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Just when you thought that 2021 could not get any better for Team USA, the World Championships kicked off this week in Russia and saw American athletes making the podium in the Speed and Boulder disciplines.
At this point, you’ve probably lost count of Team USA’s total medal count for this current season (16, plus a silver medal at the Olympics by Nathaniel Coleman), but the important metric to remember here is that the last time an American medaled at the World Championships was in 2016, when Claire Buhrfeind earned a silver in the Combined. Other Americans have earned World Championships medals as well in the past (Alex Puccio Sasha DiGiulian, Emily Harrington, and Chris Sharma, among them), but you’d have to gaze way back at 1991 to find another year when multiple medals were won by Americans at the same World Championships (Robyn Erbesfield in Lead and Hans Florine in Speed back then).
Team USA’s remarkable performance this year was led by Noah Bratschi in the men’s Speed discipline. Bratschi rocketed through an early race in the finals to defeat Kazakhstan’s Amir Maimuratov. Bratschi then bested Russia’s Vladislav Deulin (who was competing under the CFR country designation) in the next round when Deulin’s left foot slipped and resulted in a costly fall. It was hardly a fluke victory for Bratschi, however, as he soon beat France’s Guillaume Moro as well to win the Small Final and claim the bronze medal. The race for gold was thrilling in its own right, with Ukraine’s Danyil Boldyrev clocking a blazing 5.733-seconds to win a neck-and-neck race against Spain’s Erik Noya Cardona. The win marked Boldyrev second World Championships gold medal, his other being in 2014.
The biggest star of the women’s Speed division was Poland’s Natalia Kalucka, who gritted through neck-and-neck heats in the finals to find herself racing against her Polish compatriot and world-record holder Aleksandra Miroslaw in the 1/2 final. A surprising slip by Miroslaw resulted in Kalucka cruising to an upset victory in the race; this was followed by another race in which Kalucka’s opponent—Iuliia Kaplina, competing under the CFR country designation—slipped, allowing Kalucka to claim victory and ultimately the gold medal. Kaplina finished with the silver, and Miroslaw earned the bronze.
In the Boulder discipline that followed, Team USA’s Natalia Grossman added to her dream season by giving possibly her best performance of the year. In fact, throughout all the women’s rounds, Grossman was never situated lower than first place, with an early highlight being her top of all four boulders in the semi-finals. However, Italy’s Camilla Moroni also topped the four boulders in that round and stayed close on Grossman’s heels. In the finals, it became apparent that Grossman and Moroni had begun a captivating rivalry on the wall: Moroni would top a boulder, only to have Grossman emerge from isolation moments later and equal the feat…or in some cases better it with a flash.
Fittingly, the scores came down to Moroni topping the last boulder in the finals on her second attempt, while Grossman managed to reach the top on a flash attempt to secure World Championship gold— the first Boulder gold medal for an American since Alex Puccio’s in 2014.
There were not any Americans in the men’s Boulder final, but that did not detract from the excitement. Like Grossman, Japan’s Kokoro Fujii topped every boulder in the final round, including the campusy first boulder that stumped all other competitors. Fujii was also one of the only competitors in the men’s division (the other being his compatriot, Tomoa Narasaki) to successfully traverse the slab of the third boulder. Fujii’s performance was so commanding throughout the final round that he secured the World Championship victory by reaching the zone on his second attempt on the last boulder. Sure, he eventually topped it, but that seemed like a formality; the gold was already his, with the silver medal going to Narasaki and the bronze going to France’s Manuel Cornu.
The World Championships continue with the Lead discipline tomorrow. In the meantime, here are some more Highs, Lows, and quick thoughts about all the Speed and Boulder action.
Almost a dud: It’s worth reiterating that Fujii was the only competitor to top the first boulder in the men’s final—and that nobody else even reached the zone. Think about that: If it hadn’t been for Fujii, that boulder would have seen no tops and no zones and would have definitely been considered the snoozer of the round. Fujii saved the viewers from having a big lull in the action there.
Raboutou shines: Team USA’s Broke Raboutou didn’t earn a medal, but she still had a fantastic series of Boulder rounds. She was tied for first-place alongside Grossman in the qualification scores. Then she topped three boulders in the semi-finals, and topped two boulders in the finals to finish in fifth place. My favorite moment of Raboutou’s performance was when she took a totally static approach to the first boulder of the finals (which read far more dynamically)…static into the low shoulder press…and static through the upper triple-dyno with a sneaky toe-hook for stability. Great stuff. And while we’re on the subject of Raboutou, if you haven’t seen Leo Zhukov’s photo of her from the weekend, check it out. It already feels like this will become an iconic image of Rabotou’s stellar career.
Creativity in climbing: One of the most memorable moves of the entire weekend was Elena Krasovskaia’s nearly doing the splits on the second boulder in the women’s finals, placing her foot above her head on the top hold, then doing a clever hand-foot match to earn the points for the top. Several other competitors topped that boulder too, but no one else even came close to employing the funky splits/hand-foot-match beta.
In the record books: Here’s another quick note about Noah Bratschi’s bronze medal in Speed. It’s the first (and only) Speed World Championship medal for an American since Hans Florine earned Speed gold exactly 30 years ago. The Speed wall that Florine raced on was not the current, standard IFSC wall. So, Bratschi’s Speed medal is the first for an American in the modern era.
Two of a kind: While we’re on the subject of Speed, there was a heat in the women’s division that featured eventual winner Natalia Kalucka racing against her twin sister, Aleksandra (which Natalia won with a time of 7.444 seconds). Prior to this, had the World Championships ever featured a Speed race between twin sisters? It’s a quirky stat, but no other race in history immediately comes to mind.
More American nods: Bratschi wasn’t the only American who did well in Speed. Emma Hunt and John Brosler also found themselves advancing out of qualification. I thought Hunt’s race against the Ukraine’s Yelyzaveta Lavrykova was the most exciting of the round, with Hunt slipping but continuing…and then Lavrykova slipping a bit farther up the wall. “The athletes should never give up during these races—you never know what might happen,” commentator Matt Groom aptly exclaimed. Hunt ultimately finished in seventh in the women’s division; Brosler finished in sixth in the men’s division.
Yet again: Social media lit up following the very poor shot choice of Austria’s Johanna Färber during the women’s Boulder semi-finals. The IFSC promptly released an apology statement that Matt Groom also read on air. If this sounds a bit like déjà vu, it’s because Farber was also the victim of a similarly framed shot at a World Cup earlier this season (heck, just a few months ago). Such repetition is terribly unfortunate, if not worthy of some deeper inquiry of the parties involved in the shot choice and its implementation on the livestream.
Close, but not quite: The heartbreak of the weekend came when Serbia’s Stasa Gejo had her fingertips on the top hold of the third boulder in the finals. It looked momentarily like she’d be able to secure the undercling and earn the points, but she just couldn’t find the right position and couldn’t control the top as the time ticked down. “When a finger lets you down…” Matt Groom described on commentary. Gejo was understandably dejected, but luckily she rallied to top the fourth boulder and finished the event with a well-earned bronze medal.
Scary stuff: One of the lasting images from the men’s Boulder semi-finals was memorable for the wrong reasons. South Korea’s Minyoung Lee jumped off the wall following his top of the fourth boulder and seemed to begin celebrating while in mid-air. This caused him to land awkwardly, basically whiplashing as his feet hit the mat. It looked really nasty and Lee was clearly in immediate pain. He grabbed his back in agony as the medical staff rushed in. Luckily, CT scans indicated no signs of serious injury, but that was the last update that any of us heard on the livestream. Let’s all hope that Lee is OK.
Praise for Gibert: This one has to sting for France’s Fanny Gibert. She topped two boulders in the semi-final round—the same number of tops (and zones) as Stasa Gejo. But attempts matter too, and the arithmetic meant that Gejo advanced to the finals and Gibert did not. Gibert, who is 28 years old, has come close to making finals a couple other times this season (at the Salt Lake City World Cups, for example). Assuming she wants to continue competing, I wouldn’t be surprised if she is a consistent name in the finals next season.
Post-event improvements: Natalia Grossman was understandably fairly speechless in her post-event interview with Matt Groom after the gold medal performance. In the future, how about showing victorious competitors a few video clips from their performance—have them walk the viewers through what was going through their head for each send? Or how about asking the victorious competitors to rank how gold medals compare to their other climbing accomplishments? Or how about asking if there is anything the victorious competitors would like to say to their fans back home? It just feels like there’s so much additional good stuff that could be garnered during the post-event interviews, as that’s when viewers finally put a personality to the performance.
Klingler sits out: Prior to the event, former Boulder World Champion Petra Klingler of Switzerland released a statement saying that she would not be taking part in this year’s World Championships. She specified (somewhat) that she was “reorganizing [her team] and training.” I’m not sure what the reorganization part means or what its implications will be, but I’ll be curious to see.
Good stuff: This season, Stasa Gejo has performed incredibly well on the wall and proven she can commentate events quite well too. As if anyone needed another reason to be a fan of hers, she was spotted on camera handing out Toblerone chocolate bars to every competitor after the women’s Boulder final. There has to be a sponsorship opportunity in there somewhere, right?
- Kokoro Fujii (JPN)
- Tomoa Narasaki (JPN)
- Manuel Cornu (FRA)
- Aleksey Rubtsov (CFR)
- Nimrod Marcus (ISR)
- Anze Peharc (SLO)
- Natalia Grossman (USA)
- Camilla Moroni (ITA)
- Stasa Gejo (SRB)
- Elena Krasovskaia
- Brooke Raboutou
- Andrea Kumin (SUI)
- Danyil Boldyrev (UKR)
- Erik Noya Cardona (ESP)
- Noah Bratschi (USA)
- Natalia Kalucka (POL)
- Iuliia Kaplina (CFR)
- Aleksandra Miroslaw (POL)