If this past weekend’s lead World Cup competition in Briançon, France, proved anything, it was that South Korean wunderkind Chaehyun Seo is the real deal. The 15-year-old burst onto the adult World Cup circuit just three weeks ago, having skipped the bouldering season, and earned a silver medal in Villars, Switzerland. At the following lead competition in Chamonix, France, she wowed everyone by winning first place (beating Slovenian superstar Janja Garnbret in the process). And at this competition in Briançon, she not only beat Garnbret again, but did so when Garnbret seemed to be in top form, avoiding uncharacteristic errors like she had in Chamonix. The Briançon event affirmed the talent and aptitude that Seo’s previous successes hinted at, and confirmed that no throne is ever safe in competition climbing. 

Seo looked flawless the entire weekend in Briançon. She stayed neck and neck with Garnbret in the qualification round and then pulled away in the semi-finals. There, Seo topped the long, crimpy route—the only competitor to do so—while Garnbret struggled to stick the last move and settled into third place in the scores. This shakeup to Garnbret’s typical superiority set the stage for a thrilling finals, but Seo seemed unfettered by the weight of the moment. 

In the final round, Garnbret cruised past midway cruxes that had stopped other competitors, such as her compatriot Mia Krampl and China’s YueTong Zhang. Garnbret’s commanding ascent provided fans with one of the most dramatic moments of the competition when she struggled to clip the last quickdraw—which was required to receive credit for a top (2:25.20 in the finals livestream). But with a long reach, Garnbret clipped in, earned points for the top, and sat comfortably in first place. A solid attempt by Japan’s Natsuki Tanii followed, although Tannii fell while reaching for hold number 42 and did not change Garnbret’s position atop the scores. Finally, Seo took to the stage under the glow of spotlights. As she began her climb, her fluid style drew comparisons to that of South Korean legend Jain Kim by the commentators. In the wall’s overhanging mid-section, the commentators went so far as to call Seo a “prodigy;” as if on cue, Seo stuck a dynamic reach and rested, totally composed. She then worked through the slim crimps on the headwall, stuck the concluding dyno, and clipped the last quickdraw with ease. Like Garnbret, she had topped the route—but with countback to the semi-finals’ rankings, victory went to Seo.

Seo’s wins in Chamonix and Briançon have electrified the competition world by shaking up all expectations. Garnbret won every competition of the bouldering season, so many fans expected her to be dominant in lead—traditionally her best discipline. Yet, the narrative so far for the lead season has not been one of Garnbret looking vulnerable—after all, she topped the finals route just like Seo did. Rather, the story has been Seo emerging as Garnbret’s equal. Because of that, the two will be inexorably linked as hype and intrigue build for next month’s World Championships—a massive event with Olympic implications. 

The Americans Shine

Lost amid Seo and Garnbret’s battle of tops in the women’s final round was the attempt of American Ashima Shiraishi. When I say it was lost, I do not mean metaphorically. For spectators around the world, the YouTube livestream died shortly before Shiraishi began her attempt. The unfortunate technical glitch robbed American fans of a highpoint for the event: Shiraishi putting in a slow but solid attempt, getting timed out at hold number 36, and temporarily leading in the scores. With some hesitation before a move lower on the wall and a prolonged rest, one can only wonder how Shiraishi might have finished if she climbed just a little faster. (Watch her climb at 1:57.25 in the livestream, which has now been fixed to include her attempt.)

Shiraishi ended up placing 5th in Briançon—the same placement she earned at the Chamonix World Cup the previous week. Such consistency near the top of the pack should give American fans confidence that Shiraishi is primed to make strong statements at the World Championships as well as ensuing stops on the lead circuit.

In the men’s division, American Sean Bailey was the standout. He led the field at the end of the semi-final round, which meant that he climbed last in the finals. Although he could not stick a big lunge to a handhold and ended up with a score of 34+ (1:17.56 in the livestream of the finals), it was enough to earn him 6th place. The men’s podium was comprised entirely of Japanese athletes: 16-year-old Hidemasa Nishida in first (with a score of 39+), followed by Hiroto Shimizu (with a score of 38+) and Shuta Tanaka (also with 38+), respectively. But such depth on the Japanese team will be negated as the Olympics come into view, with only two men and two women from each country allowed to qualify. This bodes well for competitors like Bailey who finished not too far behind the pack from Team Japan. 

Other American standouts of the weekend in the men’s division were Drew Ruana who placed 12th, Nathaniel Coleman who placed 14th, Jesse Grupper who placed 56th, and Zach Galla who placed 59th. Beneath Shiraishi in the women’s division for the Americans were Margo Hayes in 13th, Brooke Raboutou in 28th, Kyra Condie in 44th, and Sienna Kopf in 55th. 

The World Championships Become the Story 

With the trifecta blitz of competitions in Villars, Chamonix, and Briançon having concluded, all eyes now turn to the upcoming, multi-discipline World Championships. Many competitors have already started preparing in earnest; several big names, such as the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra, Austria’s Jakob Schubert, and Japan’s stalwarts Akiyo Noguchi and Miho Nonaka, chose to skip Briançon to ensure that they will be in top form for the extensive event in Hachioji, Japan. 

The World Championships will have lead and bouldering competitions that kick off on August 11. There will also be a Combined portion that is scheduled to begin on August 18. The Paraclimbing World Championships concluded last week and can be rewatched in two parts here and here

Many members of Team USA already have experience in the combined format thanks to USA Climbing’s Combined Invitational that took place in Salt Lake City, Utah, in January. Since then, several other countries have held their own combined competitions. Whether or not this will give any national team an edge on the global stage of the pending World Championships remains to be seen. But by the conclusion of the massive event, 14 competitors will have earned Olympic berths and the march to the Tokyo 2020 Games will have formally begun. Stay tuned to Climbing.com for the livestreams and coverage of the various competitions.

Results

Men’s

  1. Hidemasa Nishida (JPN)
  2. Hiroto Shimizu (JPN)
  3. Shuta Tanaka (JPN)
  4. Will Bosi (GBR)
  5. Sean McColl (CAN)
  6. Sean Bailey (USA)
  7. Domen Skofic (SLO)
  8. Marcello Bombardi (ITA)

Women’s

  1. Chaehyun Seo (KOR)
  2. Janja Garnbret (SLO)
  3. Natsuki Tanii (JPN)
  4. Mia Krampl (SLO)
  5. Ashima Shiraishi (USA)
  6. YueTong Zhang (CHN)
  7. Vita Lukan (SLO)
  8. Nina Arthaud (FRA)

Missed an event? Catch up on the 2019 competition season here.