She had her right leg amputated when she was a baby. Now her life has completely changed due to a sport she was terrified to try.
Australia’s most decorated sports climber stands head, shoulders and climbing wall above the rest. But when Sarah Larcombe scales 15-metre-high walls, she does it with a prosthetic leg.
The 35-year-old won Australia’s first ever climbing medal in May when she came first at the Salt Lake City World Cup. She has hit the podium at every international competition since.
On Sunday, the Monash University research coordinator swept the Australian Lead Paraclimbing Nationals at Sydney Indoor Climbing Gym.
“Climbing is kind of like a puzzle that you solve with your body but the atmosphere can be so intense,” she said.
“It’s the only sport I’ve ever been in where people cheer for their competitors.
“We just love to see people like do cool things and we all love climbing. If someone’s doing really well, you’re going to cheer for them. It might mean that you lose and secretly inside you probably want them to fall, but it’s also really awesome to watch.”
Born with congenital difference in her lower limb, Larcombe had her right leg amputated as a baby.
As a child she was a fiercely competitive swimmer who was on track to go to the Paralympics. Then high school started.
Swimming became boring, and Larcombe struggled with her sense of self.
“When you look or feel a bit different, high school puts you out a bit,” she said.
“I spent most of my life trying to hide my disability. But now I’m very happy to wear shorts in public.”
Larcombe is a relative newcomer to sport climbing. She picked it up in 2019 after watching rock climbing documentaries like Free Solo.
“I was always Googling rock climbing gyms and trying to figure out what I could do, but I was terrified to go,” she said.
“I found it so intimidating because I’d never seen anyone disabled rock climbing before.”
She got in touch with Adaptive Climbing Victoria, an organisation that offers venues into climbing for people with disabilities, and learnt to climb lead.
When lead climbing, athletes ascend looming 15-metre-tall walls while strapped into a harness attached to the ceiling.
“It’s like all the fun of bouldering but you are full of confidence because you’re not going to fall off,” she said.
Larcombe entered her first competition in 2020 on a whim.
“I was just so stoked they had a paraclimbing category and I wanted to make sure that they kept it. So I thought, ‘I’m gonna sign up for this just to be a number, so it’s there in the future for anyone else who wants to try’. Then I did the competition and loved it.’”
In the years following, Larcombe blitzed through state competitions.
She hit the international stage at the Paraclimbing World Cup in May. Against the backdrop of Utah’s Big Cottonwood Canyon, Larcombe took out the title, winning gold on her international debut.
Larcombe went on to place second at paraclimbing cups in Austria and Switzerland, and hopes for a shot at the Paralympic title if the sport climbing bid goes through for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.
But getting to the world stage hasn’t been easy,
There is almost no funding available for paraclimbers. Searching for support was like picking up a second full-time job, Larcombe said.
She contacted every government organisation possible. Of all the grants she scrolled past, only one was set aside for athletes with disabilities and it was limited to those between the ages of 18 and 24, even though many para-athletes trend older.
In the end, Larcombe received a few hundred dollars from her local council, and made up the rest through sponsors.
Larcombe said accessibility programs like Adaptive Climbing Victoria or Able Climbing NSW help push the sport to the next level by improving the pool of athletes and bringing more eyes to paraclimbing.
“The reason everybody on the Australian paraclimbing team is from Melbourne is because of Adaptive Climbing Victoria,” she said.
“They have been so instrumental in building the community and creating inclusive opportunities for people with disabilities to try climbing. And once they come and try it, so many people come back.”
Those with visual impairments scale climbs with headphones, listening to instructors on the ground as they feel their way up the wall.
Others climb with a series of prosthetics or motor-physical difficulties, some pulling their entire body weight up the wall with just their arms.
“The things paraclimbers do are insane. They are really destroying the limits of what you think a person can do with their body,” Larcombe said.