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Olympics

Only a Fool Would Count Out Sean Bailey

He didn't make the Olympic team, finished 47th in Innsbruck, but these stumbles only sharpened Sean Bailey's blade of ambition, and now he rightly sits on the throne as king of the comeback.

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Team USA’s Sean Bailey has given us a lot of iconic moments over the past several weeks. Remember, there was that dyno to the top of the fourth boulder to win the Salt Lake City World Cup in May? The crowd rose to their feet in ecstasy as Bailey snagged the top jug and pumped his fist in reciprocal celebration. It was epic.

Then there was Bailey’s methodical traverse, stretched beneath the enormous headwall volume, on the lead wall at Villars last weekend—also on his way to a win, also as the crowd roared.

And, of course, there were those images of him sitting on a throne in Villars. They quickly became memes, but only because beneath the humor, it just felt right to see Bailey in a king’s chair. He ruled.  

All were exceptional snapshots of Bailey’s greatness, but my favorite snapshot is older and far more subdued. Right after Bailey won the 2019 Bouldering Open Nationals, he returned home to Seattle to volunteer at a local youth competition; the event was taking place at his home gym, Vertical World, under the guidance of head coach Tyson Schoene. Schoene posted an Instagram story of Bailey dutifully belaying kids at the competition—and that’s my favorite iconic Sean Bailey moment. Bailey even gave away his event-worn Bouldering Nationals bib at that competition.

Eli Gilbert (left) and Sean Bailey back at Vertical World, hours after Bailey’s victory at the Bouldering Open National Championship in 2019. Bailey gave Gilbert the bib—number 113—that had been worn during that championship event.

See, as much as Bailey can literally sit on a throne now as the greatest American male competitor of the modern era, a royal seat is not the best representation of the comp scene’s growth in the United States, or Bailey’s crucial role in it. A more appropriate symbol is that of Bailey helping out at that local event, stoking other kids to work hard—hoping that they will someday get to the throne too. His throne. 

Ups and downs

It is not just that Bailey has worked hard to achieve his World Cup gold medals this season (in Salt Lake City and Villars, in two different disciplines approximately one month apart). All competitors on the World Cup circuit have worked hard. It’s the degree to which Bailey’s grand achievements and hard work were underscored—and perhaps fueled by—important and unmistakable stumbles. 

For starters, Bailey missed out on the last remaining American Olympic quota spot at the 2020 Pan-American Championships … which ended up going to Colin Duffy. At the time, Bailey already had a number of landmark outdoor ascents to his name—Joe Mama and Realization among them—so, it was conceivable to fans that he might permanently step away from the competition scene following the Olympic push and instead focus wholly on real rock. 

But he didn’t. He returned to the competition scene, hungrier than ever and aiming to make the national team in both bouldering and lead disciplines at USA Climbing’s National Team Trials. This ambition was nothing new for Bailey; part of his fan appeal has always been that he never hides his competitive cravings. Consider a statement he made ahead of last year’s Bouldering Nationals: “[USA Climbing], I’ve got a routesetter challenge for you. Can you set a final round where first place has less than 4 tops, and every boulder gets sent?”

Also read: Meet the Next Gen Olympic Hopefuls Gunning for Paris 2024

To be clear, Bailey was specifically asking USA Climbing’s routesetters to set harder boulders. Who does that

Well, a king does that. Sean Bailey does that. 

There would be more stumbles (and notice I am calling them stumbles, not “failures,” because they would all end up being catalysts for his triumphs). Upon returning to the World Cup circuit in 2021 and attaining the highest honor—that gold medal at Salt Lake City— Bailey would have a calamitous weekend at the World Cup in Innsbruck: tied for 47th place, without a single top of the qualification boulders. He didn’t advance to the semi-finals … not even close. 

So, it was conceivable to fans that the gold medal at Salt Lake City was perhaps some sort of fluke. Or at least an aligning of luck and location that would likely never be repeated. 

Also read: Janja Garnbret Loses at the Olympics? Unthinkable? Let’s Think About It

As we now know, it wasn’t a fluke. Bailey returned to top form the following weekend, able to shrug off the disappointing results of Innsbruck, able to sharpen that blade of ambition once again and win another gold medal. Only then was it completely clear that this was not luck and circumstance, nor had it ever been. Rather, this was always Bailey being Bailey—persevering. 

Sean Bailey stands highest atop the podium at Villars Photo: Lena Drapella_IFSC

A long time coming

Pundits can read more into the results and fans can further analyze the ambition. I hope they do. But the best indicator of tenacity being Sean Bailey’s greatest asset is his own recent statement on the matter. After the dust settled at the Villars World Cup and Bailey was undeniably the king—throne and all—he wrote on Instagram that he “found [his] dream” at Villars five years earlier by narrowly missing out on a spot on the podium. “In that moment, I knew it was possible,” Bailey reflected. “It’s crazy to think that was 5 years ago. Crazier to realize I finally did it.”

In concluding that Instagram message, Bailey posted, “Hard work pays off and dreams come true.” 

That is all accurate, and Bailey’s throne is the proof. But someday soon he’ll probably be belaying at a local competition again, helping others dream, and that’s what makes the accolades truly exceptional.