The 2019 World Cup season kicked off last weekend in Meiringen, Switzerland, and to say that there is a lot riding on this season would be an understatement of epic proportions. Not only will every event count towards the usual World Cup championship at the season’s end, but a Combined World Championship with Olympic implications looms on the calendar in August. And rankings from this World Cup season will also determine which competitors receive invitations to the Olympic Qualifying Event to be held in Toulouse, France, at the end of this year. The Olympics are already positioned to be the climax of a long, compelling narrative—and the start of this World Cup season should be taken as the opening chapter.

If that sounds like a lot of preamble, the commentators for the Meiringen World Cup competition, Mike Langley and Charlie Boscoe, put it more succinctly at the top of the livestream broadcast: “In so many ways, this is a career-defining season for virtually every athlete out there,” Boscoe said, to which Langley replied, “Not to overstate it, but this is probably the biggest, baddest, most important season of all time in competition climbing history.”

Even without all the added Olympic intrigue, the earliest hours of the weekend’s competition offered plenty of drama. In a packed qualifying round—in which more than 200 competitors battled to advance—some of the most well-known names in the sport struggled. Austria’s Jakob Schubert, who has podiumed in World Cup bouldering events in the past and is the defending Combined World Champion, did not make the cut to semi-finals. Canada’s Sean McColl, Germany’s Jan Hojer, and Austria’s Jessica Pilz, all with championship bouldering credentials in their own right, also did not advance beyond the highly competitive qualifying round.

The United States sent nine competitors to the inaugural 2019 World Cup event, three of whom—Nathaniel Coleman, Kyra Condie, and Alex Johnson—had stellar qualifying rounds and progressed to the semi-finals. Johnson, who wowed fans by returning to high-level competition and placing second at USA Climbing’s Bouldering Nationals back in February, continued her dramatic competition career comeback by topping the second and third boulders in the semi-finals. She barely missed advancing to finals, but her finish of 7th place was the highest of any American competitor.

Kyra Condie also had some noteworthy success in the semi-finals. She topped the first two boulders of the round—a slab and an arête—which was a feat that other notable competitors like South Korea’s Sol Sa, Slovenia’s Lucka Rakovec, and France’s Julia Chanourdie could not do. Ultimately Condie barely missed out on advancing to finals as well—finishing in 8th place. But as the winner of the Combined at the Pan American Championships last November and the champion at the USA Combined Invitational in January, Condie is one of America’s biggest hopes for an Olympic berth—and her strong climbing at the Meiringen World Cup should only bolster that notion.

As the finals got underway on Saturday afternoon, that whopping starting roster of hundreds of competitors had been whittled down to just six men and six women. As was the case in previous seasons, Japan continued to be an undeniable team powerhouse and was represented by four competitors in the men’s division: Tomoaki Takata, Kokoro Fujii, Rei Sugimoto, and Tomoa Narasaki. Each competitor had his moments: Takata’s quick flash of the first boulder, which included sticking an opening jump into a far toe-hook with seeming ease, was a jaw-dropping way to start the round. And Tomoa Narasaki flashed the tricky third boulder—a big mantle start, into a precarious stand on a dual-texture volume—which had gone untopped by all previous competitors.

But always in the hunt was the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra. He was able to match Narasaki’s top of the third boulder, and eventually found himself facing a fourth boulder that could not have been more perfectly suited for his abilities—a collection of connected Cheeta volumes that formed a crack up the wall and forced a hand-jam. “This is about as old-school as it gets—burly hand-jamming,” said an excited Boscoe on commentary, noting the rarity of crack climbing techniques in a sport that has become measurably more dynamic and parkour-esque in recent years.

Japan’s competitors struggled with the jamming technique and South Korea’s Jongwon Chon ran out of time while trying to skip the hand-jam move altogether. Ondra (as a noted specialist on crack routes outdoors) performed the hand-jam with ease; he flashed the boulder and took the victory in what was celebrated as a “Hollywood ending,” the entire men’s competition coming down to the final climber on the final boulder.

The final round for the women’s division was equally as exciting, marked first by a relatively new name, Australia’s Oceana Mackenzie. Although Mackenzie, a mainstay on the IFSC’s youth scene for years, ended up topping only one boulder in her first finals of World Cup competition, the presence of an Australian competitor in the upper echelon of the adult field was atypical compared to recent seasons. Mackenzie is now likely to be referenced frequently in any Olympic discourse, as her home country will host the Oceania Continental Championships in April, 2020—and Mackenzie’s strong showing in Meiringen essentially made her the competitor-to-beat at that event.

On the walls, the battle for victory ultimately came down to familiar names. Great Britain’s Shauna Coxsey, the Bouldering World Cup season champion in 2016 and 2017, was marred by injuries last year but returned with a performance at Meiringen that exceeded expectations. Coxsey topped two of the finals’ boulders and earned a spot on the podium.

The battle for first place was contested between Japan’s Akiyo Noguchi and Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret. Garnbret struggled early, having trouble weighting her left foot on a minuscule jib in the opening boulder of the round. Noguchi’s top of that boulder put Garnbret in the rare position of being behind in the scores—but Garnbret soon found her mojo; she topped all remaining boulders, including a slab-and-undercling boulder that both Noguchi and Coxsey failed to send. In the end, Garnbret’s come-from-behind rally was enough to earn first place, with Noguchi just a notch below her in second.

Of the American men, Nathaniel Coleman had the best finish in 17th place. Drew Ruana placed 35, Zach Galla placed 53, Sean Bailey placed 59, and Dylan Barks placed 80. In the scores for the women’s division behind Alex Johnson and Kyra Condie, Brooke Raboutou placed 29, Margo Hayes placed 37, and Ashima Shiraishi placed 70.

The World Cup season continues with little time for ragged fingertips to heal. The next competition will take place this coming weekend (April 12-14) in Moscow, Russia. In addition to bouldering, it will include a Speed portion. Stay tuned to Climbing.com for links to the livestream.

Results

Men

  1. Adam Ondra (CZE)
  2. Tomoa Narasaki (JPN)
  3. Rei Sugimoto (JPN)
  4. Kokoro Fujii (JPN)
  5. Jongwon Chon (KOR)
  6. Tomoaki Takata (JPN)

Women

  1. Janja Garnbret (SLO)
  2. Akiyo Noguchi (JPN)
  3. Shauna Coxsey (GBR)
  4. Fanny Gibert (FRA)
  5. Petra Klingler (SUI)
  6. Oceana Mackenzie (AUS)