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USA Climbing’s National Team Trials rolled through Mesa Rim in Austin, Texas, this weekend—marking the unofficial start of the 2023 World Cup season hype for American fans. The Team Trials selected the elite squad that will soon travel around the globe representing the USA at IFSC’s events, with the eventual goal of qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympics.
Here’s how all the action at the Trials unfolded…
Sanders, Condie, and Others Form a Powerhouse Women’s Crew
No one’s participation at this year’s Team Trials came with more intrigue than that of 15-year-old Anastasia “Annie” Sanders, the reigning National Champion in both the lead and boulder disciplines. In the Team Trials’ qualification round of the Combined discipline (meaning, a competitor’s bouldering score was added to a lead score, with a maximum of 100 points per each discipline), Sanders notched 179 points—more than 50 points more than a majority of the field.
But it was not a runaway lead for Sanders. In fact, Kylie Cullen, who has represented Team USA on the World Cup circuit in previous seasons, actually bested Sanders by 0.5 points. To an extent, such narrow separation was expected throughout the weekend, as falls in bouldering resulted in decimal point deductions in scores.
In fact, Cullen struggled on the first two boulders of the semi-final round, but was able to keep some pressure on Sanders with ascents of the last two boulders and a third-place finish in the semi’s lead portion.
There was another tantalizing storyline that emerged as well: Sanders continued to perform masterfully (topping all four boulders in the semis and almost topping the semi’s lead route), but so did former Olympian Kyra Condie—Sanders’ senior by more than 10 years. This created something of a generational battle, made all the more interesting by the fact that Sanders and Condie were at the top of the leaderboard, separated by just 0.1 on the scorecards at the conclusion of the semi-finals.
Early in the final round, Sanders began to separate significantly from Condie and everyone else. The first boulder of the finals, a step-up dyno into a fingertip traverse, saw steady progress from Kerry Scott and Zoe Bitters; then Helen Gillett, a longtime standout on the youth circuit, grazed the top hold but couldn’t secure a match. When it was finally time for Sanders’ attempt, she made the complex boulder look breezy—cruising through both zone holds (as the new scoring system features a 5-point zone and a 10-point zone), and dialing in a match of the top hold after a couple of attempts. Sanders appeared to have the same level of cruise-control on the ensuing boulders, including a “power-slab” third boulder and a steeply overhanging fourth boulder…all of which she topped for a nearly perfect bouldering score (99.5 out of 100).
Although Sanders sat comfortably atop the leaderboard after the bouldering portion, several competitors below her were packed tightly together: Condie was in second place with a score of 64.9, and Cullen and Cloe Coscoy had identical scores of 64.7. Of that group, Coscoy climbed first in the Combined finals’ lead portion and progressed midway up the wall before falling right after latching an enormous yellow, spherical macro. Cullen attempted the route shortly thereafter and climbed noticeably faster than she ever has; she eventually fell while trying to secure a reachy right-hand crimp, but the performance was enough to vault Cullen briefly into first place.
However, the advantage was short-lived. Sanders—a Texas native—climbed next and seemed enlivened by the raucous support of the crowd. She motored through the lead route’s lowest portion of pyramid-shaped volumes, then eased through the yellow macro, established a new high point, and continued into a section of pink pinches on the headwall. Sanders was even able to perch and clip the chains at the top before securing the top hold—a rarity at elite competitions. But she successfully latched the top hold as well and earned the maximum of 100 points for sending the route. It was a memorable performance that won Sanders the gold medal. Condie climbed last and thrilled the crowd by approaching the headwall—inching ever-so-close to a top—but fell while launching for one of the aforementioned pink pinches to secure the silver medal, with Cullen earning the bronze.
In terms of determining the Combined National Team, there was a bit of math at play: In addition to points from this Team Trials, points from the National Championship and points for participating in last year’s World Cup circuit were also incorporated into the selection process. When all the calculations were made, Sanders, Condie, Cullen, Adriene Akiko, and Coscoy all earned a spot on Team USA. Superstars Natalia Grossman and Brooke Raboutou did not take part in the Team Trials, as they were already pre-selected for the National Team.
Veterans Edge Out the Youthful Standouts in Men’s Division
The men’s division of the Combined boulder and lead disciplines featured an eclectic cast of characters. In addition to competitors like Nathaniel Coleman and Sean Bailey—fan-favorites that have been on the World Cup circuit for years—there were participants like Adam Shahar and Dillon “Bob” Countryman, relatively new teenagers on the elite adult scene. And although 26-year-old Bailey and 26-year-old Jesse Grupper, in particular, stood out early and led the field in the qualification round, the young up-and-comers ruled the semi-finals. For instance, 16-year-old Countryman—the reigning boulder National Champion—set an early high-point in the semi’s lead portion that would only get bested by a top on the route from veteran Grupper. Similarly, 17-year-old Shahar obliterated the rest of the men’s field in the semi’s bouldering portion, topping three of the four blocs and rocketing to the top of the leaderboard.
Such standout performances by the youngsters were bolstered by some mishaps from the aforementioned veterans. Bailey, for example, had a surprising foot slip on the semi-finals’ lead route, which resulted in a lower-than-expected place heading into the finals. Coleman, as well, struggled somewhat in the semi-finals’ bouldering portion and found himself just barely eeking into the finals.
But veteran savvy proved to be an invaluable asset once the finals began. None of the men were able to progress past the zone holds and a volume mantle on the first boulder. The second boulder was nearly as brutal, requiring a precise run-and-jump start and a crimpy right-hand cross-move farther up—but 22-year-old Zach Galla secured a top to get the crowd hyped.
Galla carried that audience momentum into the finals’ third boulder, a pseudo-slab with a cruxy coordination pinch, by earning another top. And Coleman and Bailey found some mojo on the boulder too, providing highlight-reel beta by stacking kneebars to stabilize and earn tops. Countryman closed out the third boulder with a top as well, and an ultra-powerful fourth boulder—which saw no ascents—dovetailed into a high-stakes lead climbing portion. There, Coleman wowed the crowd on the lead route by securing a foot-hold above his head high up the wall; he wasn’t able to work out of the contorted position, but the jaw-dropping flexibility helped earn him an eventual silver medal. Many other finalists bottle-necked with falls in similar spots on the lead route—Shahar, Grupper, Hugo Hoyer, among them. Bailey managed to climb a bit higher until a left-foot slip on a sloper foiled an otherwise smooth attempt. Bailey is one of the most decorated American competitors in history and likely had a lot more left in the tank, but the attempt still earned him a bronze medal. Although Galla ultimately fell near the same spot on the lead wall as Coleman and many others, Galla’s Combined score was fortified by that stellar preceding bouldering portion (as the only competitors to secure two tops). It translated to Galla winning the gold medal.
When the calculations were made, earning spots on the Combined National Team alongside Galla, Coleman, and Bailey were Countryman and Grupper (with Colin Duffy pre-selected).
Close Races Abound in Speed
With Speed scheduled to be a separate medal-earning discipline at the 2024 Paris Olympics, speed climbers will likely receive more attention and recognition than ever before in the Olympic lead-up. Thus, these Trials provided the first glimpses of the American climbers that might be basking in all that Olympic limelight in the months to come. Beyond that, the Team Trials featured one of the most competitive fields of Speed climbers ever assembled, with names like Noah Bratschi, Zach Hammer, Evan Homan, Darren Skolnik, and Merritt Ernsberger (who led the qualification round)—all of whom are well-known domestically in the men’s division; and Callie Close, Piper Kelly, Sydney Williams, Liberty Runnels, and Sophia Curcio (who led the qualification round), among others, in the women’s division.
Merritt Ernsberger edged out Jack Yamaato in a close race to jumpstart the men’s final round, and then bested Richard Li and Darren Skolnik to become an early favorite to win gold. But there were other storylines that kept fans on the edges of their seats—including a heartbreaking false start by Benjamin Shinto in a race against Evan Homan, and Zach Hammer clocking the fastest time of the night on multiple occasions; Hammer first hit the buzzer with a blazing time of 5.88 seconds in a race against Gray Gorbatoff, then clocked 5.70 seconds in a run against Joshua Carbine, and finally won the Small Final with a personal-best time of 5.63 seconds to earn the bronze.
The strangest occurrence of the whole afternoon came when both Noah Bratschi and Hammer slipped off the wall in a race. This rarity resulted in an immediate re-race…with both competitors slipping again, although Bratschi was able to stay on the wall and secure a win. All the action funneled into a Big Final sprint between Bratschi and Ernsberger. The race was clean and incredibly close—separated by just 0.05 seconds, with Ernsberger reaching for the win by the slimmest margin and Bratschi having to settle for silver.
The women’s division featured razor-close races as well, including a highly touted matchup between former national record holder Piper Kelly and reigning two-time Speed national champion Callie Close. Kelly earned the victory by less than half-a-second and set a new personal best time (8.06 seconds) in the process. But Close still garnered some hardware, beating Kailer Kordewick in a neck-and-neck Small Final race for the bronze medal. And Kelly stayed perfect, setting another personal best time (7.84 seconds) in a Big Final race against a likely future star (and Team Trials silver medalist) Sophia Curcio.
In addition to Kelly, Curcio, and Close, it was Liberty Runnels and Sydney Williams who earned coveted spots on the women’s Speed National Team (with Emma Hunt pre-selected). And along with Ernsberger, Bratschi, and Hammer, it was Darren Skolnik and Quinn O’francia that made the Speed National Team in the men’s division (with Sam Watson and John Brosler pre-selected).
If this writer may editorialize a bit, it was clear that USA Climbing upped the production value for these Team Trials—expertly utilizing accoutrements such as on-screen graphics, competitor interviews, replays, neon light shows, and engaging commentary by Meagan Martin and Allison Vest. In addition, although the men’s boulder finals might have been a bit overcooked, the routesetting was solid throughout the event. Chief setters Ian McIntosh and Brad Weaver, along with the whole setting crew, deserve a tip of the hat, as do the judges, volunteers, and in-house emcee Al Smith. It all worked to create a fun atmosphere amid some very high-pressure situations in every round of action.
I’m still not convinced this new Combined scoring system is the most intuitive for casual fans. I suppose I am fine with the concept of multiple boulder zone holds; but designating portions of the lead route with a wide range of points (for instance, one point per hold in the lowest section, four points per hold in the highest section) requires hyper-attentive viewing. Also, the fact that topping the lead route results in the same amount of points as flashing all four boulders in a round seems a bit strange. I mean, are those feats truly performative equivalents?
Nonetheless, fans have plenty of time to get used to this new scoring system before the next Olympics. In the end, this Team Trials was a perfect vehicle for making the 2024 Paris Olympics feel close on the calendar, relatively speaking.
2023 National Team Members:
Men Boulder & Lead Combined
Colin Duffy (pre-selected)
Dillon “Bob” Countryman
Women Boulder & Lead Combined
Natalia Grossman (pre-selected)
Brooke Raboutou (pre-selected)
Anastasia “Annie” Sanders
Sam Watson (pre-selected)
John Brosler (pre-selected)
Emma Hunt (pre-selected)