Behind the Scenes of the Innsbruck World Champs: Klaus Isele—Physio on the Road to Tokyo

Adam Ondra was feeling WAY too pumped.

It was the first round of the 2018 Lead World Cup in Arco this past July, and though Ondra advanced despite his debilitating pump, he knew something was wrong.

With bulging forearms, Ondra consulted the one person he thought would have the answer.

“It was obvious, really,” says Klaus Isele.

The 37-year-old Austrian physical therapist has been the on-site physio at nearly every World Cup competition for the past decade. With one quick look at Ondra, he had the issue solved.

“The pectoralis minor was pulling too much because he was in Canada before and the weather was bad. They couldn’t climb so they went to this climbing gym with a steep overhanging area that was much more for breast muscles—so then he just had limited blood flow to his arm.”

In perspective, Ondra’s pump was minor compared to what Klaus usually deals with at a climbing competition.

“Concussions, whip-lash, sprained ankles, broken ankles, dislocation of elbows, dislocation of shoulders, knee pain, broken meniscus, broken ACLS, rupture of pulleys … the list is long,” says Klaus.

And if you’ve ever witnessed any of these injuries happen during a World Cup event, you’ve likely seen Klaus leap onto the mat in mere seconds and immediately stabilize the athlete.

Photo: Vladek Zumr

The World Cup Physio

For Klaus, becoming the physio behind the scenes on the World Cup circuit was a circuitous path. In fact, he was a machinist in his previous life.

“Sometimes it’s hard to know what you really want,” says Klaus. “But I knew at a certain point that I didn’t want to keep going with that because I wasn’t happy.”

Klaus started studying to be a climbing trainer in Austria. However, one day, an instructor of his noticed that a student’s back was out of alignment.

“With one hand and a clicking sound, he fixed the girl’s back during class,” remembers Klaus. "I was like, wow! With that you have feedback. As a machinist, I could make the machine go faster, and in my 9-hour shift, it could produce a thousand pieces more than it used to, and my boss would say, very good. But that’s not really feedback. At least not enough for me.”

Right then, Klaus knew he wanted to become a physio and specialize in climbing.

After years of intense study in physical therapy and osteopathy, he became the physio for the Austrian National Climbing Team.

During his first year on the job, he traveled with the team on the World Cup circuit and provided therapy for the team in all three disciplines: lead, speed and bouldering. The job was demanding, yet exciting.

However, after that year he was faced with an ultimatum.

“After that year I came home, and my partner said, ‘OK, you can choose: it’s the team or me because you’re never at home.’ I had a hard time bargaining and the compromise is that now I’m ‘theoretically’ mainly for the bouldering athletes."

Image: Vladek Zumr

“But,” he adds, “this is the World Championships, and I’m here for everybody: paraclimbing, lead, speed. But mainly I travel around with the bouldering team.”

When Klaus says he’s here for everybody, he means it. Many veterans on the world cup circuit have stories of getting help from Klaus, regardless of their nationality.

“I remember Klaus helping me when I hurt my shoulder in Toronto,” says BD Athlete Claire Buhrfeind. “He’s so good.”

“We have a gentlemen’s agreement,” says Klaus of his relationship with the Austrian team. “I can help people in need after I’ve helped the Austrian team.”

And with his intimate knowledge of climbing related injuries and therapy, Klaus is in high demand. In fact, it wasn’t long before the world’s best climber started knocking on his door.

Physio to the Best Climber in the World

After 10 years on the World Cup circuit, Klaus said his work was feeling a bit “standard.”

“Daniel Woods asked me something about his back and I helped him,” he says. “Sean McColl had something with his shoulder and I helped him. It was always on the World Cup. But you don’t prepare the athlete and you don’t go deeper.”

When Klaus first met Adam, he asked the young crusher if they could meet and make a video together about shoulder injuries. Adam agreed but under one condition:

“He said, ‘yes, but can you help me climb better and stay injury free?’. I said, well if you’re serious write me an email, and the next day I woke up and had six emails! [laughs]”

“He was basically telling me how he was so weak, adds Klaus. “’I can’t do this and can’t do this. Look at this video on YouTube from minute this to this, why is this happening to my body?’”

“I was like, OK, the strongest climber in the world just told you how weak he is. [laughs]”

Suddenly the excitement Klaus had before came rushing back.

With Ondra, Klaus started from the bottom up … literally.

He looked at Adam’s feet and immediately saw room for improvement.

“You can activate the muscles in your toes just like your fingers,” says Klaus. “When you crimp, you feel everything, the little crystal on the tip of one finger, for example. You can do the same with your feet … maybe not 100% the same, but you can activate them more.”

Klaus doesn’t disclose the specific techniques he uses with patients, however, he did mention the results.

“After that training, he needed half a size bigger climbing shoes and he got more feeling in his toes,” he says. “And now he says that he can stand better.”

Helping Ondra Send 5.15d

Klaus also worked extensively with Adam on the route Silence (5.15d). Through video analysis, conference calls, and even a trip to Flatanger, Norway, where the route is, Klaus was able to provide intensive feedback and advice on what Adam’s body was capable of.

“He just didn’t know how to move in certain directions,” says Klaus. “I looked at the film and thought, ‘ok, that’s not possible.’ If you have fully contracted biceps, you can’t contract more, right? So, I changed the pattern, and he came down and was like, ‘wow! I feel so much better.’ And that was beautiful … and then two moves later, he was shut down again!" [laughs]

Klaus continued to work with Adam and even developed a next-level, three-dimensional visualization technique where Ondra could rehearse the moves on the ground, even in the apartment, while he was sick (check out the Silence film to see it in action).

And of course, the rest is history. Ondra took down Silence, and established the world’s hardest sport climb.

The Road to Tokyo

With competition climbing exploding and the Olympics on the horizon, Klaus knows his skills will be in high demand. And as the consummate physio, he’s already analyzing and adapting his techniques to the new format of competing in all three disciplines.

“In the beginning, I thought that participating in all three disciplines would be more stressful for the athletes,” says Klaus. “But now I think that since you train three disciplines, that means that maybe you have fewer overuse injuries from bouldering.”

In other words, if you have to train speed, it may be good for bouldering, according to Klaus.

But he’s still learning from the athletes and is prepared to go to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics.

Now, he’s helping prepare the physios worldwide for the future. In fact, he’s gathering the world cup physios together for workshops and conferences so they can pool their information.

So, what do they think climbers will need help with in the future?

“We discussed what we will see and what we are seeing now, and we agreed that shoulders are the main issue right now, knees are catching up, fingers are still there, but they are more from outdoor climbing.”

“It’s hard to say,” adds Klaus, “but that’s why we are always trying to assess things.”

Learn more about Klaus at his practice: