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Opinion: From Snowbird to Tokyo—Brooke Raboutou’s Olympic Destiny

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The 1989 Snowbird competition, held 30 years ago in Northern Utah, might seem like an odd reference point when talking about Brooke Raboutou’s history-making performance at the IFSC World Championships in Hachioji, Japan—where she became the first American climber to qualify for an Olympic Games.

At the time of that 1989 Snowbird event, the competition scene was still finding its footing. The governing bodies of USA Climbing and the IFSC did not yet exist, nor did any youth circuit; in fact, Brooke Raboutou would not be born for another 12 years. But it was that 1989 Snowbird event that would create the foundation and the pedigree for what would lead to one of the most significant moments in American competition climbing: A berth for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

At the climax of the multi-day spectacle in 1989, the man who would eventually be Brooke Raboutou’s father, Didier—already a climbing star in his home country of France—earned a gold medal in a stacked international men’s division. The names beneath him in the standings were legends in their own right: Simon Nadin, Ron Kauk, Jim Karn. The woman who would eventually be Brooke’s mother, Robyn Erbesfield, earned fourth place in the international women’s division and was thus set on a fast track to one of the most legendary competition careers of all time.

Didier Raboutou and Robyn Erbesfield were unquestionably two of the biggest stars in climbing at the tail-end of the 1980s. They would get married and their union would, of course, result in their daughter Brooke. But it would also result in the gym and training system from which Brooke and countless other kid-crushers would blossom—ABC Kids Climbing in Boulder, Colorado.

Just as interesting was that the 1989 Snowbird competition marked the first instance of the climbing press floating the notion of the sport becoming an Olympic event. One article about the event stated, “Many people feel that sport climbing will eventually be included in the Olympics.” Climbing itself recapped the 1989 event saying, “Given a more accessible, climber-populated location, such as Boulder, the future of climbing competitions in this country might be brighter than some people would like to think.”

In hindsight, that quote indicates how competitors, Didier Raboutou and Robyn Erbesfield chief among them, were on the fault line of the separation of competitive sport climbing and traditional outdoor climbing. And as two of the top competitors in the world, Didier Raboutou and Robyn Erbesfield were on the shortlist of likely Olympians had sport climbing’s Olympic inclusion become a reality sooner, as anticipated by so much of the climbing media back then.

Of course, the Olympic machine chugged along slower than expected. At the end of the 1980s, much was made about the New York City Sports Commission’s interest in helping to get climbing in the 2004 Olympics, as the next millennium was far away and seemed full of possibilities. But the years clipped by and progress stalled. Those 2004 Olympics eventually came and went—not in New York, but in Athens, Greece—and climbing was not part of them.

Yet, through it all, Robyn Erbesfield remained the American climber with the best shot at competing in the Olympics someday. She won a slew of World Cup titles in the 1990s. She was a World Champion in 1995. She also took part in an event called the pre-Olympics in France, in the orbit of the Albertville Winter Games that same decade. Erbesfield was so good at competition climbing that she was ubiquitous with the Olympics, even though her sport was not.

When Erbesfield’s prime competing years came to an end, and with husband Didier Raboutou having already stepped away from the competition scene years prior, attention later turned to the couple’s phenom daughter and their son Shawn. In early 2013, a video profile (above) of Brooke training as a child went viral, amassing millions of views. “I like to look for challenges; it keeps me motivated,” the bubbly, 11-year-old says —which also shows her climbing in a home basement gym built by Didier.

“This girl’s going to the top, we will hear her name for while,” wrote one commenter at the time.

A few years later, at the IFSC Youth World Championships in Guangzhou, China, Brooke earned medals in lead climbing and bouldering. This was the same year—2016—that the Big Bang of competition climbing was felt around the world with the sport’s Olympic inclusion being officially announced. Then, in 2017, Brooke won gold in her youth category in lead and bouldering and earned fifth place in speed at the Pan-American Youth Championships in Montreal, Canada. It was concrete evidence of her Olympic potential and her viability in all disciplines. The hype was gone, replaced by proof in the form of wins.

Brooke downplayed the Olympics in interviews at the time (“Whatever happens, happens.”) But the fact that she was being asked about the Olympics at all—before the Olympic combined format was fully understood and before Brooke’s place on the American Overall National Team or the Olympic roster had been earned—illustrates, in hindsight, a preordained quality that the best stars in all sports seem to possess. Like her parents before her, Brooke had an Olympic aura, even as climbing and the Olympics were still coming to terms with each other. “One of the athletes…to keep an eye on when it comes to making it to the big show in 2020 is Brook [sic] Raboutou,” stated an article in Boulder Weekly more than a year ago.

All the past publicity and buzz that might have seemed premature years ago shows how Brooke had a unique Olympic magnetism ever since she started doing well in competitions. The topic of possibly being an Olympian someday was never too far away from her, and with a direct lineage to the 1989 Snowbird competition she was quite literally born into the subject.

So, knowing what we know now, fans in the late 1980s were right to speculate that the Olympic spotlight might someday envelope Didier Raboutou and Robyn Erbesfield. But in the unpredictable arc of sports, it is their daughter who relishes in that glow now rather than each of her parents separately. Brooke Raboutou might be an 18-year-old climber, but her Olympic berth is 30 years in the making.

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