Leading The Way: Molly Thompson-Smith

How do you recover from the face of adversity? Rock faces and all, we chat to climber Molly Thompson-Smith about bouncing back from injury and the new heights she’s hoping to reach

By Tomi Otekunrin

A typical kid’s birthday party usually involves a cake, party favours and if you’re lucky, possibly a bouncy castle in your back garden. However, in Molly Thompson-Smith’s household this simply wasn’t enough. Born into a sporty family in Ladbroke Grove, west London, it was traditional for sports to be involved in every single one of Thompson-Smith’s birthdays. So on her seventh birthday, Molly decided to incorporate indoor climbing into her celebrations. “We had Westway Sports Centre at the end of our road, which had a climbing wall. [My birthday] was the first time I went climbing and I had so much fun. From that day on, I really liked the sport and begged my parents to let me go back and join their club. The rest, as they say, is history,” she says.

Molly in training for the 2022 European Lead Cup

Molly is an ace in lead climbing, a form of climbing where athletes are secured by a rope and climb a wall using overhanging routes to reach the highest point in an individual attempt. At the age of 16, she won the 2014 International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) European Youth Cup and was ranked no.1 in the world for lead climbing. In 2017, she became the first British woman to win a medal in a Lead World Cup event — she won bronze at the IFSC Climbing World Cup. At the time she was also a four-time British National Senior Lead Champion. It’s safe to say that Molly spent almost all of 2017 on a high, but it all came crashing down when she injured her finger at the end of the year.

Taking Time Out For Injury

“This injury was pretty tricky because it was like the first of its kind. I don’t know anyone else who’s had a triple pulley rupture in one finger. I needed surgery, like that was a given. There was no way I was going to get around it, which was quite nice because it meant I didn’t have to make any decisions,” Molly explains. “It’s pretty daunting starting the year off with an operation. With this being such a rare injury, it was even harder to know exactly how to come back from it because there wasn’t like a set rehab plan. So there was a lot of figuring it out on the go and just trusting in what I was doing and hoping that it would [enough to] get me back to where I needed to be.”

Back on the wall after injury, Depot Climbing Sheffield, November 2022

Molly waited a total of 20 days after the surgery to start climbing again, albeit with just one hand. She spent a lot of time in the gym doing cross-training before eventually adding in yoga, cardio and running. Eventually she started climbing with two hands, taking it very easy and building up slowly. Then after months and months of rehab, she competed in the British Lead Championships and became a five-time National Senior Lead Champion. After a strenuous 2018, Molly was back on top form.

Not only are there physical challenges but what about the fear factor. Are there times when Molly has felt scared while rock climbing outdoors? “I’ve cried. I’ve been scared,” she says. “When I was growing up, it was quite a transition to being comfortable outside, and sometimes it is just a bit scary. Like when you’re 30 metres up a rock face, you feel super exposed and you’re all alone because the person who’s holding your rope on the floor can’t really hear or see you. It’s quite a solitary experience. You need to make sure that whatever you’re doing is safe, and just be sensible.”

Back On The Road To Success

Competing at the Olympics had always been the dream for Molly. She found herself one step closer to making her dream a reality, after Sport Climbing was officially added to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. During the 2020 IFSC Europe Continental Championships, Molly almost snagged herself a ticket to Tokyo. She won third place at the lead event, becoming the first British female to win a European medal. But during the combined event that consisted of speed, bouldering and lead, she placed eighth overall. She needed to win first place to qualify for Tokyo.

The 2020 IFSC Europe Continental Championships was bittersweet for Molly. “[It] was a really weird event,” she shares. “I was competing in Russia and on top of that, [I was] one of the only mixed-race climbers on the circuit. After the events of the BLM movement and everything, it was a really emotionally intense environment to compete in. But it was really cool to be able to walk away from that event with a medal. I put a lot into that event. It was very stressful [and] emotionally draining.”


Ailefroide bouldering. Photography by Sam Pratt

It was Molly’s first time taking part in a combined event during the 2020 European Championships. The competition was structured that way as the Tokyo Olympics featured all three disciplines of climbing: Boulder, Lead, and Speed, in one event. Molly has mixed feelings on the formatting of Sport Climbing during the 2020 Olympics. “I don’t think it was like the most ideal format for competitive climbers,” she explains. “It was a good opener, I guess to the Olympics. If you could only have one medal, I think it was fair that all of the disciplines within competitive climbing were represented rather than just picking one of the three. It was really hard to train for. Boulder and lead are quite similar and traditionally boulderers can lead climb and lead climbers can boulder. But speed climbing is basically its own sport. The fact that it’s on climbing holds is probably the only thing that’s actually similar.”

Before the run up to Tokyo, Molly had never done speed climbing – a form of climbing where athletes are secured from above and run up standardised routes on a wall and the faster one to reach the top is the winner. The Paris 2024 Olympics will feature speed climbing as a separate event and will instead combine lead and boulder, which is a relief for most competitive climbers. Molly explains why this is better for the sport: “It’s way safer for the athletes. There were loads of injuries in the run up to Tokyo as people were pushing themselves because [they] had to pick up another two disciplines. It was just a really hard time for everyone going for qualification. We didn’t have all of the best speed climbers in the world at the Olympics, which I think is a massive shame. So hopefully in Paris, you know, the best of the best will all be there and they [will] represent the sport in the way that it should be represented.”

Bowder Stone, Lake District, September 2022. Photography by Sam Pratt


Last September, Molly injured her ankle after falling from Suavito at Gardom’s Edge. She can laugh about it now, but definitely found it traumatising when it happened. “I can’t catch a break during these Olympic cycles. It’s so frustrating,” she says wryly. Molly also enjoys rock climbing and outdoor bouldering so on her day off she decided to scale Suavito, a leaning narrow ridge of rock. “It’s a double-edged sword having your job as your hobby as well,” she explains. “I absolutely love climbing and I can go and do it socially and recreationally. But it means that when my partner and friends go climbing outside… it’s still something I want to go and do for a nice time. So I couldn’t say no to the offer of just going and being outside and I took my climbing shoes in case I felt inspired. I just had to go on this boulder and it unfortunately didn’t go my way.”

Climbing World Cup, Briançon, 2021. Photography by Lena Drapella

Fit And Ready For The Next Stage

Now five months post surgery, Molly is ready to start the long, arduous qualification process for Paris 2024. There are multiple ways for climbers to qualify for the upcoming Olympics. “The first one is being at World Champs this summer in Bern, Switzerland. The top three athletes from the combined will get a spot in Paris,” she explains. “Then you have each of your continental [qualifiers] and the European one is in October. Then next year, there’ll be an urban game series in the Spring and that’s where the majority of the athletes will qualify. It’s invitational and you get your invite based on your combined World Cup ranking during the 2023 season. So you have to enter three World Cups or championships of each discipline. That means a minimum of six international events this year, but obviously everyone likes a bit of wiggle room. So I’m planning to compete in maybe four World Cups, the World Championships and five lead World Cups. So it’s quite a big year.”

When bouldering meets cardio, CityBloc Leeds


So how is she feeling mentally about the challenges ahead? “By the end of that five weeks off recovering from the ankle injury, I was going crazy just sitting on the sofa not doing anything. So the motivation was already there for a comeback – and qualification for the Olympics has its own massive pool of motivation. Also I have to remember that the qualification process is complicated and quite long. It’s definitely a marathon rather than a sprint. So I just need to be ready to give it my all across several events throughout the season.” In between competing, Molly will continue her work as an ambassador for the British Mountaineering Council (BMC). “I would really like to help them work on their inclusion and diversity within climbing,” she says. “It doesn’t have representation from different backgrounds and growing up, that definitely impacted my relationship with climbing.

But luckily, I was really motivated to compete and so I continued, but it wasn’t the easiest space to exist within at times. So I’d really like to kind of use my relationship with the BMC to help other people get into climbing.” For anyone looking to start climbing, Molly has a tip for you: “It can be a social activity where you drink tea or coffee with your mates and you have a little bit of a climb, or it can be a proper workout where you really push yourself. It can be whatever you want. I think a lot of people may get a little bit scared the first time they go because it’s so different from normal life. There’s no similarities whatsoever. So you’ve got to be kind to yourself and just take it one step at a time.” This is exactly how Molly is starting her climb towards Paris 2024, by being kind to herself and taking one step at a time.

Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire, January 2022. Photography by Sam Pratt

Editorial Design by this is root, Title Image by Daniel Gajda

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