Highs and Lows: 2020 IFSC Pan-American Championships - Climbing Magazine

The IFSC’s Pan-American Championship concluded this past weekend with captivating drama that was appropriate given its Los Angeles location. After a full week of narrowing down the men’s and women’s fields day-by-day in the Olympics-style combined format at Sender One LAX, two more names were added to the ever-growing list of climbers who will take part in this summer’s Olympic Games.

Duffy’s Gritty Week

16-year-old American Colin Duffy won the men’s division and thus joined the three Americans who have already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics: Nathaniel Coleman, Kyra Condie, and Brooke Raboutou.

But simply stating Duffy’s final result does not tell the full story or do justice to his remarkable journey. In the early rounds of the Pan-Am competition, Duffy was battling a cold that was made worse by a bout of food poisoning in his hotel room. And on his first speed climbing run in the qualification round, in a race against Mexico’s standout José Ramón Santos Buhl, Duffy failed to register a time on the buzzer. He won his next speed race, but only topped two (out of four) qualification boulders. It was apparent that something wasn’t right, and Duffy needed an incredible lead climb to stay in the hunt and advance to finals. So, with poise beyond his years, Duffy stayed composed and passed high point after high point on the steeply overhung qualification lead route. He became the only competitor to top the route, wowing the packed Sender One audience and keeping his Olympic ambitions alive.

Then in the finals, recovered from his ailments, Duffy put on a clinic. He clocked 7.206 seconds to beat Buhl in the first speed climbing run, and beat US compatriot Zander Waller in the second run. Duffy then topped every problem in the bouldering round—which all of the US competitors did. However, Duffy separated himself from the pack by topping the finals’ lead route to confirm his victory. The gym erupted at the collective realization that Duffy had just punched his Olympic ticket; the floors and the railings of Sender One rattled from the crowd noise.

With Duffy’s victory, USA Climbing now finds itself with a 16-year-old Olympic phenom. Such a unique youthful talent can only help with the organization’s Olympic marketing and promotion. But equally impressive is that Team ABC can now claim to have produced 50 percent of the American Olympians, as both Duffy and Brooke Raboutou are products of the team coached by the legendary competitor Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou.

Yip’s Olympic Dream

In the women’s division, Canada’s Alannah Yip won the Pan-Am event and proved that it aint over ’til it’s over. That refrain doesn’t just apply to Yip’s year-long attempt to qualify for the Olympics, which included not earning a berth at the World Championships in Hachioji, Japan or the Olympic Qualifier in Toulouse, France.

The week of the Pan-American Championship leading up to the final round was shaky for Yip too. For example, she only topped one boulder in a pre-qualifying portion that kicked off the event and watched as other competitors—namely Argentina’s Valentina Aguado and Chile’s Alejandra Contreras—gave better performances on the lead wall. In the subsequent qualification portion, Yip rallied a bit, winning her second speed run and topping two boulders—but she still saw her high point on the lead wall bested by American Lauren Bair.

Despite the struggles, Yip found herself in the middle of the pack in the competitive final round. She lost to Ecuador’s phenom, Andrea Rojas, in an initial speed heat, and then Yip beat American Norah Chi by a razor thin margin in the week’s most exciting speed run (clocking 9.169 seconds compared to Chi’s 9.197).

The bouldering portion of the finals proved to be Yip’s savior. She was the only competitor to top all three boulders in the round—which included the crowd-pleasing third boulder, a cave-like overhanging start that progressed to small crimp-and-pinch holds and then into a more vertical upper wall. The lead climbing portion was even more dramatic. Chile’s Contreras set a high point of 52; instead of conservatively reaching from the 51st hold to the 52nd—to match Contreras’ high point—Yip skipped hold number 52 altogether and reached for number 53. It was an incredibly risky move in hindsight, but she stuck it and in doing so, punched her ticket to the Tokyo Olympics. Contreras ultimately placed second, and American Lauren Bair placed third—more on her below.

Here are some other aspects of the event that stood out:

Highs

Hunt’s New Speed Record

One of the landmark moments of the week’s competition went relatively unpublicized because it happened during a portion of the event that was not livestreamed. But in the women’s qualification round, American Emma Hunt set a new speed climbing national record of 8.052 seconds. Most remarkable was the fact that the record was set in a race that was not particularly tight. Hunt’s opponent, Mexico’s Arantza Fernández Gutierrez, clocked a run of 11.799. But now that former American record holder Piper Kelly has recovered from a shoulder injury, there’s no reason to believe that this record won’t get nudged—and possibly bettered significantly—if the two American elites of Hunt and Kelly find themselves in a heat together someday.

The Media Blitz

Given the Olympic implications, this event was a huge deal, and frankly, it felt like it. The IFSC and USA Climbing made a concerted effort to reach out to many media outlets, and the result was a press list that included USA Today, Reuters, The Ringer, and other non-endemic publishers. Everywhere you looked in Sender One, there were professional photographers snapping photos. The IFSC even held a press conference prior to the final round, giving these outlets access to ask questions to the American Olympian climbers. These are the type of ancillary gestures that might seem small but will cumulatively amount to much more coverage, which translates to growth and eventually more money in the sport. I hope we see more press conferences and sweeping media invites for these big international and national competitions in the future.

Ecuador’s Dynamic Duo

It’s worth highlighting the performances of Ecuador’s Carlos Granja and Danny Valencia. Each advanced to the finals, where Valencia clocked one of the fastest speed times of the round—6.803 seconds in a race against American Zander Waller. Granja and Valencia both struggled in the bouldering portion, topping only one boulder each, but then scored 39+ and 44+, respectively, in the lead finals to earn fifth and sixth place. Long-time competition fans know that Ecuador is a perennial powerhouse, and it was neat that Granja and Valencia collectively epitomized that with their performances all week.

Lows

The Injury Bug

It was hard to watch the Olympic goals of so many athletes evaporate with subpar performances in the various disciplines and the various rounds, but it was even harder to watch those dreams get shattered due to injury. Brazil’s Luana Riscado tweaked her knee on a dynamic third boulder in the women’s qualification round and had to withdraw. A knee injury during the bouldering qualification stage also forced Chile’s Ronny Escobar to withdraw from the men’s division. American Zander Waller also took a nasty whiplash fall during the bouldering qualifiers—luckily it didn’t result in a withdraw, but it still made for a tense moment in the crowd as Waller winced on the mat and grabbed his neck. It’s hard to see a silver lining, but collectively all the athletes put everything they had into an unforgettable week; the event was bettered because every one of them took part and continuously raised the bar. Let’s hope for speedy recoveries for those who got hurt so they can return—and thrill us again—as soon as possible.

Corona Paranoia

I’ll preface this by saying that I am not asserting that COVID-19 (i.e., “the coronavirus”) is not a real and serious threat. It certainly is, and global health trumps any climbing competition. But it was unfortunate that a degree of hysteria—perhaps beyond appropriate caution—infiltrated the event. From the moment the Olympic berths were solidified, there were pessimistic reactions such as, “Yeah, but the Olympics might not even take place at all because of the coronavirus.” This was all exasperated by the fact that Dick Pound, a senior member of the International Olympic Committee, had recently said a decision about the Games’ proceeding would be made at some point—likely no earlier than May. Pound’s vague assertion stirred the pot and prompted speculation that simmered throughout the entire Pan-Am Championships. But American Nathaniel Coleman responded best when asked at the aforementioned press conference whether the coronavirus hype is impacting his training and his Olympic plans. Coleman said he is training just as he would no matter what, and he assuming the Games will continue as planned—and if they would get nixed, the world obviously has a much bigger issue on its hands than sports cancellations.

Broken Hearts

The flip side of the endearing Olympic realizations of Colin Duffy and Alannah Yip was that this event’s conclusion marked the end of the Olympic road for all the other competitors, at least for the 2020 Games. Technically there are still possibilities for earning a berth—namely as the Tripartite Commission selection. But no competitor can bank on receiving that, so all of them aside from Duffy and Yip had to say goodbye to their dreams of 2020 Olympic participation. I don’t feel the need to be overly wordy about it. Sometimes simplicity is best, so suffice to say that I am really sad for those who missed out. I actually stuck around Sender One after the action was over, once all the hype and crowd and celebration had moved on to other nightly locales, and just sat on a bouldering mat and felt bummed out for all those competitors who didn’t earn a berth. I’d like to kid myself and think they’ll all be back in four years, vying for the 2024 Games, but I know that is just not true. So, it’s with a pang of sadness and gratitude that I thank all the North American, Central American, and South American competitors who gave it their all but came up short. They all still played a vital part of climbing’s larger Olympic story, and that should never be forgotten.

Neither

Lauren Bair, Ladies and Gentlemen

American Lauren Bair had a phenomenal week, and the high mark was the qualification round. There she won her speed heats, topped all four boulders, and set a high point on the lead route. In the final round, her speed heats were a mixed bag and she only topped one boulder—the slab that was also topped by most of the field—but she was the only competitor to top the lead route, which capped off the entire women’s portion in the most exciting way possible. Her third place finish was the highest of any American woman. So why am I listing her here instead of as a High? Well, because Bair is undeniably one of the best American women at the combined discipline—let’s not forget that she won this year’s Combined Invitational as well—but sadly the tight Olympic quota (two competitors per gender from a given country) means that she won’t get to represent Team USA in Tokyo. That takes nothing away from Olympians Kyra Condie or Brooke Raboutou, each stellar in their own right. But when I watch the Olympics this summer, there will be a little voice in the back of my mind whispering, “How would Lauren Bair have done if she had taken part?”

Results

Men

  1. Colin Duffy (USA)
  2. Zach Galla (USA)
  3. Zander Waller (USA)
  4. Sean Bailey (USA)
  5. Carlos Granja (ECU)
  6. Danny Valencia (ECU)
  7. Cesar Grosso (BRA)
  8. José Ramón Santos Buhl (MEX)

Women

  1. Alannah Yip (CAN)
  2. Alejandra Contreras (CHI)
  3. Lauren Bair (USA)
  4. Andrea Rojas (ECU)
  5. Becca Frangos (CAN)
  6. Norah Chi (USA)
  7. Valentina Aguado (ARG)
  8. Emma Hunt (USA)

John Burgman is the author of High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing, which chronicles the history of American competition climbing.