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  • Writer's pictureBen Waterworth

Playing the long game: Campbell Harrison’s determination sets up coveted Olympic debut after putting family first before Tokyo

Reaching the top of the lead course with a perfect score of 100 at the 2023 Oceania Sport Climbing Championships in Melbourne last November, Campbell Harrison screamed in elation, releasing every emotion in his body to the delight of the raucous crowd in attendance.

In winning the event, not only was the 26-year-old the champion of Oceania, he had achieved a goal that he had been pushing through literal blood, sweat and tears for eight years: qualifying for the Olympic Games.

It was the culmination of an emotional journey for Campbell that very nearly saw him make his Olympic debut in Tokyo, before a set of circumstances prevented him from heading to Japan in 2021.

He was the number one ranked men’s climber in Australia going into the 2020 Oceania Sport Climbing Championships, the qualifying event for Tokyo, before COVID-19 initially cancelled the event.

“I was in this really unique position where if it did get cancelled, the spot would pass down to me because I was first seeded,” Campbell said. “So there was quite an emotional rollercoaster dealing with all of that.

“And then the event did end up going ahead and just prior to the event, my sister had been diagnosed with cancer. So that was sort of hanging over my head going into the event, it was you know, go compete and come home to be with the family before she started treatment.”

Campbell took part in the opening day of the competition, which for the Tokyo Olympics was a combined event featuring all three sport climbing disciplines: speed, boulder and lead.

Things didn’t start off the best for him on that opening day, with several mistakes and false starts dropping him down to eighth place in the standings. It was then announced later that night that there would be state by state lockdowns due to the pandemic, forcing Campbell into a difficult decision.

“It was like you need to get over the border before midnight or you're going to be in hotel quarantine, which meant that I wasn't going to see my family before my sister started her chemotherapy,” he said. “This was kind of the first time in my whole life that my family said to me we really want you back home for Christmas, we really want to spend this time together as a family before this all operates our life.

“So I had to make this very, very quick decision as to what I was going to do, I ended up going to the event participating in the first discipline, which was speed. And because I'd done poorly in the speed the day before…I had the worst seeding in race brackets. So my chances of making up that distance in the next disciplines were…very rocky. And so we just decided that a decision had to be made basically then in there, and so we decided to go home.”

Fast forward to 2023 in Melbourne and reaching the top of the wall that had been a mental barrier for Campbell ever since the disappointment of 2020. Through all the hard work that he had put himself through since missing out on Tokyo, he wasn’t afraid to let it all come out for the world to see.

“It was quite hard to reconcile with the fact that I didn't get to cross the finish line,” Campbell said of 2020. “So three years come around and getting to actually finish what I started with and having it work out. It was like a very, very special moment.

“You see my reaction, and if you know that history, it all makes sense as to why that was such a big moment because it really was just years and years of waiting for another opportunity.

“I always tried to imagine what it would be like what I would feel like if I did it. And then when it finally happened, I think the event itself was so much pressure and so intense. I've never experienced anything like it. And then yeah, it just all came out. And there was there was elation and pride. There was always also this sense of like relief, and like anger and frustration to a degree as well.

“It was the most surreal experience. And I wonder if I'll ever experience some kind of an explosion of emotions like that ever again. It was truly surreal.”

Campbell will join Oceania Mackenzie in Paris, making her second appearance at the Olympics, in the combined discipline for Sport Climbing, this year featuring only the disciplines of boulder and lead, with speed being separated into its own category.

For Campbell that presents a much better opportunity to showcase his skills which have seen him secure multiple top 50 finishes in World Cups over the last three years.

“When we were first included in the Olympics, we were only given one set of medals. And climbing has three very distinct disciplines,” he said. “Speed is a very distinct discipline, and then lead and boulder are the more traditional disciplines. Typically, you didn't cross over from one side to the other … it kind of felt like you'd been training your whole life as 100 metre sprinter and then all of a sudden you had to do the 100 metre sprint and a half marathon.

“But then when the format was announced to be changed for Paris, it was like instantaneously a very different experience. Like yeah, this is what I've always wanted to go to the Olympics for.”

As for goals and targets for Paris? Campbell says he goes into the Games with a clean slate and no expectations.

“I don't really have a number in my head. I think partially because I think only seven or eight athletes out of 20 in each gender have been selected. So I don't really know who I'm competing against yet,” he said. “But also my first Olympics, it's a very different competition to something that I've ever competed in.

“So at this stage with the limited information that I have about where I'm at, I'm kind of just trying to do everything right to kind of maximize my potential.”

This article was originally written for The Australian Olympic Team. You can read the published version here


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