Although there have been other storylines sprinkled throughout the 2019 IFSC lead season—the collective dominance of Team Japan and an interlude of Olympic invitations at the World Championships—the big narrative has always been the ongoing rivalry between the legendary Janja Garnbret of Slovenia and the rookie Chaehyun Seo of South Korea. As dominant as Garnbret was in sweeping the 2019 bouldering season, she has been chasing Seo in the lead discipline ever since Seo won the World Cup event in Chamonix, France, back in July.

The rivalry reached its climax at this past weekend’s competition in Xiamen, China. There, Garnbret and Seo cruised through the early rounds by topping both qualification routes and the route in the semi-finals. This left the two competitors neck-and-neck heading into the finals, which featured 38 moves up a winding assortment of green volumes. Other competitors got stymied by the route at various points—Japan’s Ai Mori could not stick a big launch to the 11th hold; Slovenia’s Lucka Rakovec and Japan’s Natsuki Tani dynoed for the final volume but neither could grasp it. South Korea’s Jain Kim and Japan’s Akiyo Noguchi both topped the route methodically, but were then left waiting to see if Seo or Garnbret could reach the top at faster times.

Seo was the penultimate competitor and never seemed troubled by any of the route’s long reaches or awkward crosses. She topped the route with 1:47 remaining (2:21:00 in the livestream). Garnbret climbed last and looked smooth on the lower portion of the route. She reached the headwall much quicker than Seo had, but Garnbret tried to snag the top with a dynamic lunge rather than the static method that had worked for Seo. The crowd gasped as Garnbret swooped down out of the spotlight—unsuccessful in securing the top.

Garnbret’s miss not only gave Seo the victory, but it also solidified Seo as the 2019 overall lead season champion. In total she won four out of the five lead World Cup competitions that she entered—the best rookie season for a competitor on the adult circuit in recent history.

Ondra Stays Perfect

As much as Chaeyhun Seo has been the superstar of the women’s lead division this year, the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra has been the star of the men’s division. He has been undefeated at the lead discipline this season, which not only tracks through the World Cup circuit, but also into the lead disciplines at the World Championships and the European Championships. Wherever Ondra has competed at lead, he has been flawless. His only blunder was an unfortunate misstep on a bolt during the combined portion of the World Championships, which knocked him out of Olympic contention—for the time being. But Ondra’s performance in Xiamen was an extension of his lead dominance this season. He topped both routes in the qualification round, matched a bottleneck at 31+ in the semi-final round that positioned him in second place, and even paused on the wall to rouse the crowd before topping the route in the finals (49:21 in the livestream).

Ondra was not the only competitor in the men’s division to top that finals route. Japan’s breakout star Taisei Homma and stalwart Tomoa Narasaki also topped. But Ondra looked more relaxed than either of them and earned the victory—and the overall lead season championship. More remarkable was that Ondra was originally not planning to compete in the lead discipline at Xiamen at all; he was only there to participate in the speed discipline, which he needed to do in order to be eligible for the next Olympic qualification event, in Toulouse, France. The quirky anecdote only adds to Ondra’s storied 2019 season.

New Speed Record Set

While we’re on the subject of speed climbing, let's sound the trumpets for Indonesia’s Aries Susanti Rahayu, as she became the new “Queen of Speed” in Xiamen. Rahayu not only set a new women’s world record of 6.995 at the competition, but she did so in a Big Final heat against then-record-holder YiLing Song (56:30 in the livestream for the record-breaking run). Rahayu also became the first woman in history to break the hallowed 7-second barrier. Song, it should be noted, still came away from the competition as the overall season winner of the women’s speed division.

The final heats in the men’s speed division weren’t quite as dramatic, with China’s QiXin Zhong beating Russia’s Lev Rudatskiy (with a time of 7.208 seconds) to claim the victory after Rudatskiy slipped. But the fact that the women’s world record has been broken three times in the past three years makes every speed event slated for next year’s season—in both the men’s and women’s divisions—a must-watch.

Team USA Shows Some Depth

Considering the jet lag of the 17-hour flight from the United States to China, the American competitors had a strong collective showing. In the women’s division, Ashima Shiraishi and Margo Hayes advanced to the semi-finals, where they earned scores of 17+ and 33+, respectively Shiraishi finished in 25th place, and Hayes finished in 20th.

In the men’s division, Sean Bailey and Jesse Grupper progressed to the finals and finished with scores of 23+ and 25+, respectively. Grupper finished in 7th place, and Bailey finished in 8th. In fact, the event at Xiamen marked the first time that Grupper, the 2019 American National Champion, advanced into a final round on the World Cup circuit.

Of the other members of Team USA who competed at Xiamen, in the men’s lead division Drew Ruana finished tied for 27th place, Nathaniel Coleman finished in 38, and John Brosler finished in 47. In the women’s division, Alex Johnson finished in 36, and Maggie Hammer finished in 47.

Fans of Team USA were also treated to American commentary on the livestream, alongside IFSC mainstay Charlie Boscoe. Hammer joined Boscoe during the semi-finals, and Hayes accompanied Boscoe in the booth during the finals.

The last event of the 2019 World Cup circuit is a lead competition, and it will take place on October 26-27 in Inzai, Japan. Stay tuned to for the livestreams and coverage.


Women’s Lead

  1. Chaehyun Seo (KOR)
  2. Akiyo Noguchi (JPN)
  3. Jain Kim (KOR)
  4. Janja Garnbret (SLO)
  5. Natsuki Tanii (JPN)
  6. Lucka Rakovec (SLO)
  7. YueTong Zhang (CHN)
  8. Ievgeniia Kazbekova (UKR)
  9. Ai Mori (JPN)

Men’s Lead

  1. Adam Ondra (CZE)
  2. Taisei Homma (JPN)
  3. Tomoa Narasaki (JPN)
  4. Kai Harada (JPN)
  5. Alberto Ginés López (ESP)
  6. Meichi Narasaki (JPN)
  7. Jesse Grupper (USA)
  8. Sean Bailey (USA)

Women’s Speed

  1. Aries Susanti Rahayu (INA)
  2. YiLing Song (CHN)
  3. Mariia Krasavina (RUS)
  4. Anouck Jaubert (FRA)
  5. LiJuan Deng (CHN)
  6. PeiYang Tian (CHN)
  7. Di Niu (CHN)
  8. Aurelia Sarisson (FRA)

Men’s Speed

  1. QiXin Zhong (CHN)
  2. Lev Rudatskiy (RUS)
  3. Vladislav Deulin (RUS)
  4. Sergey Rukin (RUS)
  5. Bassa Mawem (FRA)
  6. Reza Alipour Shenazandifard (IRI)
  7. Dmitrii Timofeev (RUS)
  8. Alfian Muhammad (INA)

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