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May 2015, Bouldering World Cup, Toronto, Canada. Wearing our team jerseys were the not-yet Head U.S. Team Coach, Josh Larson; not-yet Olympic-commentator Meagan Martin; not-yet first woman to climb V13, Angie Payne; and young and green not-yet Olympian Nathaniel Coleman. While it was around my 20th World Cup, this trip was the first time I’d experienced an out-of-country World Cup with a team, and that “We’re in this together” feeling boosted my motivation and pride skyward.
More firsts: That weekend, Nathaniel won his first silver medal on a world stage. During semifinals when it looked like he had a shot at advancing, our team rallied around him with explosive energy. When he came out for finals, our cheering was probably obnoxious to onlookers, but we didn’t care: This quiet force of a kid had a chance for a podium, and we were going to lose our voices to help him get there. Nathaniel placed second—out of the blue to most.
I’d describe Nathaniel’s approach to competing as steadfast. He fights with everything he has, but remains calm, keeping his head under pressure better than any competitor I’ve seen. If he’s unsuccessful on a climb, before walking off the mat he will stand below the problem, staring at it pensively; even after failing he’s still trying to learn as much as he can. When asked about it once, I think at a team debrief, he said, “I like to make peace with the climbs I can’t do before leaving to move onto the next one.” He said he sought closure.
Showing the first top result to be no fluke, he made the podium again in Vail, Colorado, two weeks later, earning his second World Cup silver, and solidifying himself as one of America’s best comp climbers, even back then.
In 2016, when I first heard that climbing was announced for the 2020 Olympics, Nathaniel was the first name that came to my mind for the guys. During the qualifying season of 2019, the fact that our multi-time National Champion might even be our only hope crossed my mind (though later both Colin Duffy and Sean Bailey were to prove themselves well capable). When he came so close at the first official qualifying event, the 2019 IFSC Climbing World Championships, in Hachioji, missing the Olympics by one place, I knew with certainty that Captain America (the name that arose in the audience in Vail back in 2015, for his strength and All-American appearance, as he passed through the rounds for his second silver) could do it. When Nathaniel earned his slot at the second Olympic qualifier, in Toulouse, France, at the end of the year, I was up in the middle of the night screaming internally, texting plans with his mom, Rosane, for a surprise airport party
Yesterday when Nathaniel stood on that Olympic podium, I was flooded with pride and nostalgia, but not surprise. In our sport, consistency is extremely difficult, and we’ve seen strong competitors’ World Cup results fluctuate from first to mid-30s (or below) mere days apart. We know that anything can happen.
I think what we as his friends, teammates, and coaches have felt so strongly with Nathaniel since that first World Cup silver is belief—in his talent, his work ethic, his mindset, in him. Seeing him standing on sport’s greatest podium six years later feels full-circle, and he looked like he belonged there.
Alex Johnson won two Bouldering World Cups, in 2008 and 2010, in Vail, Colorado, and Greifensee, Switzerland. She won her first national title in 2003, at age 13. In 2019 she came out of a hiatus from competition to place second at the 2019 Bouldering Nationals, earning back her spot on the US Team. She was then 13th in the overall Bouldering World Cup standings that year, the highest-ranked American boulderer.