'Go,' shouts a voice behind him, and Chingkheinganba Maibam sets off.
The 53-foot high, grey-painted wall looming over him has 'nope' written all over it. 20 amoeboid protuberances, about an inch wide at their most helpful, and less than a centimeter wide in others, and another 10 sized knobs are the only bits of help he has, to push himself off his toes, or pull himself up with the tips of his fingers. It's not just enough to accomplish this vertigo-inducing challenge -- Maibam is being timed as well.
It's only his first practice session on the wall at the Indian Mountaineering Foundation's New Delhi campus. It has rained and so his grip on the holds aren't perfectly secure.
None of this though seems to particularly bother him.
He powers up the wall. He entirely skips the ninth and seventeenth hold. There's a bit of a slip but he hardly pauses to check his footing before continuing scrambling higher, before tapping the top of the wall to stop the clock. It's in the range of eight seconds.
Sport climber Maibam Chingkheingamba, 15, is amongst the youngest participants at the Asian Games. Despite his ability on a sheer 53 foot wall, he insists he is more of a Deadpool fan pic.twitter.com/fN0TwyVpNm
- jonathan selvaraj (@jon_selvaraj) 15 August 2018
Even while you know this is what Maibam has trained for ahead of the Asian Games -- where he will represent the country in the sport climbing event -- this is still superhero-level stuff. A compatriot of his jokes: "Maybe he's gonna shoot out webs from his wrists next."
Clambering sheer walls in a sprint isn't the only thing Maibam has in common with the protagonist of Spiderman. Much like Peter Parker in the Homecoming edition of the Marvel franchise, Maibam too is a high school student, balancing the life of a regular teenager with the superhero kind of stuff.
Maibam, however, is admittedly more of a Deadpool fan.
At 15 years, nine months and twenty two days at the start of the Asian Games, Maibam is the youngest member of the 524-member Indian contingent for the Asian Games, beating out shooter Anish Bhanwala who is a month older. But he's had competition from his own teammates too. 16-year-old Shreya Nankar and 18-year-old Bharat Pereira complete the sport climbing squad - the youngest across the 38 teams representing India that are traveling to Indonesia.
While he's barely old enough to vote, Pereira is already considered the senior statesman of the team. And in terms of experience, he may have well earned that title. "The others joke that when I was born, I immediately started climbing," he says. They aren't off by much. Pereira first began climbing as a five-year old in Bengaluru's Sri Kanteerava Stadium. "I went there to accompany my sisters who were climbers. Before I knew it, I began climbing too," he recalls.
Climbing was a family sport for both Nankar and Maibam too. Pune girl Nankar's father took her for her first trek when she was four. "I climbed about half the way and he carried me the other half," she recalls. On the other hand, Maibam's uncle Chitrasen Singh was a high-level sport climber and rope setter in the 2000s.
But while his two colleagues were naturals on the course -- Nankar says she climbed to within two holds of completing the beginners wall on her first attempt on January 1st, 2013 -- Maibam had a less than encouraging start. "I took him to the wall and tried to push him a little too hard," recalls Chitrasen. Then only seven years old, Maibam was given a dynamic belay -- a technique in which the safety rope attached to the climber is given a bit of slack to allow for a softer break in case of a fall. After missing a hold, Maibam slipped and fell a long way before stopping. While he was harnessed safely by his uncle, he got the fright of his life. "Height se bahut dar gat tha us din. Kaafi time se wapas nahi aya woh (He developed a fear of heights that day. He didn't come back for a long time after that)," he says.
Eventually, he did though. "It took me two years to get over the fear of climbing that high. But I really enjoy it now," Maibam says.
Competitive climbing consists of three disciplines -- speed, lead and bouldering. While 'speed' is a sprint, 'lead' is where climbers attempt to follow a long preset route on the face of the wall and 'bouldering' is when they have to solve a series of technical problems on a short wall.
Each event prioritises different muscle groups. While lead and boulder climbers are light and wiry like marathon runners, speed climbers are built like sprinters. Maibam, Pereira believes, has a physique almost perfectly designed for speed climbing. "He's just incredibly powerful. He's stronger than a lot of grown ups," he says. "I can't do a single one-armed pull up from a one centimeter wide hold, but Maibam can do ten of those."
Maibam already holds the national speed climbing record of 7.10 seconds, which he recorded in a competition in Jamshedpur earlier this year. But while he excels in that discipline, he prefers another. "Bouldering and lead climbing are more fun because you are doing something creative. There are several ways of solving a problem, so that is more challenging for a climber," says Maibam.
All three are strong in the latter two events. Maibam and Nankar are national champions in their age group event and have also medalled in international competitions -- Maibam a silver and Nankar a bronze medalist at the 2015 Asian Youth Championships. However, in India, it is Pereira who is the undisputed champion of lead climbing, winning that event at every national championship from 2011 until 2017 (when he competed for the first time in the senior category).
Despite their achievements, the trio have had to deal with challenges not of their making. To begin with, sport climbing isn't run by a federation of its own. Rather, ever since its introduction some 23 years ago, it is run by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, that has to balance both alpine climbing as well as the sport variety. As it isn't a part of the National Sports Federation, it receives only a token amount of funding from the government to run its operations. There are relatively few publicly accessible walls to practice. Moreover, there are only two speed walls in the country -- which means athletes have to train in either Bhubaneswar or New Delhi before they head for competitions.
Eight players were originally named in the squad -- a number that was pruned to three. What gave Pereira, Maibam and Nankar the edge was that they had won medal in Asian age group championships. But those wins too told a story of their own.
As an unrecognized sport, medals won by climbers don't count for for jobs in the manner that those won in other sports can. That's one of the reasons Pereira gives for why all of the 30-odd medals won by India in international competition have come from age group athletes. "Most athletes will have to prioritise other things as we get older,' he says.
Unlike shooting wonderkid Anish Bhanwala, who was permitted to postpone his class 10th board exams in order to compete in April's Commonwealth Games, no such concessions were made for Nankar and Maibam who were preparing for the Asian Games selection trials. "I was writing my exams but I continued to practice on the wall between the papers," says Nankar, who cleared her boards with 93 percent while Maibam too scored a handy 83 percent.
Despite the challenges in their route, it is a shared passion for climbing that keeps them going. "I would be studying for my exams but my fingers would be tingling because they wanted to be on the wall," says Pereira. And so after passing out of school, he's taken a gap year in which he will only be climbing. "I want to just train on the wall for an entire season. When I sleep, I just want to dream about climbing," says Pereira who, following the Games will become the first Indian sport climber to represent the country at the Youth Olympics.
The Asian Games, he admits will be a difficult competition -- the World record in the speed climb, for instance, is just 5.48 seconds -- but it is an important learning curve. "We really can't compare ourselves to the best in Asia. The best teams from Japan and Korea are training for eight hours a day. They have the best climbing infrastructure. And they can build on the experience of previous generations too. For us, it will be an experience simply to be competing with them."
It isn't all gloom though. The sport will get some much-needed visibility with the Games, and athletes like the trio participating in Palembang, expect even more interest to be piqued considering the sport will become a medal event at the 2020 Olympics. "The generation of sport climbers coming up is one of the best we are seeing. Even someone like Maibam could become one of the best climbers in India," says Pereira. "Sport climbing is still very young in India. The only place we can go is up."