Opinion: Is Competition Climbing a Team Sport?

With the World Cup season in the books and the Olympics looming on the horizon, national squads are more compelling than their individual members
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Tomoa Narasaki en route to winning the Wujiang World Cup, where his compatriots took four of the six finals slots in the men's division.

Tomoa Narasaki en route to winning the Wujiang World Cup, where his compatriots took four of the six finals slots in the men's division.

At the conclusion of a recent World Cup competition in Moscow, much was made about the Slovenia team’s undeniable dominance—and rightly so. Janja Garnbret, the future champion of the bouldering season, won the women’s division by flashing all four boulders in the finals. Her teammate, 17-year-old Lucka Rakovec, placed fourth in the division and barely missed a spot on the podium. In the men’s division, Jernej Kruder—also on the Slovenian team—took top honors and spoiled what could have been back-to-back World Cup competition victories for the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra.

The fact that the Slovenian team flexed so much depth in Moscow was not surprising considering that the team finished 2018 ranked number two in the world for bouldering and number three for lead climbing. This is the same team that has also has been home to Domen Skofic, Mina Markovic, Maja Vidmar, and other powerhouses over the years.

But what’s remarkable is how national teams, rather than stand-alone stars, have come to dominate competition discourse recently.

Exhibit B would be the Japanese team, a collective that is so much greater than the sum of its parts that trying to predict which of its competitors will get 2020 Olympic invitations is ludicrous. As an example, at the first World Cup event of the 2019 season, in Meiringen, Switzerland, the Japanese standouts in the men’s final were Tomoa Narasaki, Rei Sugimoto, Kokoro Fujii, and Tomaki Takata. Yet, just one week later, in the finals at the Moscow World Cup event, it was as an entirely new roster of Japanese crushers. The previous names were absent, replaced by Yoshiyuki Ogata and Rei Kawamata. Another major player—Yuji Inoue—was also high in the scores but barely missed advancing out of the semifinals. And in terms of the women’s division, every competition of the season was a pick’em between Miho Nonaka, Akiyo Noguchi, Futaba Ito, Nanako Kura, Mao Nakamura, and others.

What’s old is new

Climbing has always had teams—both at a national and local level. Long-time fans of the competition circuit will remember the renowned French teams that ruled the 1990s, with charismatic stars like Francois LeGrand, Didier Raboutou, Nanette Raybaud, and Jean-Baptiste Tribout frequently standing atop the podiums. In the United States, gyms with decorated youth programs like Vertical Endeavors in Minnesota, ABC Kids Climbing in Colorado, and Vertical World in Washington have consistently been the training yards for the next generation’s best competitors. Tyson Schoene, the head coach at Vertical World (which has fostered the competition careers of Sean Bailey, Drew Ruana, and other crushers since they were little kids), said it best by pointing out: “No elite athlete of any sport is who they are by themselves. They become amazing because of a long list of people/supporters/coaches behind them who have dedicated their time and goals to those athletes. I always tell my athletes that their goals are my goals, their dreams are my dreams.”

Indeed, long before current American icons like Bailey and Ruana, or Brooke Raboutou and Margo Hayes, were making the Overall National Team, they were talented kids joining their local gym’s team. And Schoene espouses as much, explaining, “Sean [Bailey] and Drew [Ruana] are good examples of kids who grew up in a program with a strong support group and a structure that focused on building base for them to stack on top of. They both went through many cycles when they were young to get them ready for success. All so they could take their training to where they want it now. They are both pretty educated when it comes down to what works for them and what doesn’t. And I believe that is because of the work they did with us as kids.”

But the Olympics have amplified the whole team ethos, brought it out of the training rooms and onto the grandest stage. At the 2020 Games in Tokyo, individual competitors will be inseparable from their national team contexts because the entire selection process is structured around country groups—a maximum of four representatives from each nation. And at the end of those 2020 Olympics, any climber’s performance will be further contextualized as part of all other sports. Fans will be asking questions like, “How many gold medals did Team USA win?” “Is Team USA winning the medal count?” and most notably, “How did my team do?”

At the 2020 Olympics, the teams are what will matter to the rest of the sports world. And while it will be fun to watch individual standouts, it will be altogether thrilling for fans to follow the tribe that they belong to. Americans do—and will—care most about Team USA because they are part of that tribe, and in a broad-based and supportive way, they are part of Team USA too.

More to come

The looming Olympics have already made climbing feel like more of a team sport than it has ever been. And the trend is likely to continue long after Tokyo 2020 concludes. “I believe most of our successful climbing athletes will be the direct result of climbing teams or at least have a base that was put in place with that structure,” predicts Schoene. “We’re nowhere near climbing potential for these kids. Science has barely been applied to their training yet. But it’s getting there.”

To an outsider, this might all seem strange because climbing is not inherently a team sport. Competitors cannot talk to their compatriots during bouldering attempts. On the World Cup circuit, one individual’s outcome is not contingent on that of her countrywoman—in fact they are competing against one another. And aside from some initial beta-sharing, there is not usually deliberation about team strategy during a competition—every individual just tries her hardest to climb her best on the wall.

But climbing becomes far more a team sport through all the in-between, through the innumerable non-competition moments. When USA Climbing posts Instagram stories of the National Team training together at the Salt Lake City headquarters, or enduring the airport agony of international flight delays, there is a sense of necessary camaraderie and solidarity to this sport that we all take on its surface to be so individualistic. The fellowship of the in-between will only be further pronounced as travel and training for the Olympics ramp up.

As far as the members of the 2019 Overall National Team go—as they vie for climbing’s first-ever Olympic berths—they etch themselves in history not as individuals, but as components of a historic group. As the season continues, they will slip into history and memories together, inseparable as teammates. “Being on the US Overall Team means a lot. One step closer to the Olympics,” Nathaniel Coleman wrote on Instagram, highlighting the collective.

Mention “Team USA” to a fan of competition climbing and it actually means something. And it should, because climbing teams are suddenly what everyone is talking about.