USA Climbing 2019 Bouldering Nationals: Highs and Lows

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What a difference a year makes. At the conclusion of the 2018 Bouldering Nationals, Ashima Shiraishi was stepping up to the second-place spot on the podium, literally and figuratively looking up at winner Alex Puccio—the unquestionable empress of American competition bouldering. Although Shiraishi had won Sport Nationals in 2017, she had yet to claim an adult national title for bouldering—and thus fulfill her role as the torchbearer of the new generation of superstars. At the conclusion of this year’s Bouldering Nationals in the Deschutes County Fairgrounds, in contrast, it was Shiraishi who reigned supreme in the women’s division; she topped 12 out of the 14 total boulders in a grueling, highly-competitive weekend of qualifying, semi-final, and final rounds. Shiraishi not only won the championship, the 17-year-old did so by flashing the final three boulders—including a dynamic two-handed catch of the 25-zone on the last boulder. Commentator Meagan Martin called the move “risky,” and commentator Sean Woodland called Shiraishi’s send a “clutch performance.” Whatever platitudes you use, Shiraishi needed to top that boulder to win, and she did so with aplomb. Now having earned adult championships in both lead and bouldering, she has lived up to the hype that was thrust upon her when she was barely out of grade school.

But the weekend had other notable differences from last year’s competition. In 2018, Margo Hayes struggled to slip into a rhythm at Bouldering Nationals and ultimately finished in fifth place. This year she erasd any acrid taste from previous competition woes; she finished in third place, struggling only on a third boulder that involved a strenuous, upward press into a humongous half sphere volume. And in the men’s division, Sean Bailey dethroned the reigning king of Bouldering Nationals, three-time champion Nathaniel Coleman. Bailey flashed all four boulders for a perfect score of 100. The crowd erupted, and rightly so, when he stuck the acrobatic, triple-clutch dyno on the final boulder and secured his victory.

Bailey’s win was an entertaining cap to one of the most thrilling finals in recent history. But there were plenty of other storylines to the weekend. Here are some aspects that stand out:

Highs

Alex Johnson’s “Comeback”

In an interview published in the December/January 2019 issue of Climbing, Alex Johnson was quoted as saying she’d like to hop into a competition “every now and then.” The comment seemed innocuous because much of the interview focused on Johnson’s role as the full-time head coach of Vertical Endeavors’ youth team in Minnesota. It would be easy to assume that Johnson has all-but retired from the big stage of competition. She famously won a World Cup competition in Vail in 2008—more than 10 years ago—and podiumed at Bouldering Nationals regularly from 2005-2015, but has been absent since then. She has also evolved to be so much more than just a competitor, as a mentor to kids and teacher of climbing clinics. So it was all the more surprising to watch 29-year-old Johnson enter this weekend’s Nationals, climb well in qualifiers, then flash the first three boulders in the semi-finals to cruise into the finals, and wow the crowd by nearly winning the competition. Her flash of the fourth boulder in the aforementioned finals, ending with a leap and an expertly controlled swing on the 25-zone Hueco pocket, showed veteran poise and should be played as one of the highlight moves of her storied career. She ultimately finished the competition in second place behind Shiraishi, but Johnson still manages to feel like a victor in her own right.

The Youth Presence

If Johnson’s second place finish was a manifestation of veteran savvy, then the flipside is the abundance of teenagers who advanced to the later rounds. Look at the ages of some of the finalists: Shiraishi and Brooke Raboutou are 17 years old, Sienna Kopf is 16, Zach Galla is 18, Drew Ruana is 19. Glancing at the semi-finalists, the abundance grows even greater: Anthony Lesik and Nekaia Sanders are 15, Emily Herdic is 16, Natalia Grossman and Cloe Coscoy are 17. This youthful profusion tantalizes with possibilities: If the kids are this good as teenagers, who knows what heights they can attain several years down the road.

All the Toppings

The weekend was heavy with tops, most strikingly with Bailey’s flawless run in the Finals, or Johnson and Shiraishi’s flash of three boulders in the semi-finals. It was something that the commentators picked up on as well. As the semi-finals of the men’s division progressed, Meagan Martin observed that three tops were quickly becoming necessary to advance into the dinals. An abundance of tops can straddle a tricky line—it could mean the route setting is too easy—but I don’t think it ever became excessive in this event. There was good separation between the competitors, making for a narrow and exciting finish. And ultimately a mainstream sports platform like ESPN, now the broadcasting home of USA Climbing events, wants tops to enliven and cultivate casual viewers. This competition hit the sweet spot.

Nathaniel Coleman Breaks His Perfect Streak

For the past two years, Nathaniel Coleman has flashed every finals problem at Bouldering Nationals. This year he almost flashed every problem, and that almost was enough for Sean Bailey to slip ahead and claim the win. Coleman looked solid throughout the event, climbing the problems casually, like they were easy. It was a surprise when he blew the karate kick early on the third finals problem. Perhaps he'd become complacent, maybe he misread the move, or maybe it was just a rogue slip. Whatever the reason, it cost him the event—by just a tenth of a point. Sean Bailey, on the other hand, looked like he was trying his hardest throughout the round, occasionally struggling on sequences, but always pulling through in the end. Both men are contenders for the US Olympic team. Maybe this second-place finish is the motivation Coleman needs to push himself even harder for a shot to represent the US in the games.

Lows

Early Outs

One of the biggest surprises of the weekend was the early exit of Alex Puccio. Puccio, as an 11-time bouldering national champion, was an undeniable favorite to win—or at least podium. But she did not have her best weekend; her troubles began as she unsuccessfully tried a static approach to the 15-zone hold on the opening boulder in the semi-finals—a move that other competitors read as a dynamic double-clutch. She had success on the second boulder but finished the round without topping the last two problems and did not advance to the finals. A similar anticlimax was Kyra Condie failing to make finals by a single place for the second year in a row. “I guess Bouldering Nationals is destined to not be my comp,” Condie reflected on Instagram. Condie recently won the inaugural Combined Invitational, so it seemed like a forgone conclusion that she would at least be in the running for a Bouldering Nationals victory. Alas, off-days happen, but Puccio and Condie are still two of the best competitors in the women’s field. In a way, their misfortunes further confirm how thrilling the sport can be. Anything can happen at any competition.

Technical Difficulties

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the weekend’s drama did have some hiccups, in terms of production. In the qualifying round, the livestream on ESPN3 was lost several times—sometimes for several minutes on end. At other times, the audio was out of sync with the video. And at points the commentators’ microphones were picking up the music and commentary from the fairground's speakers. To the credit of those on the crew, these glitches were minimized as the competition progressed—and the technical difficulties were never as bad as the those of some IFSC livestreams from China. But it was nonetheless surprising to see so many bugs in the system with ESPN attached to the production. On the bright side, scoring updates were given more often with on-screen graphics, so it appears that the production of USA Climbing events is constantly improving.

Results

Women

  1. Ashima Shiraishi
  2. Alex Johnson
  3. Margo Hayes
  4. Claire Buhrfeind
  5. Brooke Raboutou
  6. Sienna Kopf

Men

  1. Sean Bailey
  2. Nathaniel Coleman
  3. Drew Ruana
  4. Zach Galla
  5. Dylan Barks
  6. Matty Hong

The Bouldering Open Nationals are scheduled to be replayed on ESPN2 on February 17. The Open Nationals for Sport & Speed will be broadcasted live on ESPN3 on March 8-9.