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British Columbia B.C.’s Elan Jonas-McRae climbing to the top of his sport

Elan Jonas-McRae training at Boulders Climbing Gym in Saanich, B.C., on Dec. 16. McRae is an Olympic hopeful in a sport that is itself an Olympic hopeful.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

The Globe's B.C. bureau is profiling 10 young people aged 20 and under who are doing great things in fields ranging from arts to science to activism. Today, Elan Jonas-McRae could be among the first Olympians to compete in climbing, which the organizing committee for the 2020 Tokyo Games wants to add to the program.

Elan Jonas-McRae is doing that thing that competitive climbers do – waving his arms around like a conductor with an especially difficult piece of music, while staring intently at a wall. Once he begins climbing, his actions make sense: With a sequence mapped out, he can move fluidly up the wall – and across the ceiling on a route that only the most accomplished athletes can hope to top.

Mr. Jonas-McRae, 20, is an Olympic hopeful in a sport that is itself an Olympic hopeful.

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The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Organizing Committee wants to add five new sports, including sport climbing, skateboarding and surfing, in a bid to attract a more youthful audience to the Summer Games. If final approval is granted in August, 2016, by the International Olympic Committee, Mr. Jonas-McRae is on a track to introduce Canada to a sport that the country is well positioned to compete in.

Canadian Sean McColl, 28, is a three-time world champion in sport climbing. Currently, the North Vancouver native is ranked second internationally, and serves as president of the athlete's commission for the International Federation of Sport Climbing. But if he is recognized in Canada outside of the climbing community, it is most likely because of his performance at the televised American Ninja Warrior competitions.

Mr. McColl was in Saanich, B.C., in December coaching Mr. Jonas-McRae and 16-year-old Kai Lightner from North Carolina. Although he hopes to compete in the Olympics himself, Mr. McColl is sharing his experience with the younger climbers who may edge him out of contention by 2020.

"For me, if the decision was taken right now, for the top twenty climbers going to the Olympics, I would be an Olympian," Mr. McColl said. "Obviously, in five years a lot could change – maybe I wouldn't be the best Canadian athlete in climbing in 2020. But come August, if the vote is a 'yes,' I'll be training as hard as I can for the next four years to be an Olympic prospect."

Mr. Jonas-McRae has only two years of experience in the World Cup competitions that currently define the summit of sport climbing – and already he is ranked 22nd male climber in the world.

The prospect of putting on an Olympic uniform will change the sport in Canada, but right now, he is focused on getting ready for the next season of World Cup competitions. It means training five days a week, dividing his time between the Boulders Climbing Gym in Saanich for technical and tactical work, and at the nearby Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence for physical conditioning and sports psychology.

"It makes the future of competition climbing a lot more exciting. But it doesn't change anything for training or motivation because it's already there for the World Cups," Mr. Jonas-McRae said in an interview in between climbs.

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What will change is how much time he spends training for lead climbing, currently his strongest suit. Tokyo is proposing to award medals for the best climbers over all in three disciplines: lead, bouldering and speed. Lead climbers ascend with a rope, aiming to reach the highest point on a route within a time limit; bouldering involves short, powerful routes closer to the ground; and speed climbing requires both strength and absolute precision as climbers race straight up a 15-metre wall.

Competitive climbers can, at their peak, scratch out a living, but most are motivated by a lifestyle choice rather than the prospect of a lucrative paycheque.

"It's just for the love for the sport, all the people you get to meet," Mr. Jonas-McRae said. "I think climbers are some of the best people in the world."

Today, competition climbing has a much bigger following in Asia and Europe than it has in North America, but if there are Olympic medal prospects for Canada, his coach Kimanda Jarzebiak expects interest will pick up.

"I was coming back from a World Cup in Belgium when I heard the news about the Tokyo Games. I was in the Toronto Maple Leaf lounge and I was texting [an athlete] and saying, 'I'm crying and laughing in the middle of the airport and everyone thinks I'm crazy.'"

Ms. Jarzebiak, Mr. McColl and others have spent years campaigning to win Olympic standing for their sport. With the Tokyo Games proposal, they are as close as they have ever been.

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"Finally, we were recognized as the legitimate sport that we are, and knowing everything that can come with that: Funding for athletes to travel and train, for them to be treated as serious, high-performance athletes," she said. "Not just people with a weird addiction to a strange sport."

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