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There are a lot of big storylines in competition climbing right now—the ongoing return from the pandemic’s disruption, the impending Olympics, the feasibility of new speed world records. But among the summer’s biggest headlines is that American Sean Bailey is having the season of his life, seriously. He earned a bouldering gold medal in Salt Lake City just a few weeks ago, had a rough time at the Innsbruck World Cup last weekend (finishing tied for 47th place), and came back at this weekend’s Lead World Cup in Villars, Switzerland, to claim a gold medal. What a story arc!
Best of all, it was an electrifying journey for Bailey at Villars, beginning with him sitting in a bottleneck of seventh place after the qualification round. He improved his standing in the semi-finals, progressing onto the headwall and situating himself in second place behind the leader, Spain’s Alberto Ginés López, by that round’s end.
But the true magic happened in the final round. Bailey worked through the lower section of dual-tex pinches and into the finals’ upper crux—a collection of crimps that led into an overhead press position underneath an enormous volume. Bailey was one of the few competitors to work through the sequence before falling just a few moves from the top (with a score of 38). Germany’s Alex Megos, who fell slightly lower on the route (with a score of 35+), was awarded the silver medal, and American Colin Duffy was awarded the bronze.
In the women’s division at Villars, Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret was the only woman to reach the top of both qualification routes; she was also the only woman to top the semi-finals route, although Italy’s Laura Rogora was hot on her heels (just one secure hold shy of topping the route as well).
That rivalry between Garnbret and Rogora carried over and defined the finals. Rogora topped the route as the clock ticked down—a masterful performance that included statically working through a sloper crux that was intended as a dyno. But Garnbret, climbing last, also progressed through the headwall’s sloper crux (dynamically, mind you) and clipped into the top quickdraw a few seconds quicker than Rogora. Such swiftness earned Garnbret the gold medal; Rogora dropped to second place for the silver medal, and American Natalia Grossman earned the bronze.
I have more to say about Grossman’s wonderful performance below, but it’s worth taking a moment to note how Garnbret is rewriting what it means to be a G.O.A.T. in competition climbing. Think about it, aside from this gold medal at Villars … yesterday she broke 8-seconds in speed climbing, and she won last weekend’s World Cups (in Innsbruck) in both the Bouldering and Lead disciplines. Such diversity in accomplishments is truly spectacular, and we’ve never seen anything like it on the circuit.
Now onto some more highs, lows, and miscellany from Villars, with the results listed at the bottom.
Grossman makes the most of it: Natalia Grossman’s bronze medal had some great exposition. On the livestream, it appeared as if she finished the semifinals in ninth place, barely missing out on a spot in the finals. But there was an appeal that resulted in France’s Julia Chanourdie moving down in the scores after that round. The shuffling nudged Grossman into the finals, where she set a highpoint that stood for most of the round. In fact, the only competitors to ultimately beat Grossman were Rogora and Garnbret, and they had to top the route to do so. Bravo, Natalia.
Totkova shines: I continue to be impressed by Bulgaria’s 16-year-old phenom Aleksandra Totkova. She had one of the best climbs of any of the women in the semi-finals, progressing to the headwall and setting a highpoint amid what Matt Groom on commentary called a “fantastic performance.” Then, in the finals, Totkova successfully stuck a low dyno that would eventually stop Slovenia’s Lucka Rakovec and Mia Krampl. Totkova’s final score was 33+ for a solid sixth place finish.
Condie is back in the groove: Team USA’s Kyra Condie has been open this season about her frustrations with not advancing out of World Cup qualification rounds. “I’m still pretty bummed,” she posted on Instagram last week. “Can’t really figure out what’s been going wrong in these rounds.” But that was all prologue this weekend at Villars, where she placed 14th in qualification and finished the event in 17th place, a really solid showing.
Bertone gets behind the mic: During the women’s finals, we were treated to France’s Oriane Bertone joining Matt Groom in the commentary booth. Considering that Bertone is only 16 years old, she showed remarkable composure and eloquence as she explained the nuances of the climbs. It was actually quite surprising how natural she seemed with her delivery, and it just adds to the pervasive feeling that she could definitely be the sport’s main superstar someday.
Stream woes return: Longtime fans might remember years ago when the World Cup livestreams seemed to be particularly finicky. The streams have been much more stable and consistent in recent years, but that was not the case for Villars. The stream dropped several times, with the cause being incessant mist and fog wreaking havoc on the local Swiss Internet. The worst outage caused the fans watching around the world to completely miss the climbs of Natalia Grossman and Mia Krampl in the women’s final—and that was too bad considering that Grossman’s attempt was good enough for a bronze.
Emotions run high: While we’re on the subject of Grossman, and while it was certainly thrilling seeing an American in the women’s final round, let’s give a nod of sympathy to France’s Julia Chanourdie. Chanourdie thought she had done enough to eke into finals, only to have that spot in the finals taken away from her and awarded to Grossman (as stated above in the HIGHS). Sure, it was all fair and just, but on a human level, that had to be rough.
Bad beta equates to falls: In the men’s final round, Japan’s Masahiro Higuchi and Zento Murashita both fell really low on the wall (12 and 11+, respectively). In both cases, the catalyst for the fall was attempting to reach dynamically with a right hand while mantling with a left hand. All other competitors successfully completed the sequence more statically, indicating that Higuchi and Murashita simply read the move incorrectly. Both competitors clearly still had a lot more in the tank—but it’s costly mistakes such as this that make the sport so fun to watch.
Bolts give anxiety: Did you notice how close many competitors came to stepping on the bolts? The instance that gave me the most anxiety was Nathaniel Coleman’s attempt during the semi-finals; at one point, midway up the wall, his left foot was just a centimeter or two away from the bolt—which would have ended his attempt on a technicality. The lead wall at Innsbruck last weekend featured smooth bolt covers…and they worked perfectly. I wish we would have had them at this event in Villars too.
Here’s a listing of how all the members of Team USA placed. In the men’s division, behind Bailey’s gold and Duffy’s bronze, Nathaniel Coleman placed 22nd, Ellis Ernsberger placed 32nd, and Timothy Kang placed 51st. In the women’s division, behind Grossman’s bronze and Condie’s 17th place, Cloe Coscoy placed 20th, Julia Duffy placed 26th, and Maya Madere tied for 39th.
- Sean Bailey (USA)
- Alex Megos (GER)
- Colin Duffy (USA)
- Sebastian Halenke (GER)
- Alberto Ginés Lopez (ESP)
- Paul Jenft (FRA)
- Masahiro Higuchi (JPN)
- Zento Murashita (JPN)
- Janja Garnbret (SLO)
- Laura Rogora (ITA)
- Natalia Grossman (USA)
- Momoko Abe (JPN)
- Vita Lukan (SLO)
- Aleksandra Totkova (BUL)
- Lucka Rakovec (SLO)
- Mia Krampl (SLO)