IFSC Commentator Charlie Boscoe reports on the 2020 Pan-American Championships in Los Angeles, where two more Olympic berths were up for grabs...
With the Olympic Selection event having taken place in Toulouse in late November, the IFSC end of season break was always going to be shorter than normal, but the Pan-American Championships in late February meant that for climbers in North, Central and South America, there was barely a pause for breath. The Pan-Am Championships sees the best athletes of those continents come together for a battle of supremacy and this year it took place in Los Angeles, with an Olympic slot available to the highest placed eligible climber of each gender.
I would have written "the winners" there, but with the USA having already filled its 2 female Olympic slots (with Brooke Raboutou and Kyra Condie), their women were gunning only for the glory of winning the Championship, not for a place at Tokyo 2020. That left the door open for a Canadian or a climber from South or Central America to swoop in and book their ticket to Japan. Over on the men's side, no Pan-American country had 2 climbers already qualified, so things were much more open and neither Sean McColl (CAN) nor Nathaniel Coleman (USA) - the only Pan-American climbers already qualified for the Olympics - took part in LA so it was a straight fight for the win.
The whole Championship took place across 7 days, but the crucial part (at least as far as Olympic selection was concerned) was the Combined finals which took place on the final 2 days. Generally we (the IFSC Livestream team) don't cover Continental Championships, but with Olympic tickets being handed out, we were asked to go over and provide coverage of the event. Being the kind and gracious guys we are, we accepted, and while it's tough going to California for a week in February, I've always felt that one of the reasons I'm universally liked and admired is that I don't grumble.
We were actually only live for the 2 final days, but the crew had to get set up a couple of days early so as not to get in the way during the qualifying days, and I went out a few days beforehand so that I could do some high quality touristing and trail running around the Hollywood area. We did also produce highlights from the qualifying days so it wasn't all runs around Topanga State Park and beers on Sunset Strip….If it makes you feel any better, a last minute glitch with my US ESTA saw me paying a visit to the US Embassy in Vienna 22 hours before my flight and I was only sure of going with about 12 hours to spare. I'm blaming Trump.
Once the action got underway the tension was thick and no one climber really stamped their authority on the event, making for a pretty dramatic finish to both the men's and women's competitions. On the women's side Alanah Yip (CAN) was a strong favourite having come close to qualifying for the Olympics in Hachioji, and then coming even closer in Toulouse back in November. Her experience and raw horsepower seemingly put her head and shoulders above everyone else, but being favourite comes with its own unique pressures.
On the qualifying day Alannah looked off form and only made it through to the final in 6th, well behind her rivals for the Olympic slot. Looking in much better form were Alejandra Contreras (CHI) and Valentina Aguado (ARG) who finished 2nd and 3rd respectively, not to mention Lauren Bair (USA) who topped the qualifying rankings. Joining the 4 aforementioned climbers in the final were Norah Chi and Emma Hunt (USA), plus Rebecca Frangos (CAN) and Andrea Rojas (ECU).
The men's qualifying round went a little more to script, with the 4 Americans - Sean Bailey, Zach Galla, Zander Waller and Colin Duffy - all making it to the final, and Carlos Granja and Danny Valencia (ECU), José Ramón Santos Buhl (MEX) and Cesar Grosso (BRA) joining them. I felt that Sean Bailey (who topped the qualifying rankings) was favourite given his Boulder and Lead prowess, but he'd have some serious competition, doubly so because his Speed is not great and he'd therefore likely be playing catchup after the first discipline in the final. Colin Duffy (who has been one of the stars of recent Youth World Championships) looked comfortably the best Lead climber in the qualifiers and was the only person to find a top, so that only increased the pressure on Sean. Colin is the real deal and he's slowly transforming into a top competitor - I think he'll be making World Cup finals within the next few seasons and his fighting style makes him brilliant to watch. I certainly didn't think that him swooping in and taking the Olympic slot was out of the question.
The women's final was on Saturday and you could have cut the tension with a knife in Sender One LAX (the gym hosting the event) when I arrived that day. The drama only increased when the Speed climbing went completely off script and left Emma Hunt 7th (despite her being the clear favourite to win the discipline), Rebecca Frangos 4th (even though she was the slowest Speed climber of the lot), Alannah 5th, Alejandra 3rd and Valentina 2nd (and in a very strong position). Andrea won the Speed but her Boulder and Lead are not super strong, so I never really felt that she'd be able to hang on to that lead for the rest of the day.
Come the Boulder round Alannah showed her superiority and found 3 tops, which nobody else could match. Things started to get away from Valentina on the boulders when she initially couldn't do the first one and then had to tape a cut which was bleeding on the holds and burned a load of valuable time as she got it taped. Incredibly enough, she didn't have any tape of her own so in the heat of the moment one of the IFSC officials had to grab some and tear a piece off for her. Given that you have to tape any cut that is bleeding on a boulder, it seemed ridiculous that she hadn't brought any onto the stage with her. I spoke to some experienced IFSC athletes later on and the general consensus was that she'd made a big mistake by not taking any tape - virtually everyone has some with them just in case they have to quickly apply it. Having "won" the Boulder part of the qualifying round, Valentina ended up 7th in the same discipline in the final. Sometimes it's the little things that kill you and her day felt like death by a thousand cuts.
Alejandra, meanwhile, kept plugging away and matched her 3rd in Speed with 3rd in Boulder. Rebecca also had a good Boulder round, finishing 4th, and it would have been even better if she could have got the job done on the final boulder.
And so, it was onto Lead. Given that the climbers have known about the Olympics since 2016, it was impossibly tense knowing that over the course of less than an hour, one climber's 4 year long dream would be realised and 4 other athletes would have theirs shattered. Valentina didn't have a great run on the Lead route (which was excellent by the way - kudos to Christian Bindhammer (GER) and his team) and you could see on her face when she came down that she knew it was all over. Given that she was 2nd in Speed in the final and had looked in such good form on the qualifying day it must have been a tough pill to swallow, but she is young, determined and talented so her day will come. I suspect that probably isn't much consolation right now.
Eventually, as the Lead competition progressed, it simply became a straight fight between Alannah and Alejandra for the win, with whoever finished higher on the wall taking the victory and the Olympic place. Alejandra fought like hell and set a new high point which Alannah then had to beat (not that she - having been in the isolation zone - knew that of course). Alannah paused just below the key few moves, launched into them all wrong but somehow kept going and got a move further than Alejandra, thereby sealing her spot at Tokyo 2020. When she came down Rebecca was straight over to her to break the news and both of them immediately burst into tears. In the commentary box things also got a little misty eyed and for the first time in 5 years doing this job, I had to turn my mic off for 10 seconds while I cleared the lump in my throat. It wasn't so much that Alannah (who, admittedly, I've always liked) had won, it was just impossible to not react to her emotion, doubly so because she'd come achingly close to achieving her dream twice in the last 6 months.
Her rivals for the Olympic ticket were straight over to congratulate her and although you could see that they were hurting, everyone was sporting and humble enough to recognise that the best climber had won. Sport can be horrifically cruel sometimes and it was impossible not to be impressed at how Valentina and Alejandra reacted to Alannah's success. They and their supporters can be extremely proud of how they conducted themselves all week and I for one would love to see them both make it to Paris 2024.
Almost as an afterthought, Lauren Bair showed her Lead climbing prowess by finding a top of the route to cap a wonderful and emotional day. Even after the crowd had left the venue there were still tears flowing and I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for Rebecca, who was initially over the moon just to make the final but must have, in the 48 hours between the qualifying and the conclusion of the final, allowed herself to picture herself on top of the podium, especially after such a strong start in the Speed final and on the first 2 boulders. She was emotional after the day's events and torn between being happy for Alannah and slightly disappointed herself, but she said that she'd never climbed better than she did in Los Angeles and she couldn't have done any more. She's still young and will have another shot in a few years' time but sometimes getting close stings a little more than missing by miles.
As everyone drifted out into the warm California evening, it seemed hard to picture doing it all again the next day…
The men's final contained 4 Americans and I thought that realistically the fight for the win would be between them and Carlos Granja (ECU), although it was great to have Carlos's compatriot Danny Valencia, Brazil's Cesar Grosso and Mexico's José Ramón Santos Buhl in the mix too.
In the Speed, Zach Galla (USA) took the win in a horribly messy final race ahead of Carlos, who I felt really needed to win Speed to stand a realistic chance of taking the overall victory. Sean Bailey (who was most people's favourite for the gold medal) was 8th in Speed, which left him with a mountain to climb, but one which he had the skills to conquer.
On the boulders we ran into a problem we see in IFSC World Cups, particularly amongst the women, in that there was a gulf in ability between the best and the weakest climbers, making the route setters' job all but impossible. Cesar and José Ramón couldn't find a top but the 4 Americans topped all 3 boulders. How the route setters are supposed to set a fair round for all the competitors is beyond me but I think that if they had their time again they might have made the boulders a bit harder - I guess you just have to set for the best climber and if others can't match that level then that is their problem. Doing that doesn't always create a great show though, so it really is a bit of a conundrum because ultimately live sport is about putting on a show. Answers on a postcard about how to solve this issue would be much appreciated.
When all was said and done, Zander Waller (USA) was first on the boulders with his 3 compatriots - Colin Duffy, Sean Bailey and Zach Galla - in 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively. That left Sean with an even bigger mountain to climb and ruled him out of the overall win following on from his bad start to the day on the Speed wall. I really like Sean but as I've said before on this website, he's lacking the competitive fire required to convert his talent into the results it deserves. Apparently he got back to the States after narrowly missing out on Olympic qualification in Toulouse back in November and told his coach that he would do whatever it took to book his Tokyo ticket in Los Angeles. That's great, but it's too little too late - everyone else made that decision long before embarking on the journey to qualification. Sean had the ability to easily make it to Tokyo but just never seemed to really commit to doing so until his best chances at it were gone. Sadly for him, he now has a lifetime to reflect on what might have been had he discovered his inner fire a little earlier.
On the morning of the women's final we attended a fascinating press conference at a hotel near Sender One where the 3 confirmed US Olympians were paraded in front of the media and it really brought it home to me just how life-changing Olympic qualification is for American athletes. Kyra, Brooke and Nathaniel all told me how their phones had been ringing non-stop since they booked their tickets to Japan, and Sean must look at them now and kick himself. Folks, if you have a dream then get off the couch and start kicking doors down because none of us are getting out of here alive and you only get one shot. Sorry, things got a little deep (not to mention off-topic) there.
On the Lead wall, Colin Duffy was a clear favourite having found the only top on the qualifying Lead route. He delivered the performance required by topping the final Lead route and crucially did so quicker than Sean, who'd earlier topped the route and received a cruel reminder of just how close he'd been to that Olympic dream.
As Colin lowered down it wasn't clear if he realised what he'd done, and it was slightly surreal going crazy in the commentary box while watching a 16 year old quietly taking his climbing shoes off without any outward sign of emotion about having just qualified for the Olympics. Even after the podium ceremony and the broadcast were over he seemed remarkably calm and un-emotional. His parents were similarly relaxed about the whole thing and there was no screaming or jumping up and down - they're a restrained bunch, the Duffys. Regardless of not giving us an "Alannah" moment, I was chuffed to bits for Colin, who has been one of the stars of recent Youth World Championships and who has an amazing, determined style not dissimilar to his old rival in Youth comps, Alberto Ginez Lopez. The prospect of those 2 going head to head in senior comps in the coming years is mouth-watering - they both climb like their lives depend on it and it makes for a fabulous show. They'll both be at the Olympics and I personally think that there are worse bets than sticking a tenner on them both making the final. They'll be under no pressure, they are fierce competitors and both have the horsepower to match their determination - a decent combination for success in high level sport.
From a broadcasting perspective the event was a pleasure to cover. There were one or two technical issues happening behind the scenes (which hopefully weren't noticeable most of the time, although I know they became painfully obvious at the end of each final when my throws to the winner interviews completely missed the mark) but having Meagan Martin alongside me made a huge difference and helped to smooth over any problems. She's a polished broadcaster, provides excellent insight and is fun and funny in equal measure. Hopefully I'll be able to get her to join me in the World Cup in Salt Lake City in June. USA Climbing, the IFSC officials and the staff of Sender One were all excellent to work with too and my job was made much easier by having such competent and enthusiastic people around me.
So, Colin Duffy and Alannah Yip have punched their Olympic tickets and the next climbers hoping to do likewise will compete at the European Championships in Moscow at the end of March. It's going to be tense…speak to you then.
Alannah Yip (CAN)
Alejandra Contreras (CHI)
Lauren Bair (USA)
Andrea Rojas (ECU)
Becca Frangos (CAN)
Norah Chi (USA)
Valentina Aguado (ARG)
Emma Hunt (USA)
Colin Duffy (USA)
Zach Galla (USA)
Zander Waller (USA)
Sean Bailey (USA)
Carlos Granja (ECU)
Danny Valencia (ECU)
Cesar Grosso (BRA)
José Ramón Santos Buhl (MEX)