Last month I was traveling across the Atlantic for one of the biggest climbing competitions in the world. I may have been the least experienced person at the 12-day comp, since the closest I’ve ever been to a climbing competition prior to this was watching the IFSC’s YouTube stream from my desk.
This comp was big for me for a lot of reasons. Professionally it was a big deal since I was representing the Perfect Descent Climbing Systems’ brand in front of a global audience, at the same time I was learning the ropes of official climbing competition. Personally this event was inspiring, and not just in a way that makes for good headlines. I got to watch the world’s best young climbers crush routes in a competition that had real effects on their possible Olympic dreams. There is something the reverberates within me about being present at this “starting line” of this new Olympic journey. It’s exciting because this competition matters to a lot to people. Ashima Shiriashi, Brooke Rabutou, and Kai Lightner of the USA, Daria Kahn of Russia, Yoshiuki Ogata, and one of the hometown favorites, Sandra Lettner, all showed up in a big way, serious about their efforts in each discipline with the knowledge that it could mean a spot on an Olympic team for them.
But its bigger than me, of course, it’s bigger for the sport of climbing as this year’s Youth World Climbing Championship (YWCH) was the first (ever) to have a “combined” event included in the format. Since the Olympic announcement last year, the IFSC and the IOC have been working to clarify to the competitive climbing community how this “combined format” will work. The organizers of the YWCH, Austria Climbing, were the first to be charged with executing this format on a world stage. The effects of this responsibility were weighty, since the world’s top finishers in the Youth A category in this first combined event would win coveted spots for the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aries happening next Fall. And the winners of the YOG in Buenos Aries will then have the opportunity to fill spots for qualifications for the Tokyo Olympic Games…and the dominoes of importance continue to fall.
But I digress. For those unfamiliar with youth sport climbing competitions, there are 3 age divisions for each discipline of climbing. The youngest competitors in the Youth Comps are 14 years old and fill out the Youth B category along with 15 year olds. Youth A, the most competitive of the divisions, are comprised of 16 and 17 year olds, and the Juniors division rounds out the youths with the 18 and 19 year olds. Some may ask why the Youth A’s would be the most competitive division when compared to the Juniors who have a year or two more of competitive experiences under their belt. It comes down to the effects of regular life for those oldest youth competitors. They are applying to colleges and in some cases are in their freshman year learning how to get along in their new futures all while trying to keep up their athletic training routines. The Youth A category is the equivalent to college football teams with athletes who are playing their hearts out to make it into the NFL. Each division held their own and had athletes who stood out among the masses. Here’s a look at how the comp played out and some of the big names in each discipline:
Opening Ceremonies & Bouldering - Days 1 thru 4
The 30th of August was the official start to the 2017 YWCH which included the first round of bouldering qualifications and the Opening Ceremonies. The opening ceremonies were styled after Olympic opening ceremonies with a parading of every country’s team with flags flying high and phones in the athletes’ hands recording the fanfare for their social media accounts feed. The host country had traditional dancers perform to traditional music of accordion and guitar along with city and IFSC leaders to extend gratitude and blessing over this international event.
The bouldering competition was my first taste of competition climbing. Excitement was high for athletes, and spectators alike, since it was the kick off to the Youth Worlds. Bouldering a sport that asks people to find the solution to a puzzle, in the air…without a rope or a belayer. These puzzles are built by route setters, plugging holds and volumes into the wall in such a way to challenge the mind and body of climbers. The competitors run out at the start of their 5 minutes and hand their score sheet to the judge and then begin to stare down these problems for the first time (these are hidden from view from the athletes before comps) in the attempt to “solve” the problem mentally first before attempting it physically. Then their hand-miming turns to contortions of their bodies, hoping find the top or at least the “bonus” hold in the least amount of attempts possible.
Bouldering qualifications took two days with all the competitors in the field. Once narrowed, the Semi and Finals’ excitement definitely reverberated through the crowd even with the weather changing from hot and sunny to cool and rainy. The Japanese boulders were strong and placed in 9 of the 18 podium spots for the males and females. In the end, the American ladies took 1st (Ashima Shiraishi) and 3rd (Brooke Raboutou) and one Italian (Flip Schenk) beat out two Japanese climbers for gold in the Youth A category.
Speed Climbing - Days 5 & 6
Speed climbing for me was the main event, since I was there as the speed climbing sponsor. With Perfect Descent having won the 2016 IFSC bid to become the official auto belay for speed climbing, we’ve been working to support major competitions like the YWCH. With 2 Speed Drive Perfect Descent Auto Belays on the indoor speed wall, training was happening for days leading up to the comp on their outdoor speed wall on the 3rd and 4th of September.
A total of 460 competitors in the three age divisions took their mark in side-by-side, knockout races in perfect early fall Alpine weather. There were a few elements in the Speed comp that lead to interesting finishes for the field of athletes. False starts were one of the topics that had coaches and athletes talking, since one false start disqualified athletes entirely. To further the conversation about the fairness of this “one and done” rule, the intermittent disfunction of the timing system added controversy to the actuality of the false starts. The judges and officials of the IFSC handled this issue with professionalism and referred back to race video of the starts to validate the accuracy of the timing system. Even with this issue swirling about in the crowd watching the speed comp, the fastest times and unlikely finishers took the headline spots.
Just as the Japenese showed up in force in Bouldering it is the Russians who have the attention of the world in Speed Climbing. The Russian made up 11 of the 18 podium finishes for both men and women. The fastest times put up for the women was a posted time of 8.34 from the gold medal winner in the Juniors, Daria Kahn (RUS). Neighboring Ukraine was able to claim the fastest time for the men as Kostiantyn Pavlenko posted a 6.37 second time but didn’t make it to the finals. The story of the speed comp was the Ecuadorian in the Juniors, Carlos Granja, who took home the gold and the second fastest time of the competition (6.39 sec) which grabbed the attention of the crowd. Perhaps a lesser known country in speed climbing, Ecuador, is a country with 7 speed walls and a very healthy team of athletes in this smaller discipline of climbing. They will definitely a country to watch as the competition intensifies on the way to the Olympics.
Lead Climbing - Days 7 thru 10
Lead climbing is in stark contrast to speed in almost every aspect. Lead climbing takes time and deliberate moves where dynos, crimpers, slopers and the pitch of the wall all work against the athlete. Time is not a factor in judging, but how high each climber gets on a route. Most of the finals for Lead took place at night and the event organizers made it more of a show with dramatic lighting and spotlights on the competitors. The USA stood out among the top finishers as Ashima Shiraishi and Brooke Raboutou took gold and silver in Youth A, Claire Burfiend took gold in Juniors for the women. For the men, Kai Lightner, grabbed up bronze in Juniors and Colin Duffy, the smallest competitor in the entire field, took gold in Youth B. Just like the presence in Bouldering, Japanese Lead climbers took the majority of the remaining spots, 3 more gold finishes and 5 more silver and bronze.
Combined Event - Days 11 & 12
After a solid week of competition the athletes who were on the list to compete in Combined had already worked hard for podium finishes in the individual events. Now after laying it on the line for each individual event, the athletes had to dig even deeper to do it all again in the first official Combined event. This time they would do all 3 in the same day and the top 6 athletes after a cumulative ranking score in qualifications would move on to the finals. The order of operations was Speed first, then Bouldering and Lead and then the first ever combined winners would be known.
Youth B top finishers were filled with familiar names from the podiums in the individual events, especially the Japanese. Two Japanese ladies, Natsuki Tanii and Futaba Ito, made the podium in every single event and finished 1st and 3rd, respectively in the Combined. Two of the guys who finished in the top three in Bouldering also did so in the combined. For the Juniors, the Japanese force was just as strong as the Youth B category. The top finishers in Bouldering and Lead, Yoshiyuki Ogata and Meichi Narasaki, also took the Combined gold and silver with an American, Kai Lightner, finishing with the bronze. The Austrian crowd got to cheer on one of their own, as Laura Stöckler stood on the first place podium. Russian, Luliia Panteleeva, and American, Margo Hayes took silver and bronze for the ladies.
The pressure was highest for the Youth A competitors as the top athletes in this division would be on their way to the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aries next year. They had the most on the line and knew they had to work their bodies harder than ever, and stay mentally sharp to compete over such a long event. The podium found the guy’s Bouldering champion, Filip Schenk, in second place between French gold medal winner, Sam Avezou, and a Bulgarian, Petar Ivanov, for bronze. The ladies Combined final ended with another hometown favorite, Sandra Lettner, winning gold. Along with Sandra, two of the biggest names in US competition climbing, Ashima Shiraishi and Brooke Raboutou, stood in the silver and bronze spots.
It was incredibly fun to watch these finalists climb onto this podium on the final day of the YWCH in Innsbruck. For these young athletes it was a moment they had worked toward for a year or more. For many of them is was a harder year than previous years since they had been dedicating themselves to a training regimen that included all three disciplines. It has to be hard as a competitive athlete to add in training for a new discipline, for many it was Speed, that then takes time away from their primary focus. With this sacrifice in mind as I watched the awards ceremony, I still saw plenty of smiles beaming from the faces of those who left with a medal from this Combined event at the YWCH.
For some countries, the competition was a training competition to see if their team or certain athletes could compete at this level and a new Olympic format. There were teams there whom had never competed in Speed and had to fight their way through slow times on the speed wall with the hope that their other two rankings would help offset their Speed score, and thus their overall score. What I saw from some of these competitors was determination, a kind of determination that required them to redefine their routine. They wanted the chance at the Combined podium badly enough that they weren’t going to sit out just because they weren’t the best in every category. Competing teaches us about failure and successes and of sacrifice. However, if we don’t compete at all, we never get the chance to know what we’re made of and what we are capable of achieving. Thank you to all the climbing athletes, organizers, coaches, and parents for showing us what determination looks like on a world stage and what it can mean the rest of us in our own lives. Good luck to all of you as the Olympic road stretches out in front of you.