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Alise Zvigule: rising star

Alise Zvigule claimed the bronze medal at the first national boulder competition of this year entirely out of the blue. Things did not stop there though, which was more than enough reason to fire some questions her way.

 
She demonstrated her ever-improving skills at the World Cups and bagged her first 7C boulder in Rocklands, South Africa. The 25-year-old Latvian surprise lives and trains in the Netherlands, so we would like to get to know the secret ingredient of that elixir that gets you this strong in such a short time.

Read the Dutch after action review of Boulder 1 right here.

 

Who is Alise Zvigule?

And how does a Latvian girl end up in the Netherlands?

I am a 25-year-old Latvian American. I was raised in the United States and at 16 I left home and went back to Latvia by myself. Initially for a year, but I ended up staying. After pulling out of my first university, I worked and saved money while applying to other schools, all outside of Latvia. I was eager to resume academics in English, which led me to the Maastricht Science Programme. I moved to the Netherlands for the education. This country has some excellent world-renowned universities and I wanted to be a part of it.

Alise Zvigule: a Latvian girl living in the Netherlands

Photo: Bram Berkien

We’ve seen you migrating within the Netherlands as well.

My location timeline in the Netherlands is: Maastricht → Utrecht → Maastricht → Eindhoven → Utrecht. Honestly, I was never planning on settling here. I viewed the Netherlands as a stepping stone in my journey. I had the notion that I would take and experience everything I could while being here, but that I would eventually move on after finishing school. However, I now have a Dutch partner and that complicates things. I am not sure where I will end up. Hopefully close to nature and plenty of rocks.




How do you juggle climbing with all other activities?

During my undergraduate studies, at one point, I was working three jobs, attending classes full time, and going to Eindhoven at least four times a week to boulder. It was a hectic time and quite rewarding, but I have decided to tone it back and adhere to a slightly more “slow living” concept. I used to easily combine studies, work and climbing, but that has certainly become more challenging since coming back to Utrecht.

I am an Environmental Biology Masters’ student, but my degree is heavily research based, therefore most of it is actually work as part of a research group. Currently, I am part of the Plant Ecophysiology at University of Utrecht where, in broad terms, we look at plant-environment interactions. I answer questions and create new knowledge with my research.

Right now, I have been getting back into climbing. I have been off from training/climbing since mid-August. It would be ideal to be able to train before work, but that is not an option currently. It is not easy to combine it all, but it is possible. In my opinion, it is a matter of wanting it. If you want it, you will do it.

Alise Zvigule competing in Munich.

Alise Zvigule competing in Munich, Germany. Photo: Yanne Golev.

 

Love for climbing

How did your love for climbing start?

I formally got into contact with climbing at the beginning of my second year in Maastricht. Two friends dragged me to the gym in Sittard for a rope climbing course and I vividly remember not wanting to go because I was tired from school and commuting. Needless to say, that was the beginning of a love affair…

After a few weeks of going every Thursday, I did all of the top-rope routes and thought: “well this isn’t so challenging anymore”. So, I went and got the lead certificate and could start trying the scary problems. Simultaneously, I had begun going to the bouldering gym by myself because I realized I quite liked that discipline.  The end of this September marked my 3-year anniversary with bouldering/climbing.




Could you explain the love affair feeling?

Love is a hard thing to explain. Climbing came to me at a time when I really needed it, I was going through a dark place in life. I began bouldering slowly and then just sort of entirely fell into it, to the point where some days entirely centered around climbing. I am happy when I boulder and get to move my body over the holds and wall, so I have made it a priority to climb.

The first time I went outdoor bouldering was in the middle of the winter and I was just a few months into bouldering. That trip was the biggest catalyst for falling head over heels in LOVE. I came back from Bleau absolutely beaming. The experience made me feel like this is it. I was super, super lucky to be there with some amazing ladies that have taught me so much. They are people that I look up to and I remember thinking: “I want to climb like them one day!” because they climb with such grace and beauty.

A massive part of my love for outdoor bouldering is the nature and solitude. Climbing outside is a way that I find peace, the outdoors is calming and grounding. I love being able to climb in the quiet, with fresh air and relative silence. I did some of my hardest problems entirely alone.

Is this love only for bouldering or also other disciplines?

Currently, I am focusing on bouldering, but I do occasionally route climb outside. I can’t explain, but I feel a sense of urgency, a fire within me, with bouldering that I do not feel with rope climbing. Maybe it is because I am eager or because I feel like I have yet to do anything… I feel like I am at the beginning and I want to see what is up ahead! I am really interested in what I can do with bouldering and how far I can push myself.

For now, bouldering will remain my main focus, but I think gradually I will shift to more route climbing. Of course, I may be wrong.

Alise Zvigule during Boulder 1

Alise Zvigule is flying into the finals of the first national bouldering competition of this year, ending up 3rd. Photo: Sytse van Slooten.

 

Exploding performance

BAM! There she was… You surprised this year by hitting the top 3 at the national comps and you’ve been climbing for just three years. What drove your progress?

I was surprised by how many mistakes I could make and still be in finals. There is a decent amount of strong female climbers that don’t compete. It just becomes more interesting when they do.

For me it was nice to see that I could keep my head together enough to make it into finals, which I enjoy WAY more than quali’s. I was motivated by the notion of “fun” competition, which to me is being alone with a problem. And I do not prefer comps with a ton of people, whereas finals are super lovely because you are alone with the wall.

Then I decided it was a good time to give the Dutch National rounds another go, since I had been injured previously. Therefore I used the “Boulder” series as an indicator of what I need to work on and my general fitness. My progress was driven by my motivation. I just want to become a good climber, someone that has an even balance between strength and technique, dances through movements and has a cool, calm head. For me, that means refining a lot, learning a lot and pushing myself and seeing what my limits are and then doing what I can to surpass those limits in the future.

Eventually Zvigule ended up 7th in the national boulder series, competing in 3 out of 4 events.

Alise Zvigule competing in the Netherlands

Zvigule competing during Boulder 2 – Dutch national boulder series. Photo: Tim van der Linden, NKBV.

Do you have a training plan?

Since I decided to attend international competitions, I have a loose plan. Initially build up fitness, later work on specifics, then closer to the season more competition style exercises. It is a yearly process, essentially. I now had a couple months off and am just beginning my new cycle, which will most likely last until next September, if I stay healthy.

It is daunting, in a way, but very exciting. Last December it hit me how big of a commitment it is to choose to train for a big competition. I honestly had not thought about it previously. It is not like you go to the gym once a week and then sit on the couch for the other six evenings. You have to choose to be at the gym (or exercising) at least four times a week, putting in time and all of your energy.

Now that I have moved I will be training by myself, but I used to be with the boys (Brinkmeister & De Koning – red.) on a regular basis. For me it was good because their style is literally the opposite of mine: huge, explosive moves. It allowed me to train my weaknesses. They are super creative with coming up with interesting problems too. I’m still learning that art, but it is getting better for sure.

Also want to train like Brinkmeister & De Koning? Watch their video and learn the art.

 

Amongst the stars – climbing World Cups

We do not see too many Dutchies in the World Cups, so we cherish everyone who is bringing some Dutch feeling to the circuit!

That is very kind! I ended up registered, entirely of my own accord. At the time, no one had a clue who I was in Latvia. I just popped up out of the blue. It was my idea to compete, but the federation was necessary. A competitor is registered by their home countries’ climbing association or federation. Therefore, I was very lucky to get support from the Latvian Alpinist Association.

Alise Zvigule climbs for the Latvian team

Photo: Bram Berkien

Do you climb in Latvian comps?

No, I do not. I have been criticized for it, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I competed in Lithuania for the first time this May and just attended a comp in Estonia. If logistics work out, then I would definitely like to compete in Latvia, but as I previously mentioned, I do not have a loose schedule with work. Days off are a luxury.

Only recently have I become more integrated with the Latvian climbing scene, it is quite small, but definitely growing! I think additional interest is sparking because of the Olympics, but also because climbing just seems to have become a “trendy” thing to do nowadays.

Debuting in the World Cup

Competing in Meiringen was Zvigule’s debute in the World Cup. Photo: Yanne Golev.

How does it feel to climb amongst the stars?

The first word that comes into mind is “elevated”, haha. Being around the “stars” you notice the level and standards are much higher than what we are used to here. It is something that took some time getting used to. Meiringen (Switzerland – red.) was a bit of a shock, it was my first time being around athletes of such caliber, people I looked up to and only dreamed to see climbing! It was amazing, like being in a parallel universe.

Once it is time to climb, it is important to put out of your mind who you are surrounded by. It is a mistake I have made, being intimidated and having doubts because I go out with a super, super strong lady and think to myself “why am I here?!”. Although, the Meiringen cup was an eye opener because I went with a totally destroyed right wrist, not expecting very much. It dawned on me that the problems actually are doable. While previously I had thought establishing yourself on the start holds would be a mission impossible (which it sometimes is, but still).

 

Alise Zvigule representing Latvia.

Between Iran and Lithuania. Please also notice the not so happy face of Dutch strongmen Jorg Verhoeven, ready to draw a red card to the IFSC for revoking free live streams of the World Cup events. Photo: Yanne Golev

What lessons are you bringing back from the circuit?

Big lessons! Each World Cup has been an experience in and of itself. Switzerland was awesome, despite the fresh injury. Mumbai (India – red.) taught me A LOT, not just about climbing, but myself. I went alone and I would definitely think twice about doing that again.

From competitions this past season I learned a lot, both mentally and physically. The list of things that I need to work on continuously grows. With competitions, you have to be good all around. Physically, you obviously need to be strong, but with comp experience you discover a lot of nuanced things that also need improvement. You may not even notice that if you climb only one style or just train power. The mental aspect is huge, comps really try your mental capabilities. Competitions have forced me to face my lack of confidence, amongst other things. I have learned how truly important positive thinking is and staying focused.

Alise Zvigule participated in three World Cups and the European Championship this year. Her best performance in terms of ranking was 25th in Navi Mumbai, India, just short of reaching semifinals.

Zvigule competing in Navi Mumbai

Zvigule achieves her highest ranking in the World Cup in Navi Mumbai, India: 25th. Photo: Eddie Fowke, IFSC.

Within the circuit my closest connection with Latvian climbing would be Rolands Rugens, one of the top IFSC bouldering competitors. He is an absolutely amazing athlete, who has an impressive list of achievements. I try to learn from him as much as possible. He is someone I particularly look up to because he achieved his level all on his own, not with a big team or many coaches. He competed and made a place for himself on the World Circuit and that is particularly impressive and outstanding if you are an athlete coming from a country with no existing infrastructure for your sport.

The IFSC comps have allowed me to meet some cool people and I have been happily surprised at how humble most are. I feel like some people forget to stay humble. I think arrogance is unnecessary, especially when unwarranted; big ego can hinter growth, that is unfortunate.

My biggest take away from the circuit was the realization of how much room there is to grow. So much room to grow! I am working on implementing everything I have learned and know I need to work on. The best part was realizing that my dreams were not crazy. And that I was not insane for dreaming big and that it is OK to be ambitious. On the world stage it is normal to be ambitious.

Alise Zvigule during boulder 2 this year.

“It’s OK to be ambitious.” Photo: Sytse van Slooten.

 

Crushing outdoors

Your progress was also demonstrated by sending your first 7C: Kingdom in the Sky, in Rocklands. Could you explain how you managed to pull this one off?

I really wanted to figure out the beta myself, so I did some tries in a few sessions or so. The holds are sharp and skin is a limiting factor. But once I adjusted my foot beta, it immediately went. I had ignored a really obvious foothold, which, out of stubbornness, I had not initially wanted to use.

The problem is aesthetically pleasing, a really nice seam in the rock, and I liked the name. When I am outside I try not to look at grades, just try what I think is nice. Typically I try things that are way, way too hard for me, but I am changing that now. Trying to do more volume.

How was the rest of your trip?

The trip to the Rocklands was awesome! For sure I would love to go back. It was our first time in South Africa, so it was a nice adventure because everything was new. And driving in roundabouts is scary when you are on the “wrong” side of the road!

We went to a limited number of sectors, because otherwise you go to so many places and have a million different things you want to come back to. I think we’ve splitted our time between each persons’ problems and projects really well. Each of us has unfinished business as well and plenty more we want to go see. For example, we never made it out to the Sassies, but heard awesome things about the sector. For sure on our list.

Read here the trip report and watch the video!

That sounds like the best rock on the planet.

I think Switzerland is home to some of my favorite rock. It is accessible if you are within the EU and Switzerland is one of my favorite places to be outdoors. Rocklands is up there though and I have to give credit to Fontainebleau. Font has some magic that keeps pulling you back. It is a good place to practice foot placement, slab climbing and properly getting your ass kicked.

What are your current outdoor climbing ambitions?

I think my number one outdoor ambition is to get outside as much as possible! I have a lot I want to do outdoors, since that is where my heart is. For bouldering, I would like to continue to climb beautiful lines, with fluid movements. And once I stop competing I will definitely get back up on some highballs. Eventually I would like to be a good, strong climber.

Alise Zvigule competing in Munich.

Alise Zvigule competing in Munich, Germany. Photo: Sytse van Slooten.

 

Sponsors

Is the increasing attention for your accomplishments resulting in increased support by sponsors?

Attention is not something I seek with my climbing nor do I imagine it ever will be, that just is not my personality. I am pretty sure if I did not compete, no one would know who I am because I generally do not publicize my outdoor sends.

But to answer your question, no I do not attract sponsors. I had a few months were I embarrassingly struggled with that, but I am over it now. If someone would at some point in time like to support me, that would be awesome, if not OK. I will keep climbing regardless. I can proudly say that what I have done so far comes entirely from within me.

As someone wise said to me just a few weeks back (my physio), “sponsorship is not about being a good climber, but how good of a brand representative someone would be”. He is entirely right. Being sponsored, in my opinion, comes down to who you know, being in the right place at the right time and/or potentially how many followers you have on instagram/looking like a barbie. I feel that nowadays it has nothing to do with how good of a climber you are.

What do you think sponsorships can bring to the sport?

I believe that sponsorship is important to generate growth within competition climbing as a whole and I would like to think it would be a positive influence. There could be a long list of examples of what would benefit from sponsor backing. In competition climbing it is more than evident that having financial backing helps, with travel expenses, doctor appointments, coaching, etc. everything!

Some really strong climbers never make it to competitions because it is not financially possible. What I think is crazy is that so many top athletes in climbing still have normal jobs to pay the bills, football players don’t ever have to do that! However, that being said, I think it is important that brands have the climber(s) in mind, because otherwise it loses soul.

As climbing is about to explode with the Olympics, it is super important that supporters and sponsors of the sport have the right intentions, it would be shame if climbing became an “elite” activity only affordable to the wealthy.

Alise Zvigule competing in the Dutch competion.

Alise Zvigule competing in the Dutch competion. Photo: Tim van der Linden, NKBV.

 

Take home message

How can we be inspired to continue progressing?

Inspiration can come in just about any form, but the motivation to change something has to come from within you. In my opinion, being inspired is the easy part. Having the motivation to keep pushing when you’ve hit a plateau is the challenge.

In July of 2016, I stopped climbing because I was not enjoying it. It took a while, but I came to the conclusion that I had been motivated for all the wrong reasons. I did not climb anything more than a 6A for a while, which is not ideal. But no regrets because it was evident that I needed to rethink why I was climbing.

I cannot begin to put into words the need to persevere through injuries. As someone that started climbing late in life, I have had to accept the fact that injuries will always be there and it is a matter of working around them. That does not mean I don’t get frustrated by it, haha. And setting goals is a biggie, it gives you something to look forward to, but also a way to measure progress.

Alise Zvigule

Photo: Bram Berkien


Cover photo: Bram Berkien

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Ron Berends

Met een dikke knipoog legt Ron je haarfijn uit waarom hij alles verafschuwt dat met touwen te maken heeft. Deze boulderaar pur sang kent wellicht nog meer boulders uit z’n hoofd dan Bart van Raaij en zijn eindeloze enthousiasme is een belichaming van de Siked-filosofie.