Aussie sports climber's Olympic dream coming true

For most athletes, their journey to the Olympic Games begins when they're as young as 12 or 13-years-old; they impress at swimming or athletics meets and are placed in representative programs with their path to the Games mapped out ahead of them. It wasn't so simple for Australia's first Olympic sports climber, Tom O'Halloran.

Like Australians at the time, a young O'Halloran watched the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games opening ceremony with dreams of one day making his Olympic debut. Pretty quickly, however, that dream was shelved, until at 24-years-old and ranked Australia's best climber, he was told sports climbing would make its Games debut at Tokyo 2020.

A family man from the Blue Mountains, two hours west of Sydney, O'Halloran had a hard decision to make: follow his dream from when he was an eight-year-old, or let it go and focus on his family.

"It's pretty wild," O'Halloran told ESPN. "There's so many sports where from the age of five you already know you're on the path to being an Olympian. But at 24 or something when they told me sport climbing was going to be an Olympic sport it kind of blew my mind.

"Do I want to try an achieve that dream that I had when I was an eight-year-old watching the opening ceremony of the Sydney Games? So I decided to put in and it's incredible to now be here. You're the one kind of trudging through the ice, going through the uncharted territory, it's insane."

His decision to pursue his Olympic dream wasn't taken lightly, with a six-year-old daughter at home O'Halloran knew training would take him away from his family and put pressure not just on himself but also his wife, a fellow sports climber; but like many Olympians to follow the dream is all about sacrifice.

"A big consideration for whether or not I should go for the Olympics was missing out on family time, the commitment to training and that kind of thing. It was so much harder for myself and my partner than we thought it was going to be. But all that pain and struggle was worth it, it's incredible to be here now and to be able to call yourself an Olympian is amazing."

Like many athletes preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Games, O'Halloran's preparations were hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. Receiving very little funding from the Sports Climbing Australia, COVID cost him his job and would force the cancellation of the Olympics qualifiers, leaving the 26-year-old to think outside the box to retain his position as Australia's best climber.

"COVID was pretty tricky. The 19th of March I lost my job and then on the 23rd of March our Olympic qualifiers got called off, so it was a pretty interesting few days and we just weren't sure what was going to happen.

"I ended up building a climbing wall under my house so that myself and my partner could keep training and now my daughter's got into it a little bit, which is fun. We kind of just kept it simple, it was a good thing we didn't need to maneuvre too many moving parts like a team sport, we just kept on our own track.

"There is some pretty good support from our federation, but it's my first Olympics as well as theirs so everyone's sort of playing catch up. Everyone in our federation is a volunteer; they're parents who are just passionate about climbing and just want to see climbing grow.

"It's a pretty hard thing for everyone, just being volunteers running it all basically, so they're just doing their best. Hopefully this is just laying the groundwork and framework to work on for future generations and Olympics."

Named in 2016 alongside skateboarding, surfing, baseball/softball and karate as one of the Olympics new sports, sports climbing is a unique event that includes three disciplines: speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing. Each discipline will be undertaken by all athletes with a points tally used to determine the ultimate winner of the program.

Taking on climbing years before the event would be included in the Games, O'Halloran would become the first person to be selected in the Australian sports climbing Olympic team after finishing atop of the podium at the IFSC Oceania Championships and Olympic qualifiers following a four-way battle to the top. The sport's Olympic inclusion and his eventual selection was like a "weird dream come true".

"It was surreal, it's hard to explain," O'Halloran told ESPN. "It's insane. Climbing's been around for so long and competition climbing's been around for decades, but to be able to showcase it to a whole new audience and the general public is pretty special.

"To be able to have it in the Olympics is pretty special. It's kind of the beginning of the sport, really."