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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.
Gallery: 17 Photos From the 2019 Briançon World Cup
A temporary high point of 36 from Shiraishi and then a top by Garnbret in the finals were not enough to beat South Korea’s Chaehyun Seo (pictured). Seo climbed last and topped the finals route, prompting commentator Charlie Boscoe to say, “The script had been written; Janja [Garnbret] was going to walk away with the season and do the double [victory] in the bouldering and the lead [disciplines]. Where on earth did Seo come from?”
American Ashima Shiraishi pauses to catch a glimpse of the clock far below. The standard six-minute allotment of time to climb would prove to be part of Shiraishi’s story at Briançon, as she reached hold number 36 in the finals just as her time ran out. Still, Shiraishi came away from the weekend with a strong 5th place finish.
Shiraishi’s compatriot Margo Hayes (pictured) had a solid weekend as well in Briançon. She advanced to the semi-finals, where she finished in 13th.
Hayes has had a good start to her 2019 lead season. After not competing in the inaugural competition in Villars, she placed 18th at the World Cup competition in Chamonix and improved upon that placement by six spots in Briançon. She appears to be getting better at every event and could certainly break into the finals at the upcoming World Championships.
Slovenia’s Mia Krampl nears the top of the semi-finals route. This performance would place her into the finals, where she would climb well and finish in 4th.
Krampl’s compatriot, Janja Garnbret (pictured) barely missed making the finals at the Chamonix World Cup one week ago. In Briançon, she was back with a vengeance. She almost topped her route in the semi-finals and topped the route in the finals. But spectators had to wait to see if her top would be enough to secure a victory.
Shiraishi sticks a dramatic dyno in the finals, en route to her eventual 5th place finish. She has delivered the best results of any American on the lead circuit thus far for 2019.
Despite the competitive rivalry that has emerged between Seo and Garnbret, the two superstars have been cordial and complimentary of each other. Here Garnbret gives a congratulatory hug to Seo following Seo’s top in the finals.
At the conclusion of the women’s portion of the event, it was Seo (center) emerging victorious, with Garnbret (left) earning the silver medal and Japan’s Natsuki Tanii (right) earning the bronze.
Despite the competition taking place in France, the French team did not perform particularly well. Nao Monchois and Romain Desgranges advanced to the semi-finals, but they did not progress to the finals in the men’s division. Thomas Joannes (pictured) finished in 26th. The standout for the French team was Nina Arthaud, who finished in 8th in the women’s division.
Germany’s Alex Megos was looking solid at the beginning of the competition, topping one of his qualification routes and positioned as a favorite to win. But he was one of several competitors who fell at a low crux on the semi-finals route and finished the event with a surprisingly early exit. Ultimately he placed 16th.
Canada’s Sean McColl keeps his hips snug to the wall as he works his way works his way onto the route’s upper section. McColl finished the competition in 5th, his best finish of the 2019 lead season.
Right beneath McColl in the scores was American Sean Bailey, who improved from 54th at the World Cup competition in Villars and 24th in Chamonix to 6th at Briançon.
Bailey led the men’s field at the conclusion of the semi-finals round, proving that he is capable of being the best in the world on a given day and in any given round of competition.
Slovenia’s Domen Skofic had a strong start to the season with a 4th place finish in Villars. He stumbled the following week and finished 20th in Chamonix. But at just 25 years old, he is already a wily veteran on the lead circuit and rallied to place 7th in Briançon.
Many of Japan’s most well-known competitors such as Kokoro Fujii were not present at the event in Briançon. Nonetheless, the Japanese team still ruled the men’s division. Hiroto Shimizu (pictured) finished in second place, while his compatriot Hidemasa Nishida finished in first.
The event in Briançon featured an all-Japanese podium: Nishida (center) took the gold medal, with Shimizu (left) earning the silver and Shuta Tanaka (right) earning the bronze.
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.
- Hidemasa Nishida (JPN)
- Hiroto Shimizu (JPN)
- Shuta Tanaka (JPN)
- Will Bosi (GBR)
- Sean McColl (CAN)
- Sean Bailey (USA)
- Domen Skofic (SLO)
- Marcello Bombardi (ITA)
- Chaehyun Seo (KOR)
- Janja Garnbret (SLO)
- Natsuki Tanii (JPN)
- Mia Krampl (SLO)
- Ashima Shiraishi (USA)
- YueTong Zhang (CHN)
- Vita Lukan (SLO)
- Nina Arthaud (FRA)
Missed an event? Catch up on the 2019 competition season here.