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North Vancouver friends Sean McColl and Alannah Yip climb into the Olympic spotlight together

These two lifelong family friends are set to take part in the first ever Olympic sport climbing event in Tokyo

North Vancouver friends Alannah Yip and Sean McColl, about to make history as the first two Canadians ever to compete in sport climbing in the Olympic Games, both pride themselves on their scientific way of thinking.

She’s a mechanical engineer and he has a background in computer science, and both have used that type of clinical problem-solving mindset to help them tackle the tough obstacles that their bodies face in sport climbing.

“It's a sport where you can get really, really analytical in the details of how to climb something in the best possible way,” Yip told the North Shore News. “We’re both very logical, analytical people. There’s not too much, like, feelings going on.”

The cold calculations, however, were replaced by wild excitement twice over the past couple of years, once when McColl earned his spot on Team Canada for the first ever Olympic Games to feature sport climbing, and again when Yip earned her Olympic berth. They are the only two Canadians going to Tokyo to compete in the sport, and each were present the day that the other one finally earned that coveted Olympic spot.

“That was such an emotional moment,” said Yip about the day McColl qualified, back in 2019 at the world championships. “I couldn’t even watch because I thought he’d messed up. I had to bury my head. And then I was so excited for him, screaming my head off when he was getting close to the top.”

So much for “not too much feelings.”

McColl recalls a similar situation unfolding as he watched Yip execute a thrilling come-from-behind win to earn her Olympic berth while competing at the Pan American Championships held in February of 2020. He made a special trip out just to offer support and advice to his friend and teammate as she booked her ticket to Tokyo.  

“I knew it was her last chance, and she had to win,” said McColl.

Win she did, and this time it was McColl doing the celebrating. He calls it his favourite moment in his long relationship with Yip. And just how long is his relationship with Yip?

“I think I was actually at the hospital when she was born,” he said with a laugh. “I met her before she remembers.”

They are, in fact, lifelong family friends. Basically cousins, in every way except for the bloodline. But they both have climbing in the DNA, and Yip – six years younger than McColl – first found inspiration to become a climber while watching her friend thrive at the sport, and then followed him all the way to the top of the climbing world.

And if you’re going to chase someone up a rock, there are few better in the world than McColl. He is the first Canadian ever to be crowned Youth World Champion, earning that honour five times. He has won 34 medals on the senior World Cup circuit, and was crowned world champion in the combined climbing event – blending the disciplines of lead, bouldering and speed – four times (2009, 2012, 2014, and 2016).

His unique skills have also earned him multiple appearances on the TV show American Ninja Warrior, where he has proven to be one of the most dynamic performers in the history of the series.

In the climbing world, he’s a bit of a rock star.

Yip may not carry quite the same pedigree, but she has also shone on the national and international stage. She’s won seven total senior national titles, and is the First Canadian woman to make the final round of an IFSC World Cup event.

They’ll both be looking to add an Olympic medal in Tokyo, although it has certainly been an odd lead-up to the biggest competition in sport climbing history. Canadian pandemic restrictions made it so that for a long while the climbers couldn’t even go to their local indoor training facilities. McColl had a unique solution to the problem of finding a wall to climb during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I made my own,” he said. “It’s in my backyard, in between two sheds.”

McColl said it took about a month and “a lot of money” to build the 16x12-foot wall, but that’s where he did the bulk of his training over the last 18 months.

“It was cool,” he said. “It was definitely really helpful in the last year and a half.”     

And while McColl did manage to attend one World Cup event last month, Yip is coming into the Games without having an official competition since she earned her Olympic berth in early 2020.

“I’m just looking forward to hopefully getting there and actually getting to compete. … The only thing I can really hope for is to put in my best performance on that day.”

The two friends, however, have been helping each other prepare over the last several months, training together and holding mock competitions along with their coach Andrew Wilson, who is another family friend who has known both for years and was the first coach for both of them when they started competitive climbing.

All three of them will be heading to Tokyo together, and the comfort level between them is a huge benefit, said Yip.

“I think it's the best situation I could ever ask for,” she said. “I've actually known Andrew since I was four, well before I started climbing, so it really is like we're going with family, to me at least. And there's no group other than my actual family that I'm more comfortable with.”

That camaraderie will only enhance their comfort level and performance when they hit the Olympic stage, added McColl.

“That’s definitely the nicest part,” he said about having Yip and Wilson with him at the Games.  “We’re obviously a very small team, but to be able to go with someone that I’ve known for so long and feel comfortable with, there’s no period of any anxiety. … There’s no part of the trip where it’s going to be awkward or anxious. We’re very comfortable being at competitions together, and we really know how to play off each other.”

And they’ll have one more taste of home while they’re in Tokyo. All of their gear and Olympic climbing outfits were designed by North Vancouver-based Arc’teryx, an outdoor recreation company that both Yip and McColl have partnered with over the years. The two climbers provided a ton of input to get the perfect design for their Olympic outfits as Arc’teryx put them together in their North Vancouver design studio.  

“Sean and I got to work really closely with the designers, working through the actual design – what it fit like, what it looked like, the fabrics, how they move and how they feel,” said Yip. “I’m so excited by the result, and I can’t wait to wear them in Tokyo.”

No matter what happens at the Games, these North Vancouver friends will always have the distinction of the being the first two Canadians ever to compete in Olympic sport climbing.

“It’s a huge honour to be able to represent Canada in the first sport climbing Olympic Games,” said Yip. “I’m really, really excited. I never would have imagined that this would happen when I was a youth starting to climb. It's amazing to reflect back on the journey and how I've grown and how the sport has grown at the same time. And I just hope I can do my country proud.”