It was the women's turn to step up to the wall here in Tokyo Bay on the second historic day of Olympic climbing yesterday. Conditions were noticeably dryer and cooler, but still challenging for the 20 women battling for a top eight finish to make Sport Climbing's first ever female Olympic final.
There were noticeably fewer onlookers (officials, delegates and press) attending this round. Perhaps the bubble had burst the day before, it being the momentous 'first' day of Sport Climbing, or perhaps there was an unfortunate overlap of events. It's also possible that the men's qualification event was more magnetic due to the Adam Ondra appeal. Here's hoping the medal events tonight and tomorrow draw more interest, which seems likely.
An incredible 16 PBs were broken - some women smashed their records twice - in the Speed round. Janja Garnbret (SLO) got off to a shaky start, slipping and moving down the ranks to a disappointing 14th place. "I felt the pressure in Speed and was disappointed and cried in iso," she commented after the event had finished.
Alexandra Miroslaw (POL) came within a whisker of the world record, clocking 5.97 - just one tenth of a second off Iuliia Kaplina's (ROC) time of 5.96 seconds - and in doign so set the first women's Olympic Speed record.. Kaplina looked set to hit a fast time when a heartbreaking foot slip denied her the buzzer, putting her in 5th place and ruling her out of contention with her weakest disciplines to come.
The Boulder round produced a perfect spread of tops and excitement. Team GB's Shauna Coxsey walked out with a smile on her face and her relaxed approach paid off: she smoothly topped the first three boulders, employing her wealth of experience as a top Boulder specialist over the last decade. She even danced for the crowd when cheesy music was played.
Coxsey's choice - and ability to - lock off and statically move between holds brought her quick tops, and this cautious approach paid dividends, landing her in 4th place despite having struggled with a chronic back and knee injury over the past two years since her Hachioji qualification. "I felt content and I was ready to try hard, which doesn't always come naturally to me. I'm a little annoyed about the last boulder. The third I wouldn't have been able to do, it was too painful for my back but I wanted to try hard and I'm really happy," she told me after the event, beaming with joy.
Brooke Raboutou (USA) continued her 2021 run of form, placing 2nd behind Janja Garnbret with 3 Tops and 4 Zones, putting her into a strong position ahead of Lead, her strongest suit. Akiyo Noguchi (JPN) - competing in her final few rounds of competition before retiring post-Games - excelled on home turf. Like Coxsey, her methodical approach secured her tops.
Percy Bishton, Chief setter in Boulder, was happy with his team's handiwork, reporting back this morning: "The women's boulders worked really well from my perspective. Got a perfect ranking which was fantastic. On to the next round…."
The Lead route proved tough, with separation a priority and tough, powerful moves from the off. Chaehyun Seo (KOR) brought an air of intrigue given her absence from IFSC events this season, and she proved that she remains a contender for the number 1 spot in Lead. A 40+ highpoint set her far above the rest, and with a strong Boulder result (5th) she was confirmed for the final before Janja had even stepped off the ground. Laura Rogora (ITA) - who came to Tokyo in great Lead form - seemed flustered throughout the event and despite a gutsy fight in her strongest discipline, her score proved not to be sufficient for a finals place. A shock fall for Garnbret left her in 4th, but with her win in Boulder the pressure was off and she'd done enough.
Garnbret commented afterwards: "I got off to a bad start but I pulled myself together for bouldering. I felt the pressure in Speed and was disappointed and cried in iso. I learned I have a pretty great mind and after boulder I felt more relaxed and knew I had made finals."
Asked if she feels pressure, she replied: "I'm never really nervous, but for sure the pressure at the Olympics feels way bigger - not from everybody else, but from myself."
Garnbret also revealed her goal for Friday's final: "I want to show my best climbing and I want to win. I want to enjoy it and feel happy."
On Garnbret's performance, Slovenian coach Gorazd Hren commented: "In the end, Janja took her anger out on the boulders in a perfect round. We knew she was in finals so there was less pressure for lead. But she wants to do better. She always wants to do it 100% and it wasn't perfect but it was enough."
Following her Lead climb, which earned her 13th in the round, Coxsey described a better-than-expected overall result (10th, just two places off finals) and seemed in awe of the Games experience. "It's been insane. To even get here is an achievement, both literally and figuratively. My body is not in the shape I wanted it to be in, I had no idea if I'd make it this far as a professional climber. To be here in that regard, and then everything that has gone on with the COVID delay, it's pretty insane that climbing has made its Olympic debut. We're Olympians!" she commented.
Regarding her injury, she said: "There's a lot more work to be done to see if I can work around my back. I had a lot of treatment, it didn't work so I have constant pain and there's no solution currently. The pain is just there all the time."
Miho Nonaka (JPN) looked extremely happy following her 3rd place overall performance and consistent scores, but appeared to pick up a wrist sprain of some sort during the Boulder round and had taped it for Lead. She also had an ice pack strapped to her knee after the event in light of her relatively fresh injury a few weeks ago. Alongside her teammates Noguchi (who placed 4th) and Narasaki, the three Japanese will look to win medals on home turf today and tomorrow. This trio are huge stars here in Japan, and it'd be great for them to showcase their skills and for Noguchi to retire on a high.
It was interesting to note that there were lower numbers for the top 8 women than for the top 8 men, meaning that the top 8 women placed higher more consistently than the men across the rounds.
Credit must go to Speed specialist Anouck Jaubert (FRA), whose top on B1 proved critical in ensuring a good Boulder result (13th) and ultimately pushed her into the final. After her climb - and before she knew whether she had qualified or not - she commented: "I'm exhausted. I gave my all today. I'm leaving with no regrets. I'm waiting for the last climber to go before checking results to save some energy!" She also explained the advantage she has of starting every round with her strongest discipline, and suggested that this will be her last competition appearance.
Alannah Yip (CAN) reflected on the Combined format and how it shifts training priorities and performance across each discipline: "I've made huge gains in the two disciplines which historically have been my two weakest by a long shot and it looks like today maybe that came at the expense of my bouldering, but sometimes that's the way it goes," she said.
Tears were a theme of the evening - both sad and happy - demonstrating the passion that these athletes had put into their training and preparation, and the pressure of competing in a debut Games on the world's biggest sporting stage. Perhaps the biggest Olympic challenge for climbers is getting used to media scrum after finishing their Lead route. Some great professionalism was on display as athletes composed themselves for interviews with teary eyes.
How media treats sports stars is a hot topic currently. Concerns about the media spotlight, social media abuse and their impact on athletes have been pushed to the fore. As a newcomer to the press scrum experience myself, it felt too uncomfortable to push athletes to talk when they clearly weren't in the right state of mind, and I wondered if the IFSC format of allowing the athletes to sit together, realise their ranking and digest their emotions before talking to media would be a better approach. But it's the Olympics after all, and it's a whole different ball game here. Huge respect to the couple of athletes whose representatives advised us that they would not be coming through the Mixed Zone for interviews.
Gorazd Hren commented on the scale of the event from a coach's perspective: "The facilities here are great. The feeling is different because there's a bit more pressure. Either way we try to behave like it's a normal World Cup, but it's hard to turn it off, the fact that this is the Olympic Games."
He also lamented the fact that spectators aren't present, and described the impact on the climbers. "Athletes are always super psyched to have spectators, it's really motivating and the atmosphere is much bigger and better and in this setting they can push another 1% more. Yeah, we are really missing the spectators here."
Alannah Yip (CAN) commented on the atmosphere amongst the athletes in this new environment. "I think we're all just excited for everyone to be here finally after all those struggles to qualify and then all the delays, it's been a challenge for everyone to get here. I felt like there was even more of a feeling of camaraderie than at a World Cup," she explained.
Erin Sterkenburg of South Africa described the significance of the event for her home country and continent. "A lot of people in RSA are going to watch that maybe haven't seen climbing or heard of it before and be interested in it, so we're hoping that there's going to be more people joining and hopefully also children so we can develop them," she said.
Tomorrow's final looks set to be a battle between three young stars and stalwarts of the competition scene. Don't miss it! Follow our Tweets update page Day 3 for the men's finals tonight.