The second IFSC World Cup of 2021 took place in the new location of Salt Lake City, USA, last weekend. Vail is the usual high-altitude stop in the North American tour, but this year we're spoiled with a double helping of SLC, one weekend after another.
This first event provided something we haven't experienced in a long time: a competition atmosphere. While a huge crowd is still slightly unnerving for many, it was a novelty to hear cheering and the athletes were visibly feeding off this energy and revelling in the sense of normality that it brought. This excitable home crowd played to the advantage of Team USA, seven of whom progressed to semi-finals (5 women, 2 men). Two of these women were the stars of the show: Natalia Grossman (19) and Brooke Raboutou (20).
Best friends and training buddies, the pair achieved their dream of making a World Cup final together. A video showed the women excitedly running up to and hugging one another as the semi-finals finished. As high as the stakes were in front of a home crowd, it was clear that both Grossman - who finished 3rd in Meiringen - and Raboutou were having the time of their lives; any medal would be a bonus, and whoever placed higher, either would be happy for the other. This relaxed elation seemed to enable both to climb to the best of their abilities, and led to a nail-biting final where both would match each other, then inch ahead, and then swap positions at the top.
The first two women's final boulders appeared too easy and passed quickly, despite number 2 apparently being touted as the hardest of the round by setters. Both Raboutou and Grossman flashed these and set themselves in a strong position halfway through, with Grossman leading on countback. Next, both were the only women to top number 3 and Raboutou moved ahead with one fewer attempt.
As former overall World Cup winner Miho Nonaka (JPN) - who topped the qualifying round - misread the boulder and slipped further down the ranks, the top 3 places seemed likely to be filled by the US women and French prodigy Oriane Bertone (3rd in Meiringen), who was close behind in 3rd. But the fourth boulder was a decisive, if nerve-wracking finale involving an explosive step and jump to a Zone hold. This attempt-burner boulder was smoothly topped by Nonaka, shifting her up the ranks, and then by Bertone; both in four goes.
The competition was thrown open: if the US women failed to catch the low-percentage Zone hold, they would place behind Bertone. Raboutou fell short multiple times, attempting a mix of fast and slow methods and making one very convincing attempt at grabbing the Zone, but ultimately failing to hold the swing. To win, Grossman needed to reach the Zone. Any number of attempts would secure her a win, given the fact that she had 3 Tops in fewer attempts than Bertone.
Grossman repeatedly launched up for the hold, getting closer but then waning slightly as attempts exceeded energy levels. She rested and composed herself, taking a longer break. With just 40 seconds to go, Grossman exhaled and stepped back up to the wall. On her tenth attempt, she powered up to the Zone and raced to the top, doing more than necessary to take her first IFSC Boulder World Cup win. Raboutou placed 3rd and Bertone 2nd.
The two best friends had gone one step higher and made their first podium together.
"It's a dream! I'm speechless!" said an emotional Grossman moments after the final. "It was so special to share this moment with my best friend Brooke. To be able to make the World Cup final together is something we have always dreamed of, and it's so surreal, so exciting to have a crowd."
Grossman also remarked that she had worked on the psychological aspect of competition during recent months, which seems to have paid off. Her calm, considered style gives her an air of confidence beyond her years. It's easy to quip that Janja Garnbret's tactical, Olympic-preparation-related absence after seven consecutive Boulder World Cup wins enabled Grossman and the younger generation to shine, but next weekend will be an exciting rematch with Garnbret back in the running. Who's to say that these newcomers - with all their newfound confidence - couldn't rattle her nerves and knock her off the top spot?
|1||Natalia Grossman||USA||4T4z 6 4||4T4z 15 14|
|2||Oriane Bertone||FRA||2T4z 2 5||3T4z 7 7|
|3||Brooke Raboutou||USA||3T4z 6 7||3T3z 4 3|
|4||Miho Nonaka||JPN||3T3z 4 4||3T3z 7 6|
|5||Jessica Pilz||AUT||3T4z 11 12||1T3z 3 6|
|6||Johanna Färber||AUT||3T4z 9 8||1T2z 1 8|
|7||Futaba Ito||JPN||2T4z 3 4|
|8||Katja Kadic||SLO||2T4z 3 6|
|9||Fanny Gibert||FRA||2T4z 3 7|
|10||Mao Nakamura||JPN||2T4z 4 7|
|11||Stasa Gejo||SRB||2T4z 4 9|
|12||Alma Bestvater||GER||2T4z 7 13|
|13||Chloe Caulier||BEL||2T3z 4 8|
|14||Kylie Cullen||USA||2T3z 6 9|
|15||Giorgia Tesio||ITA||1T4z 2 13|
|16||Hannah Meul||GER||1T3z 1 7|
|17||Megan Lynch||USA||1T3z 3 9|
|18||Laura Rogora||ITA||1T3z 3 9|
|19||Sienna Kopf||USA||1T3z 3 10|
|20||Holly Toothill||GBR||1T3z 5 20|
GB Climbing's women got off to a great start in their first IFSC event of the year, having been absent in Meiringen. 19-year-old British Bouldering Champion Holly Toothill qualified for semi-finals in her first ever World Cup in 14th place, eventually finishing 20th. Jen Wood came agonisingly close to making semis, finishing in 21st place with a score of 3T4 and just one attempt off semis. Emily Phillips was 28th, Shauna Coxsey 36th, Molly Thompson-Smith 37th and Hannah Slaney 44th.
On Instagram, Olympic-qualified Coxsey wrote about back pain that hampered her performance: 'This isn't how I wanted this comp to go. I knew there were some unknowns but I hadn't realised I wasn't ready. The reality of dealing with my back, learning how to climb around it and being in pain when competing was too much for me today. I am really sad I couldn't show my best out here but it did felt like a step towards being myself back out on the mats.' Fellow Olympic-qualified athlete Julia Chanourdie (FRA) withdrew from the event before qualifiers, having injured her shoulder in a post-flight training session.
For Tokyo athletes, combining all three disciplines and phasing training to peak in August is no easy task. Some appear to be on good form at this early stage: Brooke Raboutou; Miho Nonaka (who lacked her distinctive shoulder tape and has clearly benefitted from the pandemic postponements); Jessy Pilz, who finished 5th, and Laura Rogora - a Lead specialist - who finished 18th.
Eight male future Tokyo Olympians made semis, with Nathaniel Coleman sitting just outside in 21st. GB Climbing's men were also clustered just outside the cut-off, with Matt Cousins in 23rd, Billy Ridal 25th, Nathan Phillips 28th and Alex Waterhouse in 34th and Max Milne in 44th in their first World Cup.
Adam Ondra stole the show in the men's, winning his second consecutive IFSC Boulder World Cup and becoming the first man to do so since 2017, when Jongwon Chon won back-to-back rounds in Vail and Navi Mumbai. A Silence-esque M3 - involving an inverted foot jam - seemed to play to Ondra's strengths, but his all-round ability shone through on coordination moves, dynos and technical slabs.
"It was definitely unexpected," Ondra commented on the livestream. "But most importantly, it was amazing to climb in front of a huge crowd after two years, it felt surreal. I'm kind of trying to stay on the ground, because in terms of pressure this still feels like a children's game compared to the Olympics. In Tokyo it will be way more stressful, way more difficult. I'll keep training and we'll see."
17-year-old Mejdi Schalck (FRA) flew under the radar slightly in Meiringen, where he finished 12th, but he shone in Salt Lake, winning silver. Schalck became double European Champion in Lead and Boulder earlier this month and his potential for Paris 2024 and beyond seems immense, comparable to that of his compatriot Oriane Bertone. Schalck's slick coordination skills and smooth footwork saw him match Jakob Schubert - arguably one of the best and most consistent IFSC competitors of all time - in performance on three boulders, and outclimb him by flashing to the Zone on M1, a coordination Boulder. Schubert finished 3rd, ahead of Kokoro Fujii (JPN) by 8 attempts to Tops.
Schalck's new-school skillset and strengths - plus his tangible enthusiasm for competing - will send him far. The commentary team (Meagan Martin and Pete Woods, who did a fantastic job) remarked that he seemed to expend more energy celebrating his tops than he did on the climbs themselves.
|1||Adam Ondra||CZE||2T3z 7 8||4T4z 8 7|
|2||Mejdi Schalck||FRA||1T3z 12 18||3T4z 4 5|
|3||Jakob Schubert||AUT||1T3z 3 6||3T3z 4 4|
|4||Kokoro Fujii||JPN||3T4z 16 18||3T3z 12 7|
|5||Anze Peharc||SLO||1T3z 4 7||1T3z 2 8|
|6||Gregor Vezonik||SLO||1T3z 2 5||1T2z 2 2|
|7||Simon Lorenzi||BEL||1T2z 3 5|
|8||Sean Bailey||USA||1T2z 5 7|
|9||Alex Megos||GER||1T2z 9 9|
|10||Mickael Mawem||FRA||0T4z 0 8|
|11||Nicolai Uznik||AUT||0T3z 0 8|
|12||Michael Piccolruaz||ITA||0T3z 0 14|
|13||Colin Duffy||USA||0T3z 0 15|
|14||Sohta Amagasa||JPN||0T3z 0 15|
|15||Aleksei Rubtsov||RUS||0T3z 0 15|
|16||Yoshiyuki Ogata||JPN||0T3z 0 16|
|17||Rei Sugimoto||JPN||0T2z 0 5|
|18||Philipp Martin||GER||0T2z 0 8|
|19||Jan Hojer||GER||0T2z 0 10|
|20||Christoph Schweiger||GER||0T1z 0 3|
The new generation has well and truly arrived, giving established legends a run for their money as they train for the sport's Olympic debut.
More of the same energy and inspiration next week from SLC, I hope...