Adam Ondra’s New Film Reveals Some of the Darker Sides of Greatness

This article originally appeared on Climbing

Adam Ondra sat with his eyes closed while a man rubbed the side of his nose vigorously. You could vaguely hear his caraledge shifting, and it looked painful.

"What are these points?" Ondra says.

"This is going for the lower, middle, and upper body," says the man, indicating the lower, middle, and upper parts of the nose. "We are going for the knee."

For the world's best climber, it comes down to that. Getting everything balanced just so--even his nose, or rather his knee--so that he can perform his best.


"Adam Ondra: Pushing the Limits" depicts an at times uncomfortably intimate window into the athlete’s life while focusing on Ondra's preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The film puts you right there with him--while he trains and projects, through all the requisite highs and lows. It aims to answer the central question: What is the price of success?

One of the first scenes of the film shows Ondra up on a ladder while digging behind his homewall. He emerges with arms full of medals and trophies. The camera pans over to a massive closet that Ondra's wife, Iva, is wiping down. "Basically, you became successful when you started going out with me," says Iva. "You finally had the right support." She smiles while adjusting medals along the shelf.

Ondra is smiling, too. He adds another armload to the shelves, and, in the next shot, they're completely full. He comments that he's excited for Iva to add her own trophies to the shelves, although it's clear, to this viewer anyway, that they won't fit.

Iva is a central character throughout the film. A dominant competitor herself, she placed 25th in the 2019 Lead World Championships, and in 2017, she ticked three 8c’s (5.14b). But right from the start of the film, it's clear how much of her own climbing she has sacrificed to support Adam.

They're out cragging, and Ondra falls on a 9b. He screams, "I am so weak!" He pulls back on.

Iva, belaying, talks to the camera.

"It's not possible to have two ambitious people as a couple," she says. "We both try to reach our goals, but it won't work. It basically starts already when we go to the crag. Adam has nothing to climb in the sectors where I find most routes for myself, because he already climbed all the routes when he was 9 or 10. When we go to sectors with new routes and projects, there are very few easy lines. So I figured that Adam's climbing is more important. He can still achieve in many areas and achieve so much. So I was the one that backed off so that we could be together." She speaks slowly, and she's crying.

Adam comes down, fuming that he's not performing, and she wraps her arms around him.

And it's not just Iva. Ondra has so many others at his back as well. Healers, coaches, and, obviously, cameramen. The film ultimately reveals how much goes into every step of his life, from getting shots for his YouTube channel to giving interviews to video-chatting with trainers to visualizing and, of course, to training and competing. He seems both surrounded and, at times, lonely. Gradually, the film makes it clear that Ondra's achievements have been made possible by all the moments in between them, moments which are meticulously monitored, scheduled, and crafted. Much like his nose massage, many of these moments look painful.

The film's strength is also its weakness. The 75-minute film spans three years of Ondra's life, and the viewer starts to feel disoriented and even confused for the absence of context. Early on in the film, you meet his dad--except you don't realize it's his dad until a scene later when it's implied. You see Adam meeting with someone who appears to be a nun, except you're not sure why. You see lots and lots of training shots, and you wonder what his schedule actually is. It's more art than documentary. It relies on flashes of life to tell the story, but since those flashes lack context, the actual mechanics of the story are never truly clear.

In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, you see Ondra's final sessions. He's touching base with coaches, he's doing campus laps, and he's clearly stressed. There's this scene where Iva and Adam are sitting in Adam's van following a training session in Innsbruck.

"The Olympics is partially an obligation," says Iva. "Although he won't admit it. He'll say that he's looking forward to it and has chosen it."

Adam crosses his arms.

"Yes, I lie to myself," he says.

If you're looking for reprieve from the prolonged stress--it won't come. That year-long delay in the Olympic schedule was a tough one for Adam, and it's no wonder that he, like many Olympic athletes, took long periods off from competing aftwards. It made me wish the film ended later than it did. Perhaps with Baby Hugo, who was born about nine months after the Olympics. But perhaps that would have been a bit too Holywood. Some periods of life just need to be appreciated for what they are.

The film is available on demand Nov 1. Click here to watch.

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