The IFSC’s 2019 World Cup circuit concluded this past weekend with edge-of-your-seat action at the lead competition at Inzai, Japan. That doesn’t mean the competitors have started their off-season; for many of them, the next Olympic qualification event looms on the calendar in Toulouse, France, at the end of November. After that event, there will be a slew of Continental Championships that will also have Olympic implications. But the formal end of the World Cup season does mean that it’s a perfect time to look back on the whole season and determine some superlatives. We’re including the World Championships in the pool of competitions because although they were not officially part of the World Cup circuit, they occurred smack in the middle of it—and frankly it is impossible to talk about the historic 2019 season without mentioning them.
Without further ado, the IFSC World Cup awards for 2019 go to…
Competitor of the Year
Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret
No other competitor in the history of the IFSC World Cup circuit has had as good of a season as Garnbret had this year. First, she secured the bouldering season’s overall championship in Munich in May. After that she continued to participate in the bouldering World Cup competitions and swept the season—winning every bouldering event that she entered. We could stop right there and Garnbret would be worthy of receiving our Competitor of the Year award. But she also had a string of historic performances at the World Championships in August, where she won the bouldering portion, the lead portion, and the combined portion. Oh—and she also qualified for the Olympics in the process. Garnbret is a talent unlike anything the sphere of competition climbing—and more broadly, the entire sport of climbing—has ever seen. We are fortunate to live in a time when the sport is in the global spotlight, Garnbret is in her prime, and we can watch her break records on a regular basis.
The Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra; Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki; South Korea’s Chaehyun Seo; China’s YiLing Song; Indonesia’s Aries Susanti Rahayu
South Korea’s Jain Kim
In many ways, the subplot this season was one of the younger generation trying to usurp the veterans. It was a compelling narrative, but it lost some steam when South Korea’s Jain Kim—a legend who has been dominant on the circuit for more than a decade—withdrew from a number of the lead events due to a finger injury. Kim was 30 years old at the time, so naturally there were whispers that she might just retire from competition altogether. However, as the lead season progressed to its final events of 2019, Kim returned. It was a slow build—for instance, a ninth place finish at the lead event in Kranj, Slovenia, at the beginning of September was uncharacteristically low for Kim. But she continued to battle back. Her tenacity paid off with a first place finish in the last World Cup competition of the season (at Inzai Japan). By all measures, Kim has returned to top form. She shows no signs of slowing down or retiring. And she is definitely a big name to watch in the upcoming Olympic qualification whirl.
The United States’ Alex Johnson, Japan’s Miho Nonaka; Canada’s Sean McColl
Ondra Flashes the “Crack Climb” Boulder in Meiringen, Switzerland
This season had a number of incredible moments, and one could make a strong case for several of them being the best. But Ondra’s flash of the final boulder at the competition in Meiringen had so many layers that it would be difficult to justify the award for any other moment. Ondra’s famous flash (1:54.02 in the livestream) occurred on the last boulder of the first World Cup event of 2019. This gave the competition itself a perfect climactic arc, and it kicked off the season with a bang. Additionally, the fact that Ondra performed the boulder’s requisite hand-jam so masterfully while all other competitors struggled so hopelessly added to Ondra’s mythos as the master climber of his generation. But more than anything, Ondra’s flash of the boulder made the IFSC World Cup a topic of water cooler discussion in the days that followed. My editor and I were texting about it. Redditors were dissecting it. At my local gym, people who know that I cover the comp scene approached me and enthusiastically asked, “Did you see Ondra on that crack climb?” And, as evidenced by Instagram videos that were posted shortly after the event, routesetters around the world immediately scrambled to put up boulders with hand-jam moves. It is rare and special when the World Cup circuit enters into the climbing consciousness at-large like that, especially when it is prompted by a single move on a single boulder.
The speed climbing world record gets broken…twice.
Best World Cup Event
Munich Bouldering World Cup, May 18-19
The action that happened on the walls at Munich was thrilling—Austria’s Jakob Schubert beat Adam Ondra in the men’s division after Ondra surprisingly struggled on the final boulder, and Garnbret was nearly flawless in securing the bouldering season title in the women’s division. But the aspects that repeatedly elevate the events in Munich year after year are the facility itself and the raucous crowd. The spacious, glassy venue of the Olympic Stadium gives the World Cup competitions a regal feel, and spectators always pack the viewing area, standing shoulder-to-shoulder to watch. Germany has an extremely vocal and knowledgeable fan base, as well as significant competition climbing heritage, which adds to the atmosphere. Simply, there is a special synergy with the spectators and athletes at the World Cup events in Munich, and when you add good sports drama and high stakes into the mix, you have competitive climbing at its very best.
Chamonix Lead and Speed World Cup, July 11-13; Hachioji World Championships, August 11-21
South Korea’s Chaehyun Seo
It is possible that some fans were predicting that certain competitors could give superstar Janja Garnbret a run for her money this year. But it is unlikely that anyone was predicting a formidable challenge to come from a 15-year-old rookie from South Korea. Prior to this season, the climbing world mainly knew Chaehyun Seo as a young phenom who idolized Margo Hayes and aimed to follow in Hayes’ footsteps by sending world-class outdoor benchmarks. Seo didn’t even participate in the bouldering portion of the 2019 World Cup season. But then the lead season began and Seo forced everyone to take notice: She earned second place (behind Garnbret) in Villars, Switzerland; first place in Chamonix, France; first place in Briançon, France; first place in Kranj, Slovenia; first place in Xiamen, China; and third place in Inzai, Japan. By this season’s end, Seo had won, or at least made the podium, in every lead World Cup competition she had entered. She earned the lead overall season championship as well, which many fans had erroneously assumed would be a gimme for Garnbret at the onset of the circuit. Seo’s lead World Cup success, seemingly out of nowhere, upset the applecart in the best way: it added drama to the season at hand, and it established a bankable star for future seasons.
Spain’s Alberto Ginés López; Japan’s Ai Mori
Slovenia’s Mia Krampl Guts It out for a Place on the Podium in Munich
At some point during the early rounds of the bouldering event at Munich, Germany, Mia Krampl tweaked her knee and it started to throb; impressively she advanced to the finals, but by then she could barely walk. She limped and winced. It was hard to watch; the events’ commentators openly questioned whether Krampl was fit to continue. But Krampl persevered and amazingly topped the second boulder after a number of attempts. Then she topped the third boulder, and everyone realized they were witnessing something remarkable. Krampl’s determination amid the knee injury made her an instant crowd favorite for the event, and her emotional top of the last boulder (by employing a figure-four move) to earn a third place finish was icing on the cake (3:27.20 in the livestream). Other competitors had jaw-dropping performances throughout the year, but none of the performances entailed such grit and symbiosis with the crowd. Watch it. Rewatch it. It was a showcase of competition greatness that will live on for years to come.
Sean McColl rallies after an extremely low qualification score of 2+ in Inzai to impressively finish in sixth place.
Best Performance by a US Athlete
Brooke Raboutou Qualifies for the Olympics
The hype for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics has been building for the past four years, ever since the initial announcement of climbing’s inclusion in the Games. But since only 20 men and 20 women are slated to receive the 2020 Olympic berths, a number of competitors—from a number of countries—will undoubtedly be left with broken hearts and shattered Olympic dreams. In other words, it was never out of the realm of possibility that no US athletes would even qualify for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. But Raboutou put any fears of that dreadful possibility to rest at the summer’s World Championships—where she finished in ninth place in the combined discipline and earned a coveted provisional Olympic slot. Since then, she has appeared in a number of media profiles (most recently in an excellent two-part short film, L’héritage), and rightly so. But never let the ongoing publicity overshadow the base coupling: Raboutou is a spectacular competitor and her Olympic qualification is one of the greatest achievements in the history of American climbing.
Ashima Shiraishi places fifth in lead at Briançon, France; Sean Bailey places fifth in lead at Briançon, France; John Brosler places eighth in speed at Chamonix, France; Jesse Grupper makes finals twice in a row (in Xiamen, China, and Inzai, Japan)