USA Climbing 2019 Sport and Speed Nationals: Highs and Lows

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Sports don’t always have happy endings. Sometimes the most highly-touted athletes don't win the big one, and other times it seems as if the universe is conspiring against the hopes of loyal fans. In that vein, despite her meteoric rise to climbing stardom, Margo Hayes had not won a national championship since 2016. In the past few years, she has become a face of The North Face, a star of Reel Rock films, and she has been credited with breaking the glass ceiling for women with multiple 5.15 sends. She is arguably the biggest name in American sport climbing today. Yet, her recent competition results have not represented her renown and proven supremacy: fifth place at the recent Combined Invitational, third place at this year’s Bouldering Open Nationals, and fourth place at last year’s Sport Nationals.

So, despite superb efforts from the other competitors at this past weekend’s Sport and Speed Nationals at Sportrock Climbing Centers in Alexandria, Virginia, something just felt right about Hayes besting the women’s field and emerging victorious. Fittingly, she had to employ the tenacity that she is so well-known for. Hayes was in fourth place heading out of the qualifying round; she recovered from a foot slip on a long arête-tracing, semi-finals route but was still behind Ashima Shiraishi in the standings. In the finals, Hayes rallied and affirmed another accolade: she is one of the best route-readers in the game. Where other competitors attempted—unsuccessfully—to dyno to a cruxy red sloper, Hayes positioned herself with a toe hook, leaned over casually, and reached the sloper with ease. She did not end up topping the route—no competitor did. But her score of 40.59 was a high point that even the final competitor, Shiraishi, could not touch. Hayes’s victory also secured her a spot on the U.S. National Combined Team (along with Kyra Condie, Brooke Raboutou, and Shiraishi). 

The men’s sport event had its own thrilling narrative. Early in the competition, it seemed that it was to be Sean Bailey’s weekend. Bailey was the defending national champion and fresh off a victory at February’s Bouldering Open Nationals. He also topped both routes in the qualifying round. But lying in wait was Jesse Grupper, who was only in sixth place at the end of the qualifying round but finished at the top of the field in the semi-finals. Grupper was the last competitor to take to the wall in the finals. Bailey had already climbed—having done well but falling with a score of 27.57, not enough to defend his national title. Grupper moved methodically past the respective high points of other strong competitors like Zander Waller and Solomon Barth. By the time Grupper fell, just shy of the 32nd hold, the crowd had erupted. Grupper’s victory did not quite secure him a spot on the U.S. National Combined Team like it did Hayes—those slots went to Zach Galla, Nathaniel Coleman, Drew Ruana, and Bailey in the men’s field—but that should not diminish the remarkable weekend that he had. 

There were plenty of other storylines and anecdotes to the weekend. Here are some aspects that stood out:

Highs

The Olympics, Finally

ESPN found itself in a tricky spot in broadcasting this event and putting it in the proper context. While much of the buzz around American competition climbing right now has to do with the Olympics, commentators Sean Woodland and Meagan Martin kept having to remind viewers that competitors’ victories did not actually equal Olympic berths. But with the inaugural trio of ESPN/USA Climbing events finished, the national team for the combined format has been confirmed. And the members of that national team will be eligible to compete at IFSC international competitions—and those events will have Olympic qualifying implications. All eyes can now turn to the Big Eight—Galla, Coleman, Bailey, Ruana, Condie, Shiraishi, Raboutou, and Hayes—to see if any of them can make the Olympic dream come true in the coming year.

The Crowd

I wouldn’t put it past the broadcasting experts at ESPN to mic the crowd to give the audio on the broadcast a little more energy. I don’t know if that was the case, but the audience was noticeably more vocal than at any Nationals I can remember. Perhaps that also had to do with the fact that 1,000 spectators were crammed onto the floor of Sportrock Climbing Centers to watch it live. Perhaps that had to do with solid routesetting by chief setter Ryan Sewell that included flashy moves like a high bat-hang (to top one of the men’s qualifying routes) or a dyno to a big hueco pocket (midway up the men’s final route). Or perhaps it was just because the whole weekend was action-packed and the celebrity of competitors like Hayes, Shiraishi, and others is ever-growing. Whatever the case, it’s always an asset when the crowd at a competition is knowledgeable and psyched. 

Budding Rivalries

This weekend’s tight race between Hayes and Shiraishi—taking first and second place, respectively—was nothing new. At the 2017 Sport Nationals, for example, Shiraishi took first place and Hayes was right behind her in second. At the Combined Invitational, Shiraishi placed fourth and Hayes was fifth. It seems like Hayes and Shiraishi just can't avoid being neck-and-neck in the standings.

The men’s division also has its intriguing adversaries. At the start of the weekend, it seemed like Bailey and Colin Duffy were poised for a showdown—Bailey, at 22 years old, is the competition veteran and a product of the legendary Vertical World Team. Duffy, at 15, is the rising star and a product of equally acclaimed Team ABC. Bailey finished first in qualifiers, and Duffy was right behind him. As the weekend progressed, the dramatic rivalry did not fully pan out; Duffy failed to make finals and Bailey finished in fourth place. But that’s another rivalry to keep an eye on in future competitions.

New Names in Speed

Emma Hunt’s victory in the women’s speed portion of the weekend’s competition did not come easily. She false-started in her first run against Sienna Kopf, but re-composed herself to win and clock a time of 8.83 seconds (compared to Kopf’s 8.95). Other competitors were hot on Hunt’s heels: Piper Kelly, the national record holder, posted 8.90, Mia Bawendi barely missed a podium position with 9.01. But this was Hunt’s weekend, and it marked her entry into the elite adult ranks after being successful for years on the youth speed climbing scene.

The men’s speed portion was dominated by the national record holder John Brosler, who won with a time of 6.26 seconds. But even that field included some newer names in the adult field like Noah Bratschi and Joshua Muehring. Muehring finished in fifth place, while his older brother Luke finished in seventh. Bratschi finished impressively in second place. 

Lows

Lack of Real-Time Scores

At one point during the qualifying round, Meagan Martin commented that it’d be interesting if competitors were awarded style points for their climbing—to which Sean Woodland quipped that such a thing would unfortunately add “another layer of complexity to the scoring.” And Woodland was right—while the general scoring of the sport climbing portion is intuitive—whoever gets the highest on the wall wins—the nuance is complex. Partial points are awarded for clipping, and points are fractioned based on control of a handhold versus simply touching usable surface. That's why running scores should be presented on-screen during a broadcast at all times—to help viewers navigate the complexity. Since every hold is worth a point, it makes sense to show a score tally on screen that tracks a competitor’s progress in real time as she climbs. Why must viewers wait until a competitor has fallen—and a commercial break has been taken—to see her score? I doubt that I am the only one asking questions like this, and hopefully such musings spur additional production tweaks in future competitions.

Dental Danger

Midway up the men’s route in semi-finals, Matty Hong went to clip and held the rope between his teeth as he pulled up slack (as lead climbers are wont to do). But then he moved his hands—while still biting the rope—to find a better handhold along a big volume. Meagan Martin called him out for continuing to climb while the rope was still in his mouth. One’s imagination does not have to work hard to envision the nastiness that could happen while taking a fall with a rope between one’s teeth. In the interest of the competitors’ safety, it might be wise for USA Climbing to have a discussion about such risk and consider an addition to the rulebook that would ban progression while biting the rope. I do not wish to see Hong—or any competitor—getting disqualified for technical fouls like that, but more so, I do not want to see anyone's teeth rain down onto the gym floor.

Results

Women’s Sport

  1. Margo Hayes
  2. Ashima Shiraishi
  3. Katherine Lamb
  4. Kyra Condie
  5. Michaela Kiersch
  6. Lauren Bair
  7. Emma Palmer
  8. Claire Buhrfeind

Men’s Sport

  1. Jesse Grupper
  2. Zander Waller
  3. Solomon Barth
  4. Sean Bailey
  5. Dylan Barks
  6. Drew Ruana
  7. Charlie Osborne
  8. Matty Hong

Women’s Speed

  1. Emma Hunt
  2. Piper Kelly
  3. Sienna Kopf
  4. Mia Bawendi
  5. Lauren Bair
  6. Brooke Raboutou
  7. Amanda Wooten
  8. Amanda Brownstein

Men’s Speed

  1. John Brosler
  2. Noah Bratschi
  3. Joe Goodacre
  4. Jordan Fishman
  5. Joshua Muehring
  6. Josh Levin
  7. Luke Muehring
  8. Michael Finn-Henry