.
Pang: You won every competition this year. Do you have special mental techniques on the day or before or in general?
Janja: Usually, I don’t have any techniques. When I go to a competition, I just say to myself that you just have to enjoy because if my game face is a smile, then I know it’s going to be a good day so I’m sticking to that rule. I’m just going to a competition to enjoy it and give 100 percent. Because usually, I’m frustrated if I don’t give 100 percent, not because of the results—because I got second or third or fifth—I’m more upset if I don’t give 100 percent.
Pang: Of all that you have achieved, what are you the most proud of?
Janja: I’m proud of every victory and every competition because every competition is different. … From competition to competition, the mind game is always different, so I’m very proud of every victory. But I must say that the World Championship title is the one I’m most proud of and every overall World Cup title. And also the two 9a’s I’ve done on the rock, I’m proud of that too.
Pang: You are a visibly different climber from last year. At one of the World Cups this year, the commentator said, “It looks like she’s waiting for a bus. She’s so calm.” Is that how you feel on stage? When do you feel the most nervous?
Janja: I’m the most nervous in isolation. Well, maybe not when I’m warming up. Maybe [during] the
gap you have when you’re done with warming up and when you go out for the climbing. When I go out—when I’m in front of the boulder—everything just fades away and it’s just me, the wall and the boulder.
Pang: You don’t hear people screaming at you?
Janja: I don’t hear the music. I don’t hear people screaming.
Pang: So, people shouldn’t waste their time screaming because you can’t hear them anyway.
Janja: In my subconscious mind I hear it. So, it’s good.
Pang: Is there a ritual or something that helps you get into that zone? Or now that you’ve competed more you just know how to get into that zone? Janja: I don’t think I have a special ritual … I just know.
Pang: Is there anything you struggle with? Not just in climbing or competitions but in life?
Janja: The mental part is always the hardest. I always say that life is how you make it so if you make it positive and if you’re a positive person then life will be positive. But I don’t know, it’s always that doubt you have in yourself.
Pang: You win everything and you still doubt yourself!
Janja: It’s stupid, I know. I’m a weird person sometimes, but it’s like that.
Pang: Your self-doubt aside, you must know that you are exceptional, right? Janja: I think if you win competitions, then you don’t doubt yourself in the key moment. When you need to believe in yourself, you believe in yourself even if you don’t believe in yourself. You can say, “I believe in myself,” but in the subconscious mind, you have to believe that you are able to win a competition.
Pang: Why are you are so successful?
Janja: I don’t know. When I was younger they always said that I’m a natural talent but we all know that talent is not enough—you have to work hard. So I would say I’m dedicated to climbing. A motivated perfectionist.
Pang: One of the commentators was saying you burst on the scene and started winning right away. It wasn’t like some people, where it took a few World Cups to get used to competition. But to sustain that over a period, like five in a row now, is not a trick.
Janja: You have to forget about the pressure from other people. You have to forget that. Everybody kind of expects you to win so you have to forget that because you don’t have to. You know—you don’t have to win. If I don’t want to compete, then I won’t compete, and I wouldn’t care about other people’s expectations.
Pang: What contributes the most to your success?
Janja: If I give 100 percent, then I’m happy with myself. This is the most important thing. Even if you have a day where you feel like you can’t climb a 6a, you still can do a lot on that day. The bad days are more important than the days you feel good and light because on the bad days, when you give 100 percent even if you know that this is not your level, you will definitely gain something.
Pang: On the physical side, you can use your internal self-doubts to push yourself at that time and say, “I’m not good enough yet, so let’s try harder”? So, both Janjas are important?
Janja: Yeah, both are important.
Pang: How do you keep yourself well emotionally the rest of the time? How do you maintain a sense of happiness outside of climbing when you’re not competing? What are some other important things to you in your life?
Janja: I’m a very, very, very emotional person.
Pang: You can’t tell that at all. In the comps, you’re so calm.
Janja: I am calm but if I win, I’m crying, I can’t hold my tears back. But, yeah, other important things are hanging out with my friends, spending time with my family, spending time with my boyfriend. The social part, it’s important to me. But when I have free time, I go climbing because I feel free.
Pang: Is it important not to give in to the pressure of other people’s expectations?
Janja: You have to clear your mind … what you want, not what your parents, your friends want or your coach wants.
Pang: And did you know this is what you wanted?
Janja: Yeah, I started climbing when I was 6 or 7 years old, and I fell in love with climbing the minute I tried it.
Pang: And you were always just good at it.
Feature Image by Ryu Voelkel
This appeared in Gym Climber #4