IFSC commentator Matt Groom reports from the Lead World Cup in Koper, Slovenia last weekend...
Until recently, Slovenia didn't have many climbing walls. Domen Škofic built his giant Climbing Ranch Gym…but it wasn't really a comp venue. Their athletes are famous for training endurance on spray walls in hidden training dens where they can go round and round building their endurance. They needed a climbing and training facility to match the elite level of their athletes. Kranj had history…but let's be honest, it did feel dated when compared to other World Cup venues. Don't worry: things are right up to date now.
The new wall is at the heart of an arena and facilities that support 22 different sports. The new outside wall has just opened, but it's attached to an indoor gym that opened in 2016. It's a 19m high, 26m wide structure, and at its steepest, overhangs by 9.75m from floor to chains. Next to it is a world-record-standard speed wall, and I'm looking forward to watching a competition on it.
The arena reminds me a bit of the Briançon venue, with a field stretching away from the wall that gets filled with spectators. The crowd came to christen the new home of Slovenian climbing, and there was a party atmosphere all weekend. Many had come to watch Janja Garnbret (SLO) climb; the Olympic Gold medalist is a HUGE celebrity there. Her face is on billboards and petrol station signs. They love her, and through her influence more and more people are watching competition climbing.
The semi-finals got underway on the Friday night, and we were missing a few names, especially in the men's comp. Adam Ondra (CZE), Stefano Ghisolfi (ITA) and Jakob Schubert (AUS) are all in a certain cave in Norway and Colin Duffy (USA) was also absent.
Routesetters like to mess with athletes at the start of the route, and the men's had a fiddly few metres, with a small crimp and slopey feet traverse. It wasn't hard…but did test their nerves. There was a feet-first sequence in the middle that provided some great camera shots of the action, with a close-up of the climbers struggling faces as their cores screamed with tension. The women's route was savage, with a section of pinches on dual-texture holds burning out the athletes' forearms, before green and yellow crimps sent them down to the ground. It was a great semi-finals and Billy Ridal (GBR) and I were impressed by the separation seen in the climbers' scores.
We lost the last few British climbers in semis, with Jim Pope getting 16th, Hamish McArthur only just out in 10th and Molly Thompson Smith even closer in 9th. It's great to see Team GB getting more consistent this year and they will certainly enjoy next week's home competition in Edinburgh.
Only Janja Garnbret (SLO) topped the women's semi-final route. She wildly swung on the last jump, but pulled herself back towards the wall and clipped the chains. Normally Janja would be the firm favourite for the win…but Ai Mori (JPN) had returned, participating in her first competition since 2019. She was in good form, beating Janja, just, in qualifications. She climbed to the last move, set herself up for the jump, sprang, but could only latch the top hold with one hand and fell. 1-0 to Janja.
For the men's semis there were no tops, but eight strong athletes made it through, with Ao Yurikusa (JPN) climbing last and qualifying for the finals in first. Sasha Lehman (SUI) got into his second World Cup finals of the year. He's consistently been in the top 10 this year, but has narrowly missed out on a few finals, and hadn't yet showed what he was capable of.
During the day off on Sunday, most of the athletes and IFSC staff went down to the sea, with Hannah Meul (GER) having breakfast on the rocks looking out towards the busy ports, as she later documented on her Instagram. There were lots of climbers in town, and there was a buzz of excitement that built towards the evening. As I walked into the arena there was a snaking que of hundreds of people, Slovenian flags waving and noisemakers being handed out.
Dusk was descending and a huge moon rose over the field, the DJ thumped out the tunes and we got the first look at the two final routes. They were complicated winding things, split into sections by colour. It's good to see the blue and yellow of the Ukraine flag featured so much this year, one way the routesetters show their support.
It was quickly obvious to see how difficult these two climbs were. There has been a lot of criticism and analysis of the routes and setting this year, with many pointing out they were a bit easy, especially for the women. Chamonix was the event where we saw too many athletes easily finishing. There seems to be a general consensus amongst the athletes that they want a fight. The feeling of giving everything, then falling because it's hard, and not simply running out of steam, or having an unfortunate slip.
The first, and as it turned out main crux, for the men featured a jump from a slopey left hand to a compression style catch. The holds before that weren't any easier, with only one awkward rest possible. Only Satone Yoshida (JPN) fell before that part of the wall.
The jump was a stopper move. Taisei Homma (JPN) Alberto Gines Lopez (SPN) and Ao Yurikusa (JPN) all got the same score after missing the leap, their positions decided by count back.
Yannick Flohe (GER) attempted to break the beta down low, and managed it, ignoring a large curved sloper and moving right straight into a traverse. It worked…sort of, although it seemed to be a more physical method and Yannick fell on 29+. Sasha Lehmann (SUI) seemed o bring his A-Game to Slovenia. He sometimes seems to struggle getting into a 'flow state' but it was all looking nice as he approached the jump.
Staša Gejo (SRB) was once again showing off her commentary skills. She was rooting for Sasha and it was hard to stay neutral as he made the leap up and left, clamping the down on the screw ons and holding the swing. He climbed just higher than Yannick, earning him silver, and showing the absolute quality he has when everything comes together.
The Slovenian team has great depth to their squad and another star was born after Luka Potocar took the gold medal. He's made finals and won medals before, but this was his first gold, and it could signal a new contender for multiple wins. Luka seemed almost surprised and it might give him added confidence for the future. He climbed well throughout, and flew through the jump. He reached the same hold as Sasha, count-back deciding gold.
The women's route was simply brutal. An easy start led to a powerful series of moves including an awkward press where the climbers worked their fingertips, then hand onto a sloper. Héléne Janicot (FRA) was first out and it was great to see her in her first finals since 2018. Helene worked as an IFSC routesetter last year, before realising she still wanted to compete as an athlete. She was 8th this weekend, but will surely build on this performance in the future.
Most of the women fell at a dynamic sequence of moves that required full commitment and shoulder strength. It also had an awkward clip, and the field seemed split about whether to clip it from above or below. Brooke Raboutou (USA) was the first to make it through that move, and clip the quickdraw using her leg to raise it closer to her. Another medal for Brooke, a bronze this time to add to the silver and bronze she's already won in Lead this season.
The drama was unfolding perfectly with Ai Mori (JPN) out next, before Janja Garnbret would climb last in front of the adoring crowd.
I hadn't seen Ai Mori (JPN) climb from the commentary box before, but I could tell from Staša's body language, that something exciting might potentially be about to happen. Staša is the master of describing climbers' movement, but even she struggled to find the words to call Ai's climb.
She seems to think differently on the wall, and her small size and stature hides immense power. Ai has been called a challenger for Janja's Lead dominance for a while now and she delivered this weekend. She cruised through the moves where others struggled and found weird beta, that shouldn't have worked…but somehow did. Her score of 30+ eclipsed Brooke Rabutou's 23+. She fell just over halfway through, again demonstrating the difficulty of the climb.
We know Janja can deal with pressure, but we also know she feels it. It was piled onto her in Koper. She looked emotional during the athlete introductions, a mixture perhaps of pride and disbelief. Staring out over a sea of people who are chanting your name, holding flags with portraits printed onto it…everyone expecting her to win. The way she deals with that is a self-confidence I've always found deeply impressive.
She started upwards, perhaps not looking as assured as she usually does. We started to see something fairly unusual…Janja had to dig deep. I started to realise that she might not win after she passed Brooke's high point. There was something in her movements, the way she snatched at the occasional hold, or breathed a little deeper. She was still ahead of the rest, but fell on a move to an undercut, below where Ai fell. It wasn't enough.
The crowd picked her up though, and were vocal in their appreciation of Ai Mori, which was lovely to to see. As Staša said on the broadcast, this is going to light a fire under Janja. We're left wondering about what's going to happen in Scotland next week. Sadly I won't be there, but I'll return to the commentary box in Jakarta.
Thank you to Koper for hosting such a brilliant event — the new wall was a definite success and hopefully it will pave the way for up and coming Slovenian climbers for years to come.
Just when you thought the women's overall was all wrapped up…everything changes.
|5||Alberto Ginés López||ESP||34+||25+|
|34||Billy Ridal||GBR||Qual: 33.41|
|39||Alex Waterhouse||GBR||Qual: 36.18|
|40||Samuel BUTTERWORTH||GBR||Qual: 37.74|
|45||Jennifer Wood||GBR||Qual: 42.36|
|47||Thea Cameron||GBR||Qual: 43.49|
|49||Joanna Neame||GBR||Qual: 46.9|