Nobody thought twice when Sean plugged a meager five-point word onto the Scrabble board at the campsite in Hueco Tanks. He was, after all, losing by over 50 points.
It wasn't until the next round that Sean's opponents realized they have been outsmarted. Sean had sacrificed his previous turn to set up the use of the triple-letter tile. Placing his eight-point "J" on the board, he scored 55 points and won the game.
Never underestimate a guy who hates losing. There is a reason that friends and coaches such as Jamie Chong and Mike Doyle have called Sean McColl "the most competitive person" they know, realizing that the desire to win can create greatness.
Age 21 and from North Vancouver, British Columbia, McColl was 10 the year he started climbing, the same year he was classified as "gifted" through the Canadian School Board. He skipped second and fourth grades in piano school, and over 10 years achieved the level of Grade 10, after which a student may test to teach or compete, in classical piano at the Royal Conservatory. He stopped playing piano four years ago to spend more time climbing and traveling. By 12 he had climbed his first 5.14 (one of the youngest peop;e ever to achieve the grade), Pulse (5.14a), Cheakamus Canyon. McColl has flashed V12 and crimped out V13 in less time than it takes to eat a bowl of cereal. He flashed the 5.14b Thanatopsis, at the Red River Gorge, Kentucky (reportedly one of only five athletes to have flashed the grade at that time) and has made rapid ascents of 5.14c, but his most notable achievements are on plastic. He is a three-time Junior World Champion, and current North American Sport Climbing Champion. Last year, he made a World Cup podium with a third place at Imst, Austria, and was sixth and seventh in Belgium and Switzerland. During the recent trip to Hueco, he also established the stellar problem Sunny Side Up (V12).
An intense character, Sean is serious and straightforward until asked about a video game session. That makes him laugh.
"Oh, yeah. One time my best friend and I played from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m., non stop, to finish Zelda. I drank two liters of Coca-Cola."
This spring Sean packed his bags for France, to meet his girlfriend, Mathilde Couchot, pick up his car and drive eastbound toward his first World Cup of 2009. At the time this article comes out, he will have just begun a season intended to span six World Cups and two other international events. (All results available on http://www.ifsc-climbing.org.) He claims to feel stronger than ever, but he will face one of the most competitive fields to date. Can Sean come from behind, rise up through the jumble of tiles and hit the triple-letter score with a J?
You've been playing
piano for 14 years. What
made you stick to it?
Nobody really enjoys practicing, but as I got older I started to appreciate the beauty of the music. Also, I think it's neat to have hidden talents. I enjoy surprising people when I bust out some Beethoven in hotel lobbies.
Did you have a crush on
your music teacher? Is that
what kept you coming back?
[Laughs]. No, my teacher was 70 years old.
Have you ever performed
in front of an audience?
Not really, mostly just small gatherings. But recently I was on a cruise with my family, and they hosted a talent show, so I played a sonata in front of a thousand people. They seemed to really enjoy it. I'd say it was an eight out of 10 performance.
make you nervous?
I'm actually boosted by a crowd. I find I perform better - I think it's why I love comps. Well, that and because I really love to win. I would love to win a World Cup this summer.
Does your family encourage
your love for comps and
the schedule behind it?
They've backed me 100 percent since the beginning. My whole family climbs - my mom, dad and my brother Jason. In the past my mother would travel with the team to keep an eye on me. One time when I was 14 I went to Junior Worlds by myself, and [the coach] Mike Doyle walked into my room to find Coke and candy bar wrappers all over the floor. My clothes were all dirty and I slept in until 12. I probably would have climbed better if my parents were there.
What are your weaknesses?
In climbing, it's narrow pinches. Maybe it's the way my hand is built, but if I have to squeeze something less than two or three inches, I always crux out and usually have to find another way to do it. On the flip side, if it's a wide pinch, I'm usually really solid. It's one of my strengths.
In life, I'd say it was my people skills. But that's changed a lot in the last few years. Some of my friends told me they thought I was an asshole when we first met, but I'm just really shy. I'm getting much better at opening up and expressing interest in other people.
What is your dream climb?
That's a hard question. I'm not really into having a project. I like doing things really fast and sort of unexpectedly. I really wanted to do Slashface (V14) this year in Hueco and I got discouraged quickly by how hard it felt. It's a beautiful line, but somewhere along the way I formed expectations and they weren't met, so I lost interest.
On a scale of 1 to 10,
how competitive are you?
Honestly, I'd say about a 9, maybe 9.5. I really love to win, but it's not funny when you beat your 6-year-old cousin all the time in video games. There's a line, and I think I know where it is.