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In many ways, last weekend’s IFSC competition at Vail, Colorado, was the most important bouldering event for Americans since February’s USA Climbing Open Nationals. While there had been five previous World Cup stops this season, Vail was the first one to feature a United States team roster with substantial depth. As a result, American viewers were given a clear view of how their climbers, as a collective, stacked up against the international elite. And for circuit veterans like Alex Puccio, Nathaniel Coleman, and other Americans, the competition on home plastic was an enlightening preview of some Olympic showdowns that undoubtedly loom on the horizon.
That being said, Vail’s Mountain Games have been one of the IFSC’s regular sites—tracing back to an event in 2005 where Alex Johnson and Ethan Pringle won “Speed Bouldering” contests—and the location always presents some surprises. At an elevation of 8,000 feet and held under the blistering summer sun, Vail’s competitions often see climbers struggle with the intense mountain climate.
The first surprise came in the men’s Qualifying round on Friday, June 8, with Italy’s Gabriele Moroni, the winner of the previous World Cup event at Hachioji, Japan, failing to progress to the Semi-Finals. Such inconsistency has typified the entire men’s field this season, which has also seen performances of usual finalists like South Korea’s Jongwon Chon and Germany’s Jan Hojer vary greatly from one event to another.
An unexpected early elimination also distinguished the women’s Qualifying round, with American Margo Hayes missing the cutoff for Semi-Finals. While a number of other competitors climbed well—like France’s Fanny Gibert, Great Britain’s Shauna Coxsey, and Japan’s powerhouse duo of Akiyo Noguchi and Miho Nonaka—the biggest news was the glut of American women who did advance to the Semi-Finals: Puccio, Michaela Kiersch, Sierra Blair-Coyle, Kyra Condie, and Maya Madere.
The Semi-Finals began on Saturday morning with a slabby men’s boulder that required full-body extension over dual-textured Blocz volumes. American Sean Bailey, winner of the 2018 Sport Nationals, wowed the audience with a flash. Carried by the crowd’s vocal enthusiasm, he also flashed the second boulder, another volume-heavy riddle. It was a remarkable performance that the commentators recurrently referred to as the “climb of the day.”
Many climbers from Japan’s men’s team made easy work of the sloper-dense third boulder and the balancy fourth boulder. But in contrast to Bailey’s success in his home country, Coleman struggled throughout the Semi-Finals, failing to top any of the boulders—surprising after being so dominant just months prior at Open Nationals.
The women’s Semi-Finals offered more American flashes, with Puccio and Condie controlling a barn-door crux to secure tops of the first boulder. But by the time Puccio flashed the second boulder too and satiated the crowd with her signature “Puccio pull-up” on the top hold, it was clear that the spectators were now part of The Alex Puccio Experience, a veritable showcase of an athlete and her local fans connecting on the same frequency. Puccio also topped the third boulder, confirming that the Finals would be a battle of America’s all-time best competitive boulderer—Puccio—against arguably the international all-time best in Japan’s Noguchi.
Without much time to rest, the men began their Finals on Saturday afternoon in rousing fashion: the first boulder featured a dyno start to a fingertip hang and progressed to a pocket finish. Bailey, along with Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki and Rei Sugimoto, flashed the powerful sequence, with the other men failing to top.
Bailey and Sugimoto also flashed the second boulder and thus found themselves in a one-on-one rivalry for tops; their competitiveness became an intriguing subplot to an event that was already being praised by commentators for its excitement and adept routesetting by Jamie Cassidy and crew.
The third men’s boulder was the most eye-catching, requiring competitors to nearly do the splits in a dihedral. Only Sugimoto and Narasaki stretched for successful tops. Then, in a moment that had audience members on the edge of their seats, Bailey nearly flashed the last boulder to snag a gold medal. Although unsuccessful, Bailey’s attempt saw the crowd chanting his name and ultimately earned him a second place finish. Sugimoto took first place, with Narasaki placing third. Coleman finished at 16.
The women’s Finals began with a slab, stylistically favoring France’s Gibert. But when Gibert struggled on it and Puccio—known for raw power more so than slab prowess—topped, it further confirmed that Puccio was in the midst of a career-defining performance.
The second women’s boulder started with a swinging dyno, the most exciting move of the whole competition as the crowd oohed and ahhed with every attempt. Puccio topped it too but struggled on the third boulder; Noguchi’s full-body extension at the top of the third boulder should be used in gyms around the world to illustrate the importance of stretching and flexibility.
The day’s back-and-forth sends by Puccio, Nonaka, and Noguchi set the stage for a thrilling last boulder of technical thumb-catches and toe-hooks on parallel horizontal volumes. Tired and baked from the heat, Nonaka couldn’t progress beyond the zone hold. Noguchi, as well, fought admirably but couldn’t secure a top.
In a storybook ending to the day, Puccio started at the base of the boulder to cheers, secured the finger-jam zone hold, and eventually launched to the top for a victorious flash—the final three moves of the sequence being highlight-reel material. Puccio’s rousing win was the first for any American this World Cup season, and her second in Vail. Nonaka finished in second place and Noguchi in third. Of the other American women in the top 20, Condie placed 5, Blair-Coyle placed 14, Madere placed 16, and Kiersch placed 18.
[Ed. For North American viewers, the full Finals replay is only available at Olympic Channel.]
The final IFSC bouldering World Cup event will take place in Munich, Germany, on August 17. See our 2018 Climbing Competition Calendar for the full schedule.
- Alex Puccio (USA)
- Miho Nonaka (JPN)
- Akiyo Noguchi (JPN)
- Fanny Gibert (FRA)
- Kyra Condie (USA)
- Alma Bestvater (GER)
- Rei Sugimoto (JPN)
- Sean Bailey (USA)
- Tomoa Narasaki (JPN)
- Jernej Kruder (SLO)
- Ryuichi Murai (JPN)
- Tomoaki Takata (JPN)
Previous 2018 World Cup Events
- Recap and Photo Gallery: IFSC Meiringen World Cup 2018—Bouldering
- Recap and Photo Gallery: IFSC Moscow World Cup 2018—Bouldering and Speed
- Recap and Photo Gallery: IFSC Chongqing World Cup 2018—Bouldering and Speed
- Recap and Photo Gallery: IFSC Tai’an World Cup 2018—Bouldering and Speed
- Recap and Photo Gallery: IFSC Hachioji World Cup 2018—Bouldering