USA Climbing 2019 Combined Invitational: Highs and Lows

A look at the first-ever USA Climbing combined-format event
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This weekend, USA Climbing held its first Olympic-format competition with their Combined Invitational in Salt Lake City, Utah. The event, which was held at Momentum Lehi and Momentum Millcreek, had athletes compete in speed climbing, bouldering, and sport climbing, blending the disciplines into a climbing triathlon. It was the first time many of the athletes had competed in the format. The firsts did not stop there, however, as the last-minute announcement of a broadcasting partnership between USA Climbing and ESPN put the livestream on ESPN3. But after all the prologue, the competition delivered plenty of action-packed drama.

In the women’s division, Kyra Condie emerged victorious and became the first member of USA Climbing's overall national team. She clinched the win when she stuck a cruxy rose move in the lead climbing discipline—a move that Brooke Raboutou and Ashima Shiraishi struggled with. Condie opted to skip a clip in order to push her high point just a bit further before taking a big victory swing off the wall. And prior to the lead climbing portion, she provided the highlight of the event by sticking a dyno on the 15-zone hold of the third women’s boulder. The move seemed designed for a multi-step dyno, in which the climber would launch from a series of volumes, paddle up two wide gray volumes while swinging to a smaller hold above. The move shut down every prior competitor, but Condie was able to latch the hold with one hand, swinging out from the wall but sticking it, after skipping the second intermediate volume. The crowd went wild, and ESPN executives were likely grinning at its SportsCenter-esque replay potential. Condie proved adept at speed climbing too. She placed third, beating Sienna Kopf by two hundredths of a second (9.47 compared to 9.49) in a hotly-contested heat to kick off the day.

The men’s portion was also exciting, albeit with less nail-biting drama; Zach Galla won the competition with strong performances in the speed and bouldering portions, so his progress on the climactic lead climbing portion was all but irrelevant. Other men had their moments—Sean Bailey reached the high point on the lead wall and missed the top by a single hold, and Nathaniel Coleman came back from a lackluster qualifiers to win the speed portion in an upset. But ultimately it was Galla’s weekend, and he finds himself with Condie making a big statement as the march to Tokyo 2020 grows nearer.

Here are a few other aspects of the weekend that stood out:

Highs

Colin Duffy’s Rise

Duffy, only 15 years old, is a familiar name to anyone who follows the youth comp scene. He is a two-time youth national champion and a member of the renowned Team ABC. But he was the youngest, lightest (at 100 pounds), and shortest (at five feet tall) competitor in the finals, and he more than held his own in a cutthroat field. In fact, his struggles with the second problem in the bouldering portion of the finals marked the first time that he failed to top a boulder. While he did not top problems two or three, it was impressive to watch his attempts. On problem three, the opening move looked impossibly far for his height, and yet he figured out how to move through it. It was particularly interesting to watch Duffy climb back-to-back with Kai Lightner in the bouldering lineup. Duffy would have to compensate for his lack of reach by moving dynamically. Lightner on the other hand, with his 6'8" wingspan, often seemed too tall for the given moves. It was almost like they were climbing two different boulder problems that used the same holds. Duffy finished the weekend in fourth place, and his talent and poise make him a climber to watch as moves out of the youth circuit and continues to test himself against today's top US comp climbers.

John Brosler’s National Record

Brosler is undeniably America’s speed climbing king, but he did not have an ideal finals. He slipped twice in a speed climbing heat against Nathaniel Coleman and eventually finished the discipline in third place behind Coleman and Galla. But in a runoff against Sean Bailey, Brosler set a new American record at 5.99, mitigating the sting of an otherwise disappointing speed round. Nothing like setting a new record to serve as a little pick-me-up, eh?

Buzzer Beaters

With the head-to-head nature of speed climbing and the 4-minute (flat) time limit for bouldering, the combined format proved to be well-suited for casual sports fans used to ticking clocks, last-minute Hail Marys, and emotional swings. Consider Sean Bailey beating Josh Levin in Sunday’s speed portion: Levin (who was in the lead) lunged for the top… but missed the buzzer. Or Natalia Grossman topping the second boulder in the women’s qualifiers as the clock ticked down—a feat that Margo Hayes also tried, but was unsuccessful. Add to this the sudden-death aspect of lead climbing in which there are no second chances and suddenly climbing feels like the ideal spectator sport.

The Format

Since the combined format was widely panned when it was first announced nearly three years ago, it is worth mentioning how it feels in practice—and admitting that it works pretty well. In the women’s and the men’s finals, the roster was a mix of competitors with diverse strengths. For instance, both Brosler and Piper Kelly—the speed specialists—made the finals and fared well. The multiple disciplines clipped along at a pace that never felt too slow. Of course, breaking the disciplines into individual events would be preferred, but given the limitations set by the Olympic Committee (climbing only gets one medal to work with), this event showed that the combined format makes for an entertaining event.

Lows

Growing Pains

The timing of the ESPN partnership announcement was not ideal—just one day before the competition kicked off and without any prior indication that there would be no Youtube livestream. Many American fans were left scrambling to figure out how to watch ESPN3, the platform for the livestream, and international fans were out of luck altogether. Social media sharing of event clips was discouraged (since ESPN owns all of the video footage), which stifled some of the back-and-forth with content that has become such a hallmark of the climbing community. There is not much to say other than that frustrations were inevitable with any step into a bigger media realm, but hopefully the growth of the sport in the long run will make it worth it.

Scoring Voids

At one point during the event, commentator Meagan Martin quipped, “If you’re scoring at home, God bless ya.” She was talking about the complex scoring system for bouldering, where each attempt chipped away at a competitors' score by a fraction of a point. Furthermore, on-screen graphics were underutilized, when they could have explained the boulder problems or scoring system, or at least provide updates as to the athletes' scores and positions. These accoutrements have become more common in IFSC competitions and go a long way in helping the audience follow the event. In the lead climbing portion, there was never even a clear explanation of the hold numbering.

It’s possible that some of these things will appear when a condensed version of the competition re-airs on ESPN2 on February 3. But generally speaking, USA Climbing would be wise to present the viewer with the overall score more often. Think about other sports like football and basketball where the score is always on the screen—and easy for layperson viewers to understand. To make matters worse, the combined standing takes each athlete's rank in the individual disciplines and multiplies them together to determine their standing (a higher total means a worse ranking). Casual fans—especially those watching ESPN—should know the scores and rankings at all times, but they didn't have a chance unless they had a pen and paper on hand. If the commentators themselves admit to some convolution, this is a problem that needs to be solved.

Puccio’s Exit

Some of the biggest news of the Combined Invitational took place far away from the event, with Alex Puccio posting on her Instagram page that she will not be vying for a spot on the US Olympic team. “I started to listen to my heart and mind a bit more and realized that I wasn’t really into training for speed and lead,” said Puccio, adding that Olympic training would also detract from her interest in climbing outdoors. Credit should go to Puccio for doing some soul-searching and making a decision—and an announcement—that was undoubtedly difficult. But as one of the biggest names on the bouldering comp scene, her absence will be missed in Olympic preparation and promotion this coming year.

Miscellany

Commentary

Meagan Martin was joined by ESPN's Sam Farber to provide commentary for the competition. It was a departure from previous years' events, which were produced by Louder Than 11 and had Brian Runnells and Chris Weidner on the mics. Martin was solid and knowledgable, having a strong competition background herself. Farber, on the other hand, is not a climber; he admitted to having visited some climbing gyms years ago but came across as a newbie with his frequent mentions of the movie Cliffhanger. That’s OK—we were all new to the sport at one time. It seemed that his role was to watch alongside viewers that had channel-surfed their way to the event and learn about it right along with them. To his credit, he seemed genuinely interested and was never shy in asking for some schooling (“Kneebar is using your knee to wedge yourself in there—is that correct?”). If he continues to work on the USA Climbing events, his knowledge should expand and his insights will improve. Maybe Martin can convince him to give climbing a try again, too.

Routesetting Love

It was nice to see ESPN acknowledge the craft of setting, with Farber interviewing Chris Danielson, the chief setter for the bouldering portion, and Bret Johnston, the chief setter for the lead portion. Good setting is the foundation for any competition, so the more praise that the hardworking setters can get, the better. Setting can often be a thankless job, but it should not be.

The Combined Invitational will be replayed in a condensed format on ESPN2 on February 3 at 5:00 PM EST. The Bouldering Open National Championships will be livestreamed on ESPN3 on February 1-2.

Results

Men

  1. Zach Galla
  2. Nathaniel Coleman
  3. Sean Bailey
  4. Colin Duffy
  5. Drew Ruana
  6. Kai Lightner
  7. John Brosler
  8. Josh Levin

Women’s

  1. Kyra Condie
  2. Brooke Raboutou
  3. Natalia Grossman
  4. Ashima Shiraishi
  5. Margo Hayes
  6. Piper Kelly
  7. Sienna Kopf
  8. Claire Buhrfeind