This article was published in the summer edition of Gym Climber, available free at your local climbing gym.
Let’s make some bets, shall we? The editors at Gym Climber feel these 10 are going to represent in Tokyo. Our list is only for international competitors, lest you think we have left out Team USA.
Janja Garnbret (SLO), 22
At 22, Janja Garnbret is the most decorated competition climber ever. “I’m not someone who is trying to break records. I just want to enjoy every competition….And this is the most important thing to me,” Garnbret said in an interview with May Pang in Gym Climber. That may be, but she has broken a lot of records and pulled a lot of firsts.After six years of competing on an open level, Garnbret has racked up 35 gold medals, four more than Jain Kim, of South Korea, who took 16 years to do so. In 2019, Garnbret became the first athlete, male or female, to win every Bouldering event in an entire season. Later that year, she became the first woman to win both the Lead and Bouldering World Championship titles in the same year—something only Adam Ondra had done. Then she won the Combined, putting her among the first crop of athletes to earn a spot in Tokyo 2020.
Despite her modesty Garnbret is a favorite to win at the Olympics.
Jessica Pilz (AUS), 24
Jessica Pilz received her Olympic invitation after placing 10th at the Hachioji Combined World Championships. Although lead is her specialty—she won the 2018 Lead World Championships in front of her home crowd in Innsbruck—Pilz has been steadily improving her ranking in the women’s bouldering field over recent years. Since the now 24-year-old began competing on the open circuit in 2011, she’s made finals in five Bouldering World Cups, to add to her 35 appearances in Lead World Cup finals.
Pilz didn’t grow up with climbing parents. She began climbing at age 10, and her attitude towards the sport has held steady over the years: to just have fun. In terms of the distant future, Pilz is reserved. “I don’t have specific long-term goals, because you never know what happens,” she said in an interview with Gym Climber. “I want to compete on top level as long as I can and as long as I enjoy it. In the further future I could also imagine to focus on rock a bit more.” —DM
Akiyo Noguchi (JPN), 31
Following the 2019 Vail World Cup, Akiyo Noguchi told Gym Climber, “I would like to become the first gold medalist for Sport Climbing at the Olympics.” At that point in her career, Noguchi had already racked up 21 gold medals from World Cups. At 31 years old, she’s the oldest female competitor to qualify for the Olympics, and after competing in over 200 international events, she’s proven herself one of the most consistent Bouldering athletes on the circuit.
Noguchi is a perfectionist. Her motto is, “Do my best completely.” While lead and speed have never been her disciplines of choice, she’s made great improvements in both over the last several years. In 2018, she finished eighth in the lead season. In 2019 she was fifth. In the Combined qualification round in the Hachioji World Championships, where she earned her Olympic berth, she was 10th in Speed. In front of her home crowd on the big stage, Noguchi may well achieve her career-capping goal. —DM
Miho Nonaka (JPN), 23
Miho Nonaka has been on the adult World Cup circuit for years, but it wasn’t until 2018 that she emerged as one of the best all-arounders in the field—then she injured her shoulder … and then she injured her other shoulder. The requisite rehabilitation for those injuries kept her out of competition for several months, but there was no greater way for Nonaka to celebrate her return to the competition scene than by qualifying for the Olympics at the 2019 World Championships.
Though she is just as proficient at bouldering and lead climbing as her teammate Akiyo Noguchi, Nonaka is arguably a better speed climber.
Nonaka has transcended the niche world of climbing in her native Japan. She has appeared in fashion magazines, and she is sponsored by Tag Heuer and Beats by Dre. The Olympics being in her home country will only increase her national profile and fame … especially if she wins a medal. —John Burgman
Shauna Coxsey (GBR), 28
In 2011, as a relative newcomer to the comp scene, Shauna Coxsey made a Bouldering World Cup final, in Munich. The next year she could not stop making finals—five times in a row. In 2013 she edged ever closer to a win, finishing fourth in Vail 2013, where she flashed the first three finals problems. The next year it happened: She won one, in Grindelwald, Switzerland—and then another, the next weekend, in Innsbruck, Austria. She won four in a row from the end of 2015 into 2016, and won the Overall Bouldering World Cup season two years running. On the World Cup circuit, she didn’t miss a finals field for 14 events in a row, from May 2016 to June 2018. If you had picked anyone for the Olympics, then it would have been Shauna.
In December 2017, bouldering in Fontainebleau, she sustained an 80- or 90-percent tear of her A2 pulley. She was out of climbing for 14 weeks, got back in, reinjured it in June, and had no podiums that season. Would she have enough time to recover and attain the spectrum of required skills to make the Olympics? While she had done her share of lead climbing as a junior competitor, speed was new to her.
Well, she was back on the podium first thing the next year, and at the World Championships in August 2020 she was among the first batch of athletes to qualify for the Olympics.
Adam Ondra (CZE)
Adam Ondra is one of the best-known climbers on the planet (thanks in part to his Road to Tokyo YouTube series), and many consider him to be the best climber ever. He qualified for the Olympics at the event in Toulouse, during which he struggled in Speed but placed third in Bouldering and won Lead. Although he has been working extensively on improving his Speed game, we should expect a similar strategic approach from Ondra in the Olympics: Try to finish middle-of-the-pack in Speed, and then dominate in Bouldering and Lead.
Ondra is a many-year leader on rock as well. He put up the world’s first 5.15c. Later, the world’s first 5.15d, which remains without a repeat. He sent the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) on his first trip to Yosemite Valley, in 2016. He’s onsighted 5.14d, Il Domani, in Baltzola, Spain. He flashed Super Crackinette (5.15a/9a+), in St. Léger, France. The list goes on.
Like Germany’s Jan Hojer, Ondra is a taller climber (6 feet, 1 inch) and extremely flexible for his size. On hard outdoor routes, Ondra is known for being extremely vocal in the crux sections—heck, there are entire “Adam Ondra Screaming” compilations on YouTube. Though he is not typically as loud while climbing in competitions, there is still a chance that Ondra will offer his unique vocal stylings at the Olympics. —JB
Jakob Schubert (AUS)
Jakob Schubert, 31, is one of the oldest and most experienced climbers to qualify for the Olympics. He’s also one of the most accomplished, with three World Champion titles. Photo: Eddie Fowke/IFSC
As a two-time gold medalist at the Lead World Championships (in 2012 and 2018), the 2018 Combined World Champion, and a seven-time Lead World Cup season winner, Jakob Schubert is one of the most decorated climbers on the Olympic roster. He has also won three Bouldering World Cup events, bringing his total World Cup wins to 21.
Schubert dabbles in other sports, including soccer and tennis. He has mentioned that he wants to pursue more big-wall climbing as well (outdoor routes typically 1,000 feet or taller), possibly when his competition career wraps up.—JB
Rishat Khaibullin (KAZ), 25
Many viewers of the 2019 Combined World Championships, in Hachioji, were surprised and impressed by the all-around skills of so-called Speed specialist Rishat Khaibullin of Kazakhstan.
Critics of the combined format have suggested that Speed climbers will have difficulty in Bouldering and Lead (and vice versa), but Khaibullin supplemented his first place title in speed at Hachioji with fifth place in Lead and eighth in Bouldering. His performance landed him in third place overall and earned him one of the first few spots in the 2020 Olympics.
Though a speed demon, the 25-year-old likes bouldering best, because of the mental challenge involved. He began climbing at age 6 with his father, a mountain climber, and says he didn’t like climbing from the outset—he lost his first competition and decided climbing wasn’t for him. He only tried competing again when his mother persuaded him. Now it’s all fun, whether he’s speed climbing, bouldering, or lead climbing: “I just like to compete,” he says. And he can certainly hold his own across the board. He is a recreational skier and snowboarder as well as climber.—Leyla Britan
Kai Harada (JPN), 22
Kai Harada proved himself an entertainer at the 2019 Combined World Championships in Hachioji, with dramatic drop-knees, powerful dynos, and risky bat-hangs. His confrontation with the boulders was an exciting show, and although he was disappointed on some trickier moves—and visibly expressed his frustration to the crowd—his performance was good enough to land him in fourth place overall, with third in both Lead and Speed, and sixth place in Bouldering. The 22-year-old is one of many talented climbers on Team Japan, but his explosive power and acrobatic style make him a memorable one to watch. He’s also expressive: he winces and fist pumps in reaction to what happens on the wall, adding a bit of showmanship. —LB
Tomoa Narasaki (JPN), 24
Tomoa Narasaki was the winner of the Combined and Bouldering World Championships in Hachioji. He won the 2019 Bouldering World Cup circuit, has placed as high as second in Lead World Cups, and recently clocked a 5.72 speed run—a mere .24 seconds off the world record. His competition resume positions him as a clear favorite to earn a medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
Narasaki is one of the most exciting competitors to watch because of his relentless, all-out approach to every move. Perhaps one YouTube commenter said it best: “Tomoa has such a nice flow to his climbing. Usually when no one does a boulder, I bet on him. He just does things differently.”