IFSC commentator Matt Groom reports from the final event of the year: the Combined World Cup in Morioka, Japan.
In some countries it feels like the coronavirus pandemic is a distant memory, while in others, restrictions are still gradually being eased. Japan has recently opened its doors, allowing the IFSC to return to a country that harbours some of the best climbers in the world. The small city of Morioka hosted the final competition of the season and provided the athletes with a chance to practise the new Olympic format before qualifying starts next year.
Morioka is a two-hour train journey from Tokyo and as the train speeds north you pass rolling mountains and lush green forests. The venue was in the middle of a multi-sport arena and has a newly built Boulder wall that offers route setters lots of angles and opportunities. The Lead wall is a bit more old school, with an option to adjust the angle of different sections of it, similar to the wall in Edinburgh.
The scoring had been adjusted for this competition, changing a little from how it worked in Munich. The two zones in Boulder were now worth 5 and 10 points, which helps to balance things better with the Lead scoring. There are now 40 scoring holds on the Lead wall, meaning the athletes start scoring points lower down. It solves the odd situation of half the wall being non-scoring, like it was in Munich. We are getting closer to the system that will be used for Paris 2024, and it will be locked in by the end of the year.
Although there weren't as many athletes registered compared to a normal World Cup, the field was stacked with stars, and anyone getting on the podium would prove they were a contender for next year. The schedule was busy, with the first day dedicated to qualifying, while the next had both semi-finals and the men's finals.
GB Climbing's Toby Roberts—who is still only 17—made semis and placed an excellent 13th, setting him up well for the Olympic qualification year in 2023. Writing on Instagram, he said: 'I really enjoyed competing for the last time this season. It isn't the best result but there is progress. The boulders were really cool and the routes were hard right from the beginning so it was a big fight, looking forward to doing more of it next year.'
In the men's finals, my co-commentator Alannah Yip (CAN) and I witnessed an interesting set of boulders that provided some good separation between the climbers. Tomoa Narasaki (JPN) was the favourite on paper coming into the event having clean-swept the recent Asian Championships in South Korea.
Boulder 1 was the easiest, and most sent it pretty quickly, although Sean Bailey (USA) was struggling. He had posted a picture on Instagram showing the terrible state of his skin, and although he never stopped trying it was a difficult finals for him. Paul Jenft (FRA) came out and immediately it was clear he was in great form. He flashed three out of the four boulders including the very difficult boulder 2 where he cleverly used his height to heel hook a bad arête, a method that only he attempted.
Close behind him was Tomoa Narasaki (JPN) who was consistent throughout the round. He pulled off my favourite move of the comp, popping a foot going to the final hold of boulder 2, but using some incredible strength and somehow staying on the wall. I must have watched it five times, and I've still no idea how he pulled it off. The closest climber after Tomoa was his teammate Kokoro Fujii (JPN) who seemed in a good mood, often interacting and playing with the crowd.
I need to talk about boulder 4, because there was a HUGE dyno to a pocket followed by a hand swap on the same hold. Everyone seemed to do it differently, Rei Kawamata (JPN) made it look especially casual. It's hard to describe how cool a dynamic two finger pocket swap is, with no feet…so please go and check out that moment!
In a similar way to how the Munich European Championships played out, it was important for an athlete to keep close enough to the leader's points, and not leave themselves too much work to do in the Lead round. The route-setters had adjusted the climb to make it a touch easier, more of a test of endurance rather than specific cruxes. It also had a two-move down climb, which I'm not sure I've ever seen before. It's always interesting to see innovative ideas being conceived and put into practice.
Paul Jenft (JPN) climbed first and he could have been looking at a podium place…if not the win after he finished the Boulder round in first place with 84.7. He was climbing well throughout the first 3/4 of the route but then tried to double-stack a knee bar in an awkward position, and fell trying to get it in. The double knee stack is something I've seen him do before, and I love it as a move, but it wasn't right for this situation and the fall left him in 4th.
Yoshiyuki Ogata (JPN) put in a fantastic performance…and he needed to as he was down the order in 6th. The 2022 Boulder champion is really showing that he's a contender for the Olympics and he climbed higher than anyone else, beating Kokoro Fujii (JPN) and getting the silver. Due to his score in Boulder, Tomoa Narasaki (JPN), had less to do on the lead wall, and he took advantage of that, climbing high enough and taking victory while continuing his run of gold medals. I interviewed him before the competition, and he told me he wants revenge in Paris 2024 after just missing out on a podium place in the Tokyo Olympics. If things continue on his current trajectory, that revenge might be sweet…
I think most of the male athletes would agree that the schedule for them wasn't ideal. On the Thursday they qualified, the day after was semi finals and then finals took place the same night. That's 12 boulders and 3 Lead routes plus warming-up time over just two days.
Although they were all in the same position, it didn't necessarily allow them to fully showcase their skills, and you could clearly see some of them were not at their best. The reason for the tight timetable was a pre-booked TV slot for the finals, organised by the team from Japan, and various COVID regulations that restricted the time they had to organise and host the competition.
On to the women's event. Heavy rain greeted us as we entered the arena. Luckily the walls were well covered, and I was amazing by how many spectators committed to standing out in the downpour. The boulders all had very different styles, which meant the leader board constantly changed as certain boulders suited different athletes.
It was quickly clear that Ai Mori (JPN) and Natalia Grossman (USA) were on another level and the two of them started pulling ahead. Both of them climbed all four boulders and Natalia once again showed her quality, sending the coordination dyno on Boulder 3 the quickest and being the first to show that the power endurance Boulder 4 was even possible.
Although Ai Mori (JPN) has proven herself to be a very good boulderer in Japanese nationals, she hadn't competed in an IFSC Boulder World Cup since the World Championships in 2019, and it was interesting to see how she would compare to the might of Natalia Grossman (USA). Any doubts were answered in Morioka: she can clearly compete with the best international athletes. Her flash of the last climb was simply outrageous. I was almost left speechless (almost) as she used an incredible, instinctive method to climb it.
Looking at the leaderboard before the Lead round, it looked like a straight fight between Ai Mori (JPN) and Natalia Grossman (USA) and that proved to be true. Half of the athletes fell in the 3-point scoring zone, but there was disappointment for Futaba Ito (JPN) who had an earlier slip. Morioka is her home town, and missing out on the podium was emotional for her, the cameras picking up her tears as she looked back up at the wall.
The crowd held their breath as Natalia Grossman (USA) climbed first. As her boulder score was so close to Ai's it would simply come down to who could get higher on the lead wall. Natalia dug deep and and was into the final few holds before falling, setting a new high score of 72.1. Ai came out last, with all the pressure on her shoulders. Although on paper she has had better lead results than Natalia, it was impossible to predict how she would do.
To put it simply, she just didn't seem to get tired. She barely rested and was at her best as she cruised through the first half of the route. She approached Natalia's highpoint…passed it…and almost topped out. Her final score was 19.7 ahead of Natalia. A message to the world that Ai Mori (JPN) has the potential to win Olympic gold.
With the Japanese National anthem echoing through he stadium, it was time to say goodbye to the 2022 IFSC season. It was the first full one after COVID and what a rollercoaster it's been. I want to thank every co-commentator who joined me in the commentary box over the year. I loved the conversations, analysis and moments of drama that we shared. 2023 is a busy season, so it's time for the athletes to re-charge and train as they prepare to fight it out for Olympic places next year.
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