Molly Thompson-Smith
conversation with
Great Britain
IFSC World Cup Series 2024

With over a decades worth of experience, Great Britain's Molly Thompson Smith takes us through her life from Climbing to mince pie reviews, family to serious injury

Being in the privileged position of IFSC media means you get to talk to the best Sport Climbers in the world, and you see them so often at events you get to know them quite well. And this is the case with Great Britain’s Molly Thompson-Smith, although the first chat we had sounds like it didn’t go well…let me explain.

One of the first things I said to Molly was ‘shut up!’. But I wasn’t telling her to be quiet, it was an expression of disbelief when she told me she had been competing at World Cup’s for ten years.

That encounter came at the IFSC World Cup Innsbruck when Molly was returning to action following a pretty big injury (which we will come to later), and she was as open about those challenges as she is whenever I talk to her.

Born in London, 26-year-old Molly was destined to go into sport with parents firmly in that sphere, but thankfully a love of climbing from the very first try, and the usual determination you would associate with Molly, meant she could tick off the ten-year milestone.

"I would say I was supposed to be an athlete. My mum still plays netball now and she's in her 60s. She still plays twice a week and umpires. Sport was just everything in our family. We tried loads of different sports for my brother and my birthday parties.”

For anyone who has watched professional netball, Molly’s 157cm would be considered on the small side. So, what about dad?

“My dad played football for Queens Park Rangers (QPR) when he was younger, around the under 21’s, and he still coaches’ football now. He coached the women's QPR team and sport has been a huge part of his life.”

With football an option growing up in the UK, a seven-year-old Molly set her sights on Climbing instead getting ‘hooked’ after visiting a local Sports Centre.

“From the first time I didn't really care about how my friends were doing, it was just about me and how I was doing.”

Despite getting hooked, it took the determined Molly a year of begging to finally get in to the Climbing club.

“It was really popular, but also the club was really small, so it took a long time to be able to join, but then when I did, I think within a year they'd asked me to join their performance squad.”

Mum Angela and dad Tony are big influences on Molly, in more ways than just sporting. Angela is from a place close to Southampton on the south coast of England and Tony is a ‘proper London geezer’ but has roots firmly in Barbados.

The motherly influence extends upwards to grandfather David whom Molly shared a World War II interest with and who would often take her to nearby Portsmouth, a city rich in Naval and military heritage in Great Britain. David himself was in the Navy.

And while Molly is aiming for Paris 2024 this summer, her first trip wasn’t quite what she expected thanks to a little white lie involving her grandfather.

“My parents told my brother and I that we were going to visit my grandparents with my cousins from London, but we got on the Eurostar. I was too young that I didn't realise.

“We were actually going to Disneyland Paris, but I thought we're going to see my grandparents. When my parents said ‘surprise we're not going to see Nanny and Grandad, we’re going to Disneyland Paris’, I cried.

"I was gutted. I mean, I was excited when I got there, but I was looking forward to getting to see my grandparents.”

I would say I was supposed to be an athlete.Molly Thompson-Smith
Molly and grandad David

On Tony’s side of things, although born in London, there was always a Bajan backdrop and culture to Molly’s life with the family heading to the UK from the Caribbean.

“He's one of six, so it's big family. It’s your typical big black family. There’s always loud music and everything is centred around food. There’s some big characters in there.”

At this point of the conversation Molly once again shows just how open and easy to talk to she is. As a white male I have no frame of reference for the next set of questions, and topics like race can be very difficult conversations to have, but Molly, from her own experience knows that and answers the only way she knows how, with great honesty.

Talking about her dad’s upbringing as a black man in London, Molly recalls: “I actually remember when I went to Moscow in 2020 during the pandemic for the European Championships, there was a TV program on the BBC.

“I can't remember what it was called, but it was essentially my dad's childhood in a BBC drama. It was a bit fictional, but it was based on real life, and I just remember texting him straight after like ‘dad, you actually went through all this crazy stuff?’

“He just said ‘yeah, it was normal’. He would be chased down the street, sometimes by the police just for being black.”

It’s natural for a parent to shelter their children from painful things so it wasn’t something that they would talk about, but as Molly was also quick to point out, it’s something that the majority of us are dealing with now.

“I guess its the same way we feel with the wars happening, in a way you're so disconnected from it. You know it's happening, but it's almost like it's not real because it's not close enough to impact you in the same way as those who are in it.”

Molly was lucky that she fell into Climbing almost through chance, but in the world of professional sports role models do play a big part in younger generations starting, something that Molly is, not just as a black woman, but as a woman full stop.

With her honesty, I was keen to know what Molly thought about the representation and campaigns surrounding black people in the UK, and around the world.

“I’m torn sometimes. Especially in Climbing there aren’t many black athletes, so the same people are always asked to take part in the campaigns, but then on the flip side that’s the point. If we don’t do it, then how will we get more black people into the sport. It is important to see people from the community you are from.

“Doing these campaigns can sometimes be difficult, but the most important thing for me is that it is not just a box ticking exercise, that every year on a certain date people come to me. Whatever I do I want it to be part of something worthwhile and backed up, not just a token gesture.”

Switching the focus back to mum and grandad. Anyone who follows Molly on social media will know food, and especially growing vegetables is close to her heart.

For anyone not following Molly on Instagram, you are missing out on a comprehensive annual mince pie review that begins around December time.

“You know what's funny? I didn't even like mince pies until about three years ago, so it's not even like I've been a die hard mince pie fan for my whole life.

“It started because I was a bored of Climbing content all the time, and I hadn’t posted in a while, so I juststarted rating mince pies and it just got a wild amount of response. I got so many messages from people saying they loved it and were there for it.”

Molly’s mince pie success created a problem though: “I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it last Christmas as I’d already kind of done it, but people were messaging me saying they were waiting to buy their mince pies until they had my ratings, so I had to do it. Got to give the fans what they want.”

As Molly recognises with social media, nearly everything you post has its own dedicated following which can get quite ‘tribal’.

“I love growing my own vegetables, I got that from my grandad and my mum who loves planting and growing. But whenever you post you get so many comments and suggestions about the best way to grow. It gets intense.

“I remember sending a picture to my mum once. We had some outside space I was thinking about changing and maybe adding a workspace for my boyfriend Sam. I wanted to get her thoughts, but all she could say was there was cat poo in my planters! That wasn’t even the point of the picture, and it was so small, but she saw it.”

I’m torn sometimes. Especially in Climbing there aren’t many black athletes.Molly Thompson-Smith
Young Molly on the Lead wall

Boyfriend Sam, who is often seen at Climbing events as a photographer, and Angela feature in the next story I promised we would come back to – the big injury.

I will leave this one to Molly…

“I had a bit of rubbish back end to the previous year and Ellie, my coach, basically said ‘right, just go and sort yourself out, just go and do whatever you have to do’. So, I went camping for pretty much the first time, and it was really nice.

“I was going away for the World Cups and I just wanted to spend a couple more hours with Sam because I wasn't going to see him for a few more weeks after that, and he was going climbing.

“It was supposed to be my rest day. I don't know why I took my climbing shoes, but I took my climbing shoes.I figured I would be on a plane for a while so it’s ok.

“I did this 6C and I was like, ‘OK, yeah, I think I'm finished now’. But then we walked a little bit further to thisreally amazing 7B boulder. It's quite tall and just like sticks out from the ground, but it has a bad landing, and it's kind of notorious for people having close calls.

“Sam and I had been there before and as it was just us two, we thought to give it a miss, but this time we had some friends and a lot more pads, and some more friends on the way.

“I guess I did an unconventional beta because the last move was really big, but I saw Sam had gone with the other hand to what people usually do, and he'd made it look really easy and I didn't check the top so I thought it was just a sinker.

“There was a sloper, but he was really strong and made it look like a jug. So I just walloped to it like it was gonna be an absolute bucket, but instead had a big swing outwards and fell.

“Sam pulled me in, but pulled one of my legs and so I ended up taking the fall on just the one ankle, and then I rolled back and my foot was at an angle it shouldn’t have been in. I screamed, and an hour later Mountain Rescue had arrived.”

The two friends that were joining came just in time to not only see Molly fall, but also film it. So, has she watched the video?

“Yeah. It took me a couple of weeks, but I did watch it with the sound off because I couldn't do it with the sound on. I've got it on my phone, but I I never look at it, it's horrible.

“I’ve now got a plate on the outside of my ankle with six or seven screws in there and a diagonal screw across my tibia and fibula.”

After such a massive injury which required surgery, metal pins and a lengthy time not being able to do a lot of things for herself, perspective and goals shifted to accommodate a comeback to competitive climbing.

With the realisation that the competition scene goes on whether you are there or not, and even shifting goals from reaching the top of a Lead wall to just getting up and making a cup of tea for yourself, the mental side of injury comes into play just as much as the physical. But Molly has had to deal with it before.

“It puts into perspective how much you love what you do when you can't do it. I had a big injury to my finger before, and I really appreciate the fresh perspective and the change that big injuries bring, which is maybe an unpopular opinion, but it works for me.”

Knowing Molly, it really doesn’t surprise me that she thinks this way. Of course, there were times when she questioned herself, that’s natural, I’ve even been there at an event when you could see a drop of doubt set in, but it doesn’t stay for long and the bigger picture is always one of strength and resilience.

I rolled back and my foot was at an angle it shouldn’t have been in.Molly Thompson-Smith

So where does mum feature in the story?

“I was heading to the World Cup in Jakarta and mum was going to join me as her retirement celebration after. We were going to visit Bali and a few other places, but I broke my ankle the day before, so it all got cancelled. Yeah, I was in her bad books for that one. I think she has forgiven me now though, just.”

Now looking to the immediate future, Paris 2024 qualification is within reach as Molly has a place at the Olympic Qualifier Series where the final tickets will be handed out.

“I’ve said previously I was going for the Olympics, but actually, there wasn't a single bit of me that believed I could qualify. Then last summer it changed. Bern went really well for me, and I thought ‘maybe I can actually do this’, and now it’s all I can think about.

“Now that feeling is motivating, but also very stressful. It is a bit scary to admit to yourself that you can achieve your goals.”

We will all find out if Molly achieved her goal after the final OQS event in Budapest in June, but Climbing aside, and looking even further into the future, what does that hold?

Well, Molly loved school and even had a place at university to study Maths and Sports Science – something she admits could be seen as a weird combination – but when the opportunity arose to pursue Climbing full time when she was offered a scholarship through Sky Sports, she had to take the chance.

Molly did do some studying during the pandemic with an online course in nutrition, something that she sees could play a future role within Climbing. But also, there’s baking.

“I know people know I’m into baking, but I’m REALLY into baking. I would love to do the Great British Bake Off.”

For those that don’t know, the Great British Bake Off is a very popular show in the UK where the contestants have a set of baking challenges and get their efforts critiqued by judges – a show Brits wait all year for, and like the social media gardeners, can get quite tribal.

“I think it’s the competitive nature in me. I also need analysis, I need to know what is wrong. I baked some things for Sam, and he just says they are ‘good’. What does that mean though? What’s good? What’s wrong? What can I do better? I need that.”

Analysis and competition are traits within all professional athletes so it’s no surprise Molly seeks those things even in something like baking. It would also be no surprise to see Molly go deep into the competition when she finally takes that opportunity - although I haven’t tried her baking yet, something I keep on asking to be rectified at the next event we are at together.

To finish, I needed to know if Molly would go back and try the boulder which ruined her competition season and her mum’s retirement trip, but did however bring her mindset closer to an Olympic Games. And you’ve probably guessed the answer just from reading about Molly.

“Yeah, I’m going to do it at some point. I think it will have to be after I finish comp climbing because I honestly think my coach would kill me. I mean I’ve also got so much metal in there now that it can’t happen again.”

By Richard Aspland

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