It's hard to believe that the last IFSC Boulder World Cup was 22 months ago in Vail, Colorado in June 2019. A whole season was lost to the pandemic in what should have been the biggest year in competition climbing to date. Tokyo 2020 became Tokyo 202(0ne), and goalposts and priorities shifted with it. Last weekend, the much-loved IFSC circuit stop of Meiringen in Switzerland marked a long-awaited return to normality of sorts, albeit with masked faces, eclectic music choices and minimal spectators. The event also offered a chance for Tokyo-qualified athletes to gauge their level, while the next generation could finally burst onto the scene.
Much has changed in the world in the last 22 months, but one constant remains: Janja Garnbret is still on top of the podium. Since her historic win in Vail, where she achieved a clean sweep of the 2019 Boulder season, Garnbret made history once again in Meiringen by securing her eighth consecutive IFSC Boulder World Cup win in a row (with back-to-back World Championships in Boulder and Combined in 2018 and 2019, a reclaimed Lead title in 2019 and a triple win in Lead, Boulder and Combined at the IFSC World Championships in Hachioji in between).
Unsurprisingly, Garnbret's casual domination of the event in Meiringen, where she completed all boulders with just four second-attempts required, has been the talk of the virtual climbing town since Saturday night. If the entire climbing sphere, media and indeed anyone who is aware of her prowess is placing pressure and expectations on Garnbret's shoulders ahead of the Games, she doesn't seem to be feeling it as she nears the biggest event of her career. At times, Garnbret can appear nonchalant or bored at events, even when she's winning, but she visibly revelled in the limelight in Meiringen, clearly delighted to be back on the world stage and on top form. Her signature 'scorpion' flick move was performed multiple times, a sure sign that she is relaxed and in full commitment to coordination movements. As an athlete who claims to climb her best when she's having fun, if Garnbret can maintain this happy-go-lucky attitude in Tokyo, she'll be incredibly hard to beat.
"I really enjoyed it. We haven't had any competitions [in 2021] so far so it's good to be back," Garnbret told the IFSC. "I was training hard last year and this year, so I'm feeling confident going into the season with the biggest goal being in August. Back to training!"
While Garnbret has been touted as 'The Queen' of competitions on social media, the title of 'The King' has rightfully been bestowed on Adam Ondra, who seemed equally at home on the boulders in Meiringen. Perhaps the simple pleasure of travelling and competing again is relieving the stress for this dominant duo, but whatever it is, Ondra was equally ecstatic to be on the mats. While coordination moves are not his forté, Ondra manoeuvred through more conventional moves - and the now-classic Meiringen jamming crack - with consummate ease. A win for Ondra wasn't a dead-cert from the off as Yoshiyuki Ogata claimed the only top of B1, but as John Branch remarked in The New York Times in 2020, 'with Ondra, there is always a sense that the hardest part is ahead.' He is adept at treating climbs - and their individual moves - as discrete challenges with an open mind, seemingly holding little concern for what has gone before and what might come next. Since Ondra's famous schooling of the Japanese team in crack climbing in Meiringen 2019, progress has been made by many teams as they turn their hand to this conventional rock climbing skill. This was Ondra's 20th World Cup gold medal.
"It was amazing to compete even though there were no spectators, the competitors themselves made such an amazing vibe," Ondra told the IFSC. "I was falling on the last boulder, but I kept on pushing and kept on moving, and all of a sudden reaching the top was an explosion of emotion."
Garnbret and Ondra were undeniably the stars of the show, but one young up-and-coming climber arrived at the top before many people had even had the chance to learn her name. 16-year-old Oriane Bertone (FRA) is well-known for her boulder ascents up to 8C and her World Youth Championship wins in 2019, so it was with bated breath that her coaches, teammates and followers watched her IFSC World Cup debut last weekend. Throughout the event, Bertone was hot on Garnbret's heels, often matching her tops but requiring just one or two extra attempts after rushing a move or struggling with a long reach (Bertone is only 164cm tall). In her youthful exuberance, Bertone rushed some attempts and seemed a little flustered on B1, but she soon found her flow in the finals and demonstrated an exceptional ability for finding alternative beta to suit her stature. Bertone wowed the crowd as she beat the buzzer to the top of B3 in a matter of milliseconds. She showed a similar flair for coordination movements as Garnbret and with a confidence boost following her 2nd place and more experience, Bertone will be vying for the top spot in no time.
There were parallels between Bertone's breakout performance and that of her late compatriot Luce Douady, who made finals in her senior debut at the last World Cup in Vail in 2019 at the age of 15, but sadly passed away almost a year to the day later in June 2020 in a fall from a walk-in at a crag near her home. In Meiringen, Bertone picked up where Douady so promisingly left off, showing that despite last summer's tragic loss, the French team continue to shine in her legacy. 16-year-old Mejdi Schalck (FRA) placed 12th in his debut World Cup, showing equally strong potential amid a seasoned field of older competitors.
Likewise, Team USA's 'secret weapon', as she has been described by Alex Johnson, otherwise known as 19-year-old Natalia Grossman, proved that she is one to watch by finishing in 3rd place. Grossman won the USA Bouldering Nationals earlier this month and first showed potential in Vail 2019, when she narrowly missed out on finals in 7th place, before placing 2nd in the World Youth Championships in 2019 in both Boulder and Combined. Grossman demonstrates exceptional slab and coordination skills, in addition to world-class strength. She is undoubtedly a contender for Paris 2024. 20-year-old Sohta Amagasa (JPN) confidently filled the big boots of absent Japanese heavy hitters such as Tomoa Narasaki and Kai Harada, qualifying in 2nd and 4th in the earlier rounds and finishing 6th in the final. Japan occupied four of the six men's final spots, while Slovenians made up half of the women's final. It's difficult to analyse how the pandemic has shaped particular teams or individuals, but the teams who appear to have been able to train as a group at a dedicated facility - including Team USA, Team Japan, Team Slovenia and Team France - were performing well.
In the run-up to Tokyo, this season was always going to be a mixed bag participation- and rankings-wise. Whether through personal choice or enforcement by federations or authorities, there were absences from the Olympic roster. Team GB's Shauna Coxsey announced a few weeks ago that the uncertainty surrounding travel and quarantine had resulted in her decision not to attend, which ultimately became the case for the rest of the GB Climbing Team, for whom quarantine exemption could not be arranged. The Canadian federation - boasting two qualified athletes, Alannah Yip and Sean McColl - opted not to send a team to the event. Interestingly, over half of the 40 Olympic ticket-holders chose - or were at least able - to compete in Meiringen: 11 Tokyo-qualified women and 12 Tokyo-qualified men. 7 of these qualified women and 4 men reached semis, and 2 and 2 reached finals respectively.
Given that the Games are fewer than 100 days away, it's unfair to judge the performances of these athletes who are each tailoring their training to an event in August which consists of three different disciplines. That said, the higher Tokyo seeds were high-ranking - especially in the women's event, with Garnbret, Noguchi, Nonaka and Raboutou looking on-form - and many of the qualified climbers falling just outside of either the finals or semis cut-off: Megos (8th), Hojer (23rd) and Schubert (23rd) in the men's, and Nonaka (7th), Raboutou (9th), Condie (21st), Klingler (21st) and Meshkova (23rd) in the women's. It's remarkable that Oriane Bertone (16) was competing in the same final as Noguchi (31), who is almost twice her age and has been competing since before Bertone was born. Although Noguchi appeared low on power in the finals, it's likely that she is managing her training to peak for August. Nathaniel Coleman (USA) made his first Boulder finals since his breakthrough year in 2015, when he placed 2nd in two World Cup finals, placing 5th with an impressive top of B4, a feat matched only by Adam Ondra. Coleman is likely to be a major threat in Boulder in Tokyo if he can carry his current form.
Credit has to be given where it's due to the routesetters, who faced the biggest unknown of any competition to date when it came to judging the current level of a global field of athletes who have lived through the pandemic with varying levels of access to facilities at different stages since March 2020. Matt Groom deftly filled the gap left by former IFSC commentator Charlie Boscoe, helped along by excellent analysis from Staša Gejo (SRB). Despite the lack of spectators, MC Christopher Hardy and the onlooking athletes and coaches created enough ambience to make it seem like a vaguely normal competition, despite the dance tunes throwing us all back to the '90s. Whatever year it was, and whatever the circumstances, it was certainly a great show to kick off a (hopefully) monumental year for Sport Climbing,