Sport Climbing: Paul Jenft on his way to the top of his discipline

Thursday, 26 October 2023

Paul Jenft, a sport climber supported by Compagnie Européenne de Garanties et Cautions (CEGC), is a young rising star on the French climbing team, working his way up to the Olympic Games Paris 2024. Discover his standout personality in the following interview.

How did you get into climbing? 

I discovered climbing by chance when I was 7 or 8 years old… but I also did cycling, skiing and triathlon. My father went climbing a bit in La Rochette (in the Savoie region in the French Alps), and my sister was a member of a climbing club. I wasn’t especially attracted to this sport but I went along with my sister. It wasn’t really my thing the first year. I wasn’t particularly enamored with it, and only went once a week. Then, in my 2nd year of climbing, I made progress. There was one route I was absolutely determined to climb. I kept trying, and after four months I managed to complete it! I’d set myself a challenge and achieved my objective. And that’s what I liked about it. But I didn’t stop there but went on to climb more and more difficult routes. 

What progress did you make after that? 

When I was 15, I went to Chambéry to join a group taking part in climbing competitions… I’m still registered there, in fact! I used to commute from Pontcharra (a town just south of Chambéry) where I went to high school. I then joined the center for up-and-coming climbers in Voiron (Pôle Espoirs de Voiron) although I share a flat with other climbers in Grenoble about 17 miles to the south. I then joined Polytech Grenoble, a post-baccalaureate school of engineering where I’ll be taking four years to complete the first two years of courses to give me enough time to prepare for Paris 2024. I’ll then go back to finish my last three years to become an engineer.

Could you describe a typical day?

I attend classes during the day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. before travelling to Voiron for training from 5.30 p.m. to 9 p.m… I then go home, make myself something to eat and go to bed considering how busy I’ve been during the day…
It’s well known that weight is an issue in climbing. How do you deal with it?
It’s a rather delicate topic as far as I’m concerned! Suffice it to say that I find it difficult to limit myself in this area. Up until last season, I didn’t really watch what I ate but, this year, I’m being more careful although I find it hard, because it means putting in a lot of effort for minimum returns… I also have a fairly good metabolic rate. This means that I don’t put on weight easily, so when I want to indulge myself, I simply indulge myself! I cook for myself and I try as best I can to prepare balanced meals with starchy foods and proteins.

To prepare yourself physically, do you have any specific routines?

I have three hours a week of physical preparation. It’s a set of routines specifically designed for climbing, chiefly focused on the upper body. And we don’t use dumbbells because it’s important to keep your muscles supple.

Are the teachers at your school understanding about your different constraints and competitions?
My teachers aren’t concerned at all because I’m just a student like any other. Of course, there are times when I’m absent when the others aren’t. But the teachers don’t treat me any differently from the other students… I once came back from a competition in Asia and I hadn’t been able to revise, and I got zero in my exam… But that’s only happened once in two years, and the teacher excluded it from my average…

There are three disciplines in sport climbing: ‘speed,’ ‘difficulty,’ and ‘bouldering.’ What is your specialty?

I’ve done a bit of everything… but no climber starts with speed. Only top-level climbers do speed. Recreational climbers don’t attempt it. It’s a bit like the 100m sprint, nobody does it for fun. Personally, I’ve always focused on bouldering and difficulty. At the Olympic Games Paris 2024, we’ll have the combined discipline which is, as its name implies, a combination of the two events. And that suits me just fine, because I’m average in both disciplines. 

Could you explain these different disciplines for us?

In the so-called ‘difficulty’ event, there’s a rope on a 15-meter-high wall. You don’t know the route beforehand but you’re given 6 minutes to study the climbing wall. All the competitors get together to try and work out the best route, and there, despite the fact that we’re all competing against each other, we discuss and swap ideas about the best options. It’s still extremely competitive but despite everything, when it comes to examining the difficulty, we share methods in an atmosphere of mutual trust… And I find this to be very dignifying, and I hope it stays that way because it’s the essential spirit of climbing.
Bouldering is a 5-meter-high wall with a big mat underneath. You have 6 minutes to complete the route. At the end of the 6 minutes, either you’ve made it all the way to the top or you’ve reached certain zones, and you score points according to the zones you’ve reached. You have 15 attempts in all and, at the end, the winner is the one who has completed the most boulders in the fewest attempts.

What quality do you need to be good at bouldering?

You have to figure out how you’re going to climb the wall… To do that, you have to understand what the boulder’s designer wanted to achieve. It’s an extremely strategic exercise, a veritable game of chess! You have to visualize how you’re going to move before you start. It requires a lot of reflection. And even if the combination event is more in line with the way I see things, I’m better at bouldering at this moment in time. 

There’s a paradox in climbing: at the outset, it’s a discipline associated with freedom but the fact of competing imposes a number of constraints…

I don’t see competing as a constraint. Like everyone who chooses to compete, you impose constraints upon yourself. It’s something you like. It’s a perpetual challenge. And you have to outperform your competitors, but not directly; it’s not a dueling sport. You first have to overcome the wall itself… and then it’s the comparison between us, between our different options, and that’s really enjoyable, it’s something that all the competitors like. In any case, all indoor competitors also climb outdoors, which is great for clearing the mind… In fact, we often meet up with other athletes on the competition circuit and go climbing together. We attempt the same route, and try to get as high as possible. Sometimes French climbers go out together, at other times, we go out in groups of climbers from other countries. It’s an opportunity we swap methods and enjoy spending time together. It creates a really positive attitude, which isn’t lost during the competitions. It hasn’t become an individualistic sport, and I don’t think it ever will be, because there’s always someone at the bottom of the wall holding the rope for the other guy.

How do you get qualified for the Olympic Games Paris 2024?

The top 48 in the world rankings can take part in several qualifying competitions. The first was in Berne in mid-August, where the top three finishers qualified for the Olympic Games. There will then be a European tournament in Laval on October 27, where the winner will also qualify. There will then be a winter break, followed by three qualifying tournaments: one in China, one in Abu Dhabi and one in Budapest. There will then be an overall ranking, with the top 14 qualifying for Paris 2024. We’ll know in June 2024… 

Which are the major climbing nations at the moment? 

Japan has dominated for the last six years. Then there’s France, the United States, Austria…  

What is your most vivid sporting memory?

When I was 15 years old, it was the first year I was able to compete in youth competitions, in the U16 category. I wasn’t doing bouldering at the time. I wasn’t chosen for the difficulty discipline but I was selected for bouldering… So I worked hard, started off average, then I got better and, at the last competition of the year, I became European champion.

What’s your particular strength?

I’m good at analyzing methods, tactics, and technique. I find it easy to complete the routes and I’m quite good technically. I have some physical shortcomings but I make up for that with my size!

What do you mean?

I’m 1.90m tall, which is rare in climbing. In the world’s Top 100, only two of us are that tall, but I’ve turned this weakness to my advantage. I realized that I had to turn my difference into a strength but it’s something that’s not easy to do. This is because when an opener is 1.75m tall, he traces a route corresponding to his particular body shape. His movements aren’t made for me… So I have to find methods that suit my size, methods that are different from what I’m supposed to follow.

What do you like about your discipline and why is it so special?

I like the challenge aspect. And I enjoy seeing how I’m progressing, developing my skills in the sport. This may only become apparent over the long term but there are also time when it becomes visible in the course of a single competition. Between the first 30 seconds and the end, I like to see the analytical process, the way a route is deciphered… the progression you make. And, each time, you have to solve a new challenge; each time, you’re given a problem to solve. It fits in well with my engineering studies, it’s quite intellectual… You have to be creative when climbing, you have to find the line of weakness.

What do you do when in doubt?

It doesn’t happen very often that I’m unsure about things but, if I am, I focus on what I know how to do, I don’t panic… Whether I’m going in the right direction or not, I try to analyze the situation, take a step back… I seek out the source of my fatigue, I look at the others, I rationalize things in my mind… Once I’ve set my sights on a project, I manage to trust myself, even when I’m not doing well in the training sessions. Because I know that I have cycles with ups and downs, so when I’m in the doldrums, I know that, eventually, the wave will buoy me up again… 

How do you see yourself in twenty years’ time?

I’ll have stopped competing. But I’ll still be competitive in spirit, so I’ll go climbing outdoors, I’ll attempt major routes on cliff faces… with the same mindset: to make progress. I’m not interested in pure, intrinsic performance, performance for the sake of performance. But I do, however, enjoy accepting challenges, even in areas where I’m not particularly good. In class, for example, if I’m not very good in a particular subject, I say to myself: “Become good at it…” And I’ll continue being like this, even when I’m 40.

What does Paris 2024 represent in your sporting career?

It’s an immensely important challenge, a step towards becoming a professional. I never used to set myself a goal in terms of results. I loved competing but I experienced it on a day-by-day basis. Now it’s become something else: I’m planning, I’m committing my whole life to this Olympic project… It’s new for me, it’s taken me to a whole new level. And then we’ll be competing in front of the French public, climbing in an incredible physical setting in front of all these people…

Do you have a passion apart from climbing? 

I used to play the piano quite a lot in high school, but now I don’t have as much time as I used to. I do a lot of road biking… that’s a break from climbing… For example, I’m planning on cycling up a mountain pass above Grenoble. I’m not a particularly good cyclist, but I’ll start the stopwatch at the bottom of the pass. Forever competing! 

How important is it for you to have a partner like the Compagnie Européenne de Garanties et Cautions (CEGC)?

From a purely practical point of view, we need money to complete the competition season. Then there’s the human side. I know that my partner, CEGC, is behind me, that the company believes in me, that it hopes I’ll succeed. I also climb because of this support. The people who are prepared to support me also enjoy sport vicariously, through me. It’s like when I watch the Tour de France, I’m wholehearted in my support for the riders. Well, it’s the same with my partner, I want to share that sporting spirit with them. It encourages me to give it my all…