It was clear after the recent Bouldering World Cups in Salt Lake City that this season’s biggest battle was between Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret and the United States’ Natalia Grossman. At this weekend’s Bouldering World Cup in Innsbruck, Austria, we learned that the competitive rivalry between the two women continue, and, in fact, it’s shaping up to be one of the greatest single-season back-and-forth narratives of all time.
In Innsbruck, both Grossman and Garnbret had impressive qualification rounds; Garnbret topped all five boulders of the round, while Grossman topped four. Garnbret continued to claim the top spot in the standings after the semifinals, but Grossman was not far behind, in fourth place.
Then, Grossman’s ascent of the powerful, overhanging boulder at the beginning of the finals put her in an early lead—but Garnbret soon flashed the boulder to take back the lead and stoke the rivalry. Both women also topped the coordination slab boulder that followed, with Grossman’s ascent being one of the highlights of the round (30:57 in the livestream). The third boulder was a more methodical slab, but they each motored through it as well.
The women’s final round was shaping up to feature a nail-biting finish on a steeply overhanging fourth boulder—and the fact that the boulder bested Serbia’s Stasa Gejo and Japan’s Akiyo Noguchi indicated that it could provide some adequate separation in the scores of Grossman and Garnbret. However, a powerful thunderstorm soon rolled through. The event was promptly postponed and eventually a decision was made to cancel the remainder of the women’s final round. As a result, the women’s podium was determined by the three preceding boulders. Garnbret was awarded the gold medal, having flashed everything up to that point; Grossman took the silver, having topped everything as well—but with more attempts than Garnbret; and Gejo was awarded the bronze.
It was not an ideal way to finish a round that had been incredibly exciting until the weather woes. However, it added a unique chapter to the ongoing Grossman-Garnbret story, and it ensures that the next contest featuring both of them will be must-see viewing.
In the men’s division at Innsbruck, the qualification round was marked by strong performances from several members of Team Japan and Austria’s Jakob Schubert. However, Schubert faded in the semifinals, causing commentator Matt Groom to wonder whether Schubert was too fatigued after winning the lead World Cup the day prior.
Leading the men’s field into the finals were three standouts from Team Japan—Yoshiyuki Ogata, Tomoa Narasaki, and Kokoro Fujii—and they each stayed at the top of the standings throughout the round. Ogata was the best of the trio; he cleverly broke the beta on the first boulder, utilizing heel hooks instead of a hanging rose-move to reach the boulder’s top (3:19:27 in the livestream). And he landed the dyno-catch crux and held a big barndoor swing on his way to topping the second boulder. Narasaki had a chance to overtake Ogata in the scores with a top of the third boulder—a slab, on which Narasaki utilized one-finger presses into the bolt holes of a volume (4:21:15 in the livestream). It was an erudite technique, but it didn’t lead to a successful ascent. And since the men’s round did not feature a fourth boulder due to time constraints caused by the weather delays, Ogata was awarded the gold medal; Narasaki took the silver, and Fujii earned the bronze to complete Team Japan’s podium sweep.
Results from the finals are below. And here are some other highs and lows worth mentioning about the wild weekend in Innsbruck.
Hardware for Gejo: This event did not mark Stasa Gejo’s first time back on the wall since a very debilitating knee injury, but it did mark her first World Cup medal since 2018. She had strong performances last month at Salt Lake City too (including a fifth-place finish in one of those competitions), so it’s safe to say Gejo is back in top form.
Not over ’til it’s over: Just when everyone was about to count out Belgium’s Simon Lorenzi on the second boulder in the men’s finals, he stuck that boulder’s big dyno—then realized he only had eight seconds remaining for his attempt and fast-tracked to the top as the clock ticked down. His quick ascent was one of the most inspiring moments of the weekend. The semifinal livestream replay has been temporarily taken down due to a camera incident (more on that below), but it will be edited and reposted later; I’d encourage everyone to seek out and watch Lorenzi’s send.
Coleman’s core: Nathaniel Coleman barely eked out the qualification round, but he made the most of his advancement by topping three boulders and earning the highest place of any non-Team Japan competitor in the semifinals. He didn’t reach the top of any boulders in the men’s finals, but he still did a lot to cheer about. Most notably, he was the first competitor to unlock the intended “campus beta” on the first men’s boulder, prompting the commentators to praise his composure and core strength. Who doesn’t love flashy moves like this to kick off a high-stakes round?
Guess who’s back? One of the most noticeable absences on the circuit this season has been that of the Korean Team—which has limited its travel due to the ongoing pandemic. The full Korean team did not attend this Innsbruck event, but former World Cup winner Jongwon Chon did. He finished the event in eight place. It was great to see him climbing so well after such a long absence from the scene.
Goodbye, Noguchi: This was the last World Cup competition for Akiyo Noguchi, who announced that she will participate in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and then retire. If that is the case, she leaves behind one of the greatest legacies in the history of the sport—21 World Cup wins, and more than three-times that many World Cup podium appearances. Beyond those statistics, she has been one of the best role models and ambassadors for competition climbing. She also should be considered captain of the squad—Team Japan—that has basically ruled the circuit for the past decade. I’m not ready to write the coda for Noguchi’s entire career yet because I think she could do marvelous things at the Olympics. But she will certainly be missed in World Cup seasons to come.
A narrow miss for Brooke: American Brooke Raboutou needed to reach the top of the fourth women’s boulder in the semifinals in order to advance to the finals. (No competitor before her had reached the top, so it was a tall order.) She gave the boulder a number of good attempts as her time dwindled, but ultimately she exited that round with that particular boulder untopped. Still, Raboutou finished the bouldering weekend in eighth place, she was arguably the star of the show in the lead World Cup, and she came out of the Innsbruck whirl an even bigger star than she was before.
Stop signs: Some of the joy of watching competitors traverse methodically along the third women’s boulder in the finals was countered by anxiety that they might accidentally press their hands against the poorly placed signs—which would likely lead to disqualification. Check out Natalia Grossman’s right hand during her attempt at 53:38 in the livestream to see what I mean. This is the epitome of poorly placed signage in a competition, so let’s hope that routesetters, officials, and event organizers everywhere saw it and learned from it.
Close call for Nonaka: Japan’s Miho Nonaka landed awkwardly on her knee while attempting the final boulder of the women’s semifinal round. It was apparently a bad enough situation to merit a trip to a nearby hospital for evaluation—and Nonaka soon chose to not compete in the finals, despite having advanced in the scores. Fortunately, she was walking around the venue later in the evening, limping but unassisted. She’s one of the best competitors on the circuit, a qualified Olympian, and she has already had to deal with season-ending injuries in the past—so let’s hope her knee continues to heal quickly.
What If: I stated previously that the fourth women’s boulder in the finals was eliminated due to inclement weather. But it’s worth going back and watching Aikiyo Noguchi’s incredible fight on that boulder (1:10:26 in the livestream)—right before the round was called—and wondering how both Janja Garnbret and Natalia Grossman might have performed on it. Would either of them have topped it? Would they both have topped it? Unfortunately, we’ll never know—but it will make for good barstool or gym mat discussion with your friends this week.
The camera incident: I must address that prolonged, camera close-up of Austria’s Johanna Färber (that’s all the description I’d prefer to say) because it rightly garnered instant criticism from viewers and fans. Farber herself called it “disrespectful and upsetting” on Instagram. She stated, “I’m an athlete and here to show my best performance. To be honest I do really feel so embarrassed to know that thousands of people saw this. We need to stop sexualizing women in sports and start to appreciate their performance.”
An apology from the event’s host broadcaster was eventually released. “We acknowledge that, for a brief moment, we chose to display the sport of climbing in the wrong way,” the apology from ORF director Michael Kogler read. “Our apology goes out to Ms. Johanna Färber, the International Federation of Sport Climbing, Austria Climbing, and all those who felt concern and discomfort for our actions.”
In addition to the strong performances by Grossman, Raboutou, and Coleman, members of Team USA placed as follows: In the men’s division, Colin Duffy placed ninth, Ross Fulkerson tied for 29th, Ben Hanna tied for 39th, and Sean Bailey tied for 47th. In the women’s division, Kylie Cullen placed 17th, Kyra Condie tied for 21st, and Campbell Sarinopoulos tied for 67th.
- Janja Garnbret (SLO)
- Natalia Grossman (USA)
- Stasa Gejo (SRB)
- Futaba Ito (JPN)
- Akiyo Noguchi (JPN)
DNS: Miho Nonaka (JPN)
- Yoshiyuki Ogata (JPN)
- Tomoa Narasaki (JPN)
- Kokoro Fujii (JPN)
- Nicolai Uznik (AUT)
- Simon Lorenzi (BEL)
- Nathaniel Coleman (USA)
Check back frequently for more World Cup recaps and analysis as the 2021 season continues.