USA Climbing 2020 Combined Invitational: Highs and Lows

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Hometown hero Lauren Bair navigating a boulder problem en route to her Combined Invitational win.

Hometown hero Lauren Bair navigating a boulder problem en route to her Combined Invitational win.

As a national-level championship, USA Climbing's Combined Invitational is only two years old. And yet, this year’s offering at Summit Climbing in Plano, Texas, proved that it’s never too soon for a competitor to establish a legacy in a unique format.

The winner in the men’s division was Zach Galla, who also won the event last year. En route to his second Combined Invitational victory, Galla faced stiff competition this year, particularly from a pair of 16-year-olds: Colin Duffy and Zander Waller. Oddly enough, all three competitors lost their inaugural heats in the speed climbing finals. However, Galla made a strong statement in the bouldering portion by flashing the first boulder, an overhung collection of prism-shaped volumes, and topping the second boulder with the requisite “thundercling” finish. Waller and Duffy both topped two boulders in the round as well to usher in a thrilling sport climbing portion.

Duffy set an early standard in the sport climbing round by lunging for the top (41st) hold; he wasn’t able to snag it, but his score of 40.63 established a high point. Waller fell lower on the wall, unable to recover from fatigue after performing a crowd-pleasing rose move. By the time Galla took to the wall, the Texas crowd was on the edge of their seats. Galla worked through a lower section of presses and performed the rose move flawlessly. Although his final score of 31.61 wasn’t anywhere near the round’s high point, it positioned Galla in third place. And when the scores for all of the disciplines (speed, bouldering and sport) were multiplied, he clinched the overall win.

If there was any consolation for Duffy (who placed second), Waller (third), and Joe Goodacre (fourth), it was that they will all join Galla at the upcoming Pan-American Olympic Qualifying Event, and a victory there will earn an invite to the upcoming summer Olympics in Tokyo.

The women’s division was thrilling in its own right, featuring a hometown win by Lauren Bair. Not only does Bair train at Summit Climbing, she also coaches there. “Everybody from my team, everybody that I work with—everybody is here,” Bair said after her victory.

Bair had a solid start to the finals and clocked a run of 9.57 seconds in a race against Quinn Mason to win the speed climbing heat. Bair ended the speed round in third place behind 15-year-old Callie Close and the women’s national record holder, Emma Hunt. Bair couldn’t stick the requisite double-clutch dyno on the first boulder—and none of the women topped the second boulder. A myriad of tops on an undercooked third boulder meant the women’s overall title was largely wide open heading into the sport climbing round. There, Bair set a high point and barely missed securing a top on the 52-hold route. Her performance prompted commentator Meagan Martin to proclaim, “That’s probably the smartest climbing I’ve ever seen from Lauren Bair in a competition.” It earned Bair the storied win.

Here’s a closer look at some of the good and the bad from the weekend’s event.

Highs

New names

During the women’s speed climbing finals, commentator Sam Farber noted that there seemed to be a lot of 15- and 16-year-olds in the competition. To this, Meagan Martin responded: “I see a very strong field—it is on the younger side, but we’ve been seeing that a lot in competition climbing.” In fact, a lot of the names on this year’s men’s and women’s rosters would have been familiar to anyone who follows the youth scene, but Farber’s point was well-taken. Norah Chi, Kylie Cullen, Quinn Mason, Nekaia Sanders, Callie Close, Matti Dennis, Lucas Oddi, Quinn O'francia, Zander Waller, Isaac Leff… the list of youngsters goes on. Make a mental note of those names. Those are some of the competitors who will be vying for spots in the 2024 Olympics four years from now.

Meagan Martin and Sam Farber return

And while we’re on the subject of Meagan Martin and Sam Farber's commentary, let’s give them credit for putting in a long weekend of dissecting the three different disciplines that compose the combined event. It was the equivalent of calling three separate competitions. I like the fact that ESPN went with the same commentary team as last year. Farber is not a climber, but he seems genuine and interested in the sport, and has proven that he is willing to admit his unfamiliarity. Martin does a great job at filling in the gaps. It is wise for ESPN to stay consistent; Farber will continue to learn more about the sport, and his rapport with Martin will continue to improve.

Show-stopping moves

Credit is also due to Ryan Sewell, Garrett Gregor, and all the other routesetters for putting together some phenomenal sequences. There are minor criticisms that could be made; for example, it was disappointing to see six out of the eight women top the third finals boulder. But small gripes aside, there were a number of routesetting highlights. Colin Duffy's flawless paddle dyno on the third boulder during qualifiers comes to mind, as does a head-bar that Kylie Cullen unveiled between two volumes on the sport route in finals. There were also technical toe-catches, thunderclings, and feet-off dynos galore. The assortment of moves and styles kept the livestream interesting throughout the weekend. And a Yeti-sponsored “Move of the Day” segment at the conclusion of each discipline provided a nice showcase of the event’s flashiest moments.

Repeat champion Zach Galla, along with the other top four male and female competitors from this event, will be invited to compete at the Pan-American Championships. The winner of the men's portion of that event will earn a spot on the Olympic roster. (Both of the women's spots for Team USA are filled.)

Repeat champion Zach Galla, along with the other top four male and female competitors from this event, will be invited to compete at the Pan-American Championships. The winner of the men's portion of that event will earn a spot on the Olympic roster. (Both of the women's spots for Team USA are filled.)

Colin Duffy’s progression

It’s worth dwelling on Colin Duffy for a bit longer because he is being framed as the next big thing for American competition climbing. There is no denying that star power is quickly coalescing around the 16-year-old phenom of Team ABC. Duffy set a personal best twice in the speed qualification portion, and he also topped all five boulders in the qualification round. At one point during that round, Farber asked Martin, “What could it potentially do for the sport if Colin Duffy makes it to the Olympics?” If Duffy performs superbly at the upcoming Pan-American Olympic Qualifying Event, Farber (and everyone else) will no longer have to pose that question in a hypothetical sense.

Lows

Lack of star power

If there is a flip side to having so many new names on the roster, it is that a lot of the biggest names of the American competition scene were absent. Off the top of my head, absentees included the three Olympians (Nathaniel Coleman, Kyra Condie, and Brooke Raboutou—although Coleman and Condie were present in the audience), plus Sean Bailey, Drew Ruana, Margo Hayes, Ashima Shiraishi, Alex Johnson, Sierra Blair-Coyle, Natalia Grossman, and Piper Kelly. This is unfortunate because the Olympic intrigue up to this point has been built by those competitors—especially Hayes and Shiraishi and other members of the American Overall National Team. Anyone riding the Olympic wave and tuning into the livestream on a whim expected to see at least some of those names taking part, and it is unfortunate that those viewers were likely a little disappointed.

Early exits

One of the most exciting entries in the men’s division was Kai Lightner, who has mostly taken a break from competitions over the past year to focus on his academics. He beat Isaac Leff in a qualification speed run and clocked a time of 7.56 seconds, but things went downhill after that. Lighter lost his next speed run to Joe Goodacre and struggled on the qualification sport route and the boulders. Ultimately Lightner did not advance to the finals. John Brosler, another exciting entry and the national speed climbing record holder, climbed really well throughout the qualification round and came closer to making the finals but missed out by just one spot. There are always hard cuts like this—that’s the nature of sports. But one cannot help but wonder how the men’s final round might have been different if Lightner and Brosler, already each a competition legend in his own right, had been part of it.

Commentary troubles

Throughout the livestream, Sam Farber asked Meagan Martin to explain climbing nomenclature in layperson terms: Crimp, dyno, volume, layback, rose move. At one point Martin tried to expound on a gaston, but at a loss, urged viewers to notice the way the competitor’s hand was oriented on the wall at that moment and admitted, “I honestly don’t know a better way to explain that.” It's difficult to explain climbing moves to someone who is unfamiliar with the sport, so this is not meant to be a criticism of Martin. Rather, it is a message for everyone. As climbing approaches its Olympic apex, we should all be prepared to explain the sport and its nuance in the simplest terms. If you have not yet had to do this at, say, an office holiday party, or a family reunion, or a dinner with non-climbing friends, you probably will. Embrace it. There has never before been a time when so many new eyes are landing on the incredible sport of competition climbing—even if it is really hard to explain certain aspects.

Results

Women

  1. Lauren Bair
  2. Emma Hunt
  3. Sienna Kopf
  4. Callie Close
  5. Norah Chi
  6. Matti Dennis
  7. Quinn Mason
  8. Kylie Cullen

Men

  1. Zach Galla
  2. Colin Duffy
  3. Zander Waller
  4. Joe Goodacre
  5. Luke Muehring
  6. Jordan Fishman
  7. Josh Levin
  8. Ross Fulkerson