Staša Gejo, Amongst the Queens of Bouldering
Back then I had no idea if it was a fortunate moment or not, but I received an invitation from the Red Bull Japan, to come to Tokyo for five days to compete in a female-only bouldering event “Rock Queens” on the 17th of December. I have never been in Japan before, and it has been on my destinations wish list, so I decided to prolong the climbing period for one month in order to experience the world on the other side of the planet, to finally try their traditional food and see at least a spark of their incredible culture. I answered ‘Yes’ and the flight was booked.
So I began a long journey to the unknown, travelling alone for the first time. I tried to imagine what the event would look like, how will the audience support the climbers? Will they be hospitable? Will Tokyo be safe for me, being alone, or not…
I was constantly scared that I would lose documents, that I would be late for check in, boarding and all the connections I had to make. Continuous checking of my own belongings made me more nervous, minute by minute. I never thought it would be so mentally demanding to travel by myself.
However, I arrived safe and sound in Tokyo. I was supposed to meet somebody from the Red Bull, but in the Arrivals hall there was nobody with the logo, nor with my name written on a piece of paper. I thought… “Well ok, maybe they are running late, I shall wait for a couple of minutes, or maybe look around…”
After wandering around the airport without success, worrying thoughts kicked in. I couldn’t connect to the local mobile network, therefore I was not able to contact Kei, the guy who invited me. I realised I was sweating under a bunch of jackets I wore, to free my arms from excess load. Quite a dead end.
Suddenly I noticed an indigo blue jacket with red and yellow bulls on it. I cannot describe the relief I felt when I saw Jean holding my name. Finally…
The first difference I noticed in Tokyo were cubical cars! They all looked like bugs, with some interestingly shaped edges, driving on the left side. I thought Singapore and Toronto were huge. Tokyo proved me wrong, while we were driving on an elevated highway, surrounded with buildings, buildings… everywhere! It was simply majestic and incredibly clean. The roads, streets and pavements looked like they were built just the day before. Even though I was wasted from the 11-hour-long flight, I wanted to explore the new world I entered.
On the crossings, in shops, the hotel I stayed in, simply everywhere, people were smiling, making short respectful bows, repeatedly, saying some very long words. The look people gave you while communicating never glowed with disinterest. Bow again. Smile made their eyes close with every kind gesture, making every person interestingly adorable.
The next day, before the long hours of photo-shoots and filming the trailer, we had the opportunity to visit the event venue – B Pump Ogikubo climbing gym, always full of volumes, making the boulders even more amazing. I took a deep breath and remembered how much I enjoy bouldering. I closed my eyes and imagined the space full of girls with their eyes on the 6 of us: Megan, Melissa, Jain, Akiyo, Miho and me – “The Rock Queens”!
After a few days of exploring the Japanese cuisine, where almost everything contained soy or had a green tea flavour, it was already the event day. As you would guess from an event called Rock Queens, only females were allowed to compete in the qualifications, to watch and even to enter the gym. Actually, the only males there were the route setters, organisers and sponsors, but in comparison to the number of girls, they were quite a minority.
Miho came up with this idea, to emphasise the power of feminine climbers, to prove that female competition can also be extraordinary and amusing. She invited us to support her idea and compete for the Rock Queen title.
When we arrived in the B Pump, around 1 p.m. the gym was already trembling from excitement. The part of the wall we were allowed to see was re-set and already the qualification boulders looked fascinating, some required good coordination, the others static skills, stabilisation and control. Volumes, volumes everywhere. I enjoyed the magical climbing heaven while slowly warming up for the main event. From head to toes, joint by joint, muscle by muscle, from the largest to the smaller ones, climbing-specific. Rotate, stretch, eyes follow the body part which is moving through the air, filled with the white-grey powder without which we cannot imagine our sport.
The music beat was matching with my warming-up dynamics. Time for the elastic gum. One, two, three, four….until fifteen. While trying to cover all the critical shoulder and upper back muscles, I noticed that the qualifications were already over and that the two best competitors were given wildcard entries for the finals. How amazing must those two feel, ready to forget all their tiredness for that last round. I took two deep breaths, impatient to see the awaiting tasks.
We warmed up on the qualification boulders enjoying the creations, as an overture to the boulders of the main event, waiting for us in the shadows. It was already a micro-competition, as in every official event in climbing. We experiment with the boulders to see what others can or cannot do. It serves as a mental preparation before the actual battle. That is where the confidence is born, but sadly, it can also be killed instead.
Sometimes it is realistic, the confidence gives a great boost, but when underestimating the opponents, it can lead to terrible disappointment and shock upon the others’ performances, followed by a thought: “I did not expect this”. I am always careful in my judgement at this stage of competition. It is the best to get the most positive conclusions out of the pre-game. I have so much fun by discovering what the recovery prior to the event has brought me. I adore being feather-light. The feeling makes me want to embrace my own body for being so obedient.
Time to switch. Presentation. “Konnichiwa! Watshi wa Stasha desu…” A least I managed to learn some basic Japanese expressions… Melissa even had a whole speech in Japanese! Everyone was impressed.
It looked better than any World Cup I have been to. Thanks to Tsukuru Hori and his route-setting team, we had the best playground I have had a chance to play at! Two black and two red. All were technically difficult, required steady mind and precision. Readable, but tough, especially the ends.
The excitement level was high in all of us, we were terribly impatient to get our hands up there, to go higher, to do all the brilliant moves we were confronted with. The dark transit zone was separated from the crowd with just one long heavy curtain; it felt like a theatre backstage. Soon, I was on the out of the dark, secret place.
Black one first, with my favourite – flatholds. The start was quite tricky, I couldn’t approach it statically, so I had to use my on-the-edge-of-acceptable start, with the quick touch of all four marked points, but still long enough to be considered as a regular start. It worked, and after performing a long leg stretch to the left, I was already on the bonus hold. There was no need to perform two more tough twists before the top, instead I used the advantage of my height and jumped, then strongly grabbed the jug on the top.
The second one was bloody red. A typical “pinch party” – loved it at the first sight. Firstly the snake shape guided me to the right, to stick a “bam” shoulder move (which I didn’t sympathise). The next two moves were unexpectedly difficult, the pinches were so negative and wide, that nobody reached the top. Only Akiyo had one arm on it – she explained it afterwards – but she swung too far away and lost the control of the volcano hold. The boulder was much harder than it looked like, but the best part was hooking the toes, “blinded”, on every single position, in order to avoid the pull of gravity. In addition, my feet kept slipping on the last move, no matter how hard I tried to concentrate on it. Ok ok no more excuses on feet…
Again a black sensation. This time the task was to ride over 360 quarter-spheres. The shape of composed volumes looked like an unfinished Pacman with his mouth open more than usual. Those leg twists prevented me from painless sitting in the next two days. It was demanded to change the leg position many times, once to the left, then to the right, oh damn, again to the left, all seemed like I performing some ambiguous hip-hop move. I approached the Pacman’s throat from the inside, and then climbed over his head, and claimed my partial win with a stylish kneebar, directly in the throat, handsfree. I was totally out of breath.
When I returned to the transit zone after that round, I just fell flat on the mat, trying to catch some air, glowing-red in the face from effort. Rest of the girls were a bit confused with such reaction, but I started laughing: “You will see”.
The same reaction was seen from each of them. For example, Miho throws herself on the mat, but with a pleasure on her face, showing that no matter how hard it was to stay on the Pacman, it was still amusing. Our laughter confirmed the same experience and understanding. We didn’t say a lot – it was enough to point on the hurting gluteus and the new wave of laughter spread behind our heavy curtain.
Then it was time to jump. But not regularly, it was required to run over two pyramids, jump around the corner and catch two small pyramids in a cross-over. Complicated but possible. Oh and it was also red.
I gave it some tries until I accidentally slipped and hit the wall in the full speed. Saying that nothing happened would be a lie… My right shoulder suffered the most from this collision, but my head knew I should slow down and re-coordinate myself. The slight rearrangement of the footwork was successful and I found myself at the bonus (also a pyramid – actually, all were pyramidal in this boulder). Then I found myself in front of a problem I didn’t foresee…
The position was so uncomfortable after crossing to the next bad undercling that I risked and reached for the next undercling on the far left with loose feet. Surprisingly, I stayed there, I did not fall! Whit a positive shock on my face I tried to find a quick way back to the planned path. So I literally sat on the pyramid in front of me, making my feet an easier way to stepping on it. Sadly, I lost most of my energy up to this spot that I stopped thinking rationally. I was one move before the top, holds were really bad and the stupidest thing to do was not to try hard enough in that position, to choose a critical solution that won’t even work and realize it is a wrong one shortly before hands let go. Or the mind lets them go. “Bad decision Staša”, I scolded myself. I ruined the only promising go, by trying to hook a toe under the terrible slopy undercling I as holding. At least looked like I was trying hard…
Miho showed us how it is done – she magnificently flashed it. The round of applause flooded over the sighs of amusement. She was the Queen, the Rock Queen, sitting on a real throne, proudly wearing a crown that somehow didn’t quite fit her and kept falling from her head, making the audience laugh. Still, Miho retained the majestic posture, splashed with hundreds of camera flashes.
Just after leaving the scene, we were surrounded by all those girls, who wanted to take pictures and autographs. The longest queues were in front of Miho, Akiyo and Melissa. Those faces admiring my height, asking for a photo, thanking afterwards, they made me feel important. It was a new feeling for me; I must admit that I liked it.
That questionable attempt among the red pyramids was my last climb in the 2016. I embraced the 17th of December as an end of a beautiful, rich and edifying season, the season of most 7th and 4th places in the carrier, the season of continuous European youth domination from 2015 on the junior bouldering scene; the season of ups, frequent downs, followed by even higher ups.
Many pictures arose, both virtual and abstract ones, ones that I will never forget, ones that bring tears to my eyes and the ones that make my heart melt from happiness, pleasure, satisfaction. I might have finished on the 4th place in Tokyo due to too many attempts, but I have drawn useful conclusions about a mental state during competition, no matter how serious it is. With Melissa’s instructions and several criticisms, I realised that the joy and love for climbing, bouldering, and competing are a crucial part of the path to success. “The point is, you don’t have to do anything. There is no have to. Otherwise, it makes no sense”.
My mission was complete. I tried so many different tastes, dishes I never knew existed, soy sweets, silly soy beans, green tea ice-cream, various dried fruits, all those aromas coming back to my mind, to my mouth, provoking salivation. I saw many different eyes, honest smiles saying ‘arigato gonzaimas’ all the time, followed by a respectful bow. No rush, no stress, as in one of the oldest streets, in Miho’s neighbourhood, or when we visited the weekend market in the middle of a square, buying traditional, organic goods.
I know I was not experiencing the real, brutally modern Tokyo, I was just a tourist this time, and I am perfectly satisfied with it. That was what I came for. Tokyo gave me more than I expected because of people who shared their positivism and joy with me. That joy enhanced the smells, tastes, enhanced simulations of all human senses. As hard as it was to pack and leave, the more desire I have for return. And I will return, hopefully stronger and smarter.
A big thanks to Jason Halayko, Kei Sugimoto, Satoko Shirasu and Miho Nonaka for the photos!