10 Climbers Who Could Go Very, Very Big This Year
The upcoming World Cup season is bound to see fireworks from former Olympians, but don't rule out surprises from other world-class competitors.
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We’re getting very close to the start of the 2022 World Cup season. Originally scheduled to kick off on April 1 with a Boulder and Speed World Cup in Moscow, that Russia event has been “suspended,” meaning the 2022 season will now begin on April 8 in Meiringen, Switzerland. Most intriguing is that all of this year’s international events will arrive with a lot of momentum, fresh off of the 2020 Olympics (held in 2021 because of the pandemic), newfound publicity for the competition climbing circuit itself, and the anointment of some bonafide superstars. Although not an exhaustive list, the following 10 climbers are capable of fireworks at the 2022 World Cups.
Arguably, Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret had, in 2021, the best year of any competition climber—ever. Not only did she win an Olympic gold medal; she also won the overall Lead World Cup season, was Slovenia’s Athlete of the Year, and became a mainstream star covered by outlets ranging from CNN to The New York Times. But all that is prologue for the 2022 World Cup season. And even though Garnbret is only 23 years old, there are plenty of younger crushers (South Korea’s Chaehyun Seo, Bulgaria’s Aleksandra Totkova, Japan’s Natsuki Tanii, etc.) posing big challenges. Still, Garnbret has proven that she can perform at her best when she is pressured—so there’s no reason to think that the youthful phenoms from other countries won’t continue to bring out the best in Garnbret. Comparisons to other sports and other athletes can be tricky, but Garnbret is undeniably competition climbing’s marquee superstar in the GOAT echelon; other athletes that have resided in that rare space in other sports include Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, and Simone Biles. At this point, Garnbret is simply adding additional chapters to her already legendary narrative, and that makes her a must-watch competitor this season.
Read more: “How Janja Garnbret Beat Everyone by Preparing for the Worst”
You cannot talk about Janja Garnbret without including Team USA’s Natalia Grossman. Grossman does not have the abundance of international accolades that Garnbret does, but last year Grossman proved she can beat Garnbret at World Cups. Grossman is also the reigning Boulder World champion, a title that has previously belonged to Garnbret. Grossman and Garnbret have always been friendly and complimentary of each other, so theirs is not exactly a venom-spitting rivalry. Still, the continuation of the Grossman/Garnbret storyline is the most intriguing one heading into the 2022 World Cup season, and it’s giving the sport of competition climbing one of the most thrilling duels since Slovenia’s Mina Markovič and South Korea’s Jain Kim repeatedly traded victories at World Cups nearly a decade ago. Look for Grossman to be better than ever this year, and look for her battles with Garnbret on the scorecards to be among the most exciting the sport has ever seen.
Read this: “Natalia Grossman Just Had One of America’s Best Comp Seasons. What’s Next?”
It’s fascinating to look at all the accomplishments of Grossman and compare them to the accomplishments of her American teammate Brooke Raboutou. While Grossman carved out fame last year based on World Cup and World Championship wins, Raboutou’s fame came largely from her highly touted appearance in the Olympics. On the one hand, it’s encouraging to see that competition climbers can gain celebrity status these days through multiple avenues. It’s also a cool story considering that Raboutou and Grossman are good friends, training partners, and alums of the storied Team ABC squad out of Boulder, Colorado. And upon closer examination, Raboutou flexed on the World Cup stage last year as well, earning medals and placing 5th at the World Championships, and sent some very hard outdoor boulders. If she improves this year to the same degree that she improved last year, she’ll become an even bigger star.
The story of American Sean Bailey is one of the most inspiring in all of competition climbing. After the heartbreak of not qualifying for the Olympics, he rallied to become arguably the biggest American star in the sport—thanks to a trifecta of World Cup gold medals across the lead and bouldering disciplines. It’s probably not fair to call that a “comeback” since Bailey never actually ceased being a powerhouse on the competition circuit. But it proves that a competitor can make lemonade out of lemons when certain goals are not accomplished, if the mental game is under control. Bailey is also the rare breed of competition climber that crosses over climbing’s niche fanbases—he’s equally as popular with the outdoor dirtbag climbers as he is with the competition aficionados (he’s sent V16 and 5.15c outside). In that sense, he sometimes feels like a throwback to a far-gone era, those pre-IFSC years when the World Cup competitors were primarily outdoor climbers. That makes Bailey a unique presence on the circuit, and one of its biggest assets in garnering some new viewers.
One of the most interesting exercises is to peruse results from last year and see which competitor had the biggest narrow misses, the most almosts throughout the season’s events. Rogora, no slouch on the rock with multiple 5.15 sends, certainly had her fair share. First, there was a second-place finish at a World Cup in July solely decided by countback to the semi-final round. Then there was the heartbreak of failing to advance out of the Olympics’ qualifying round. And finally a World Championship bronze medal, as a punctuation for the whole season, for which Rogora climbed as high on the wall as Natalia Grossman (the eventual silver medalist), just a tad slower. But those all position Rogora to be one of the most consistent standouts of this year’s events, as those narrow misses can be converted to experience for this year’s excellence. If there’s some fine-tuning that Rogora has to do to elevate her game, it’s in developing more of a proficiency in dynamic movement—the type of beta that she seems to avoid employing at all costs. But once those gains are made, she could be unstoppable.
We really haven’t seen that much of China’s Speed climber YiLing Song since she set the then-world record of 7.101 seconds in 2019. Sure, she took part in the Olympics last summer, but the Combined format was hardly the best way to have her speed climbing skills showcased. On top of that, the pandemic and all of its resultant international travel restrictions caused Song to basically be absent from the World Cup circuit for the past two years. We certainly hope she’ll be back this year, but there’s no way for fans or pundits to have an adequate gauge of where she is currently, in terms of her performance, and Song herself probably has not had the ideal level of competition for a while since her participation in top-level events has been so limited. That makes Song’s start to this season more of a curiosity than anything else. It also makes her participation at World Cups—which everyone hopes will be consistent throughout this year—basically two years in the making. Talk about a comeback!
For the past few seasons, South Korea’s Chaehyun Seo has been seen as the youthful phenom. She has basically done it all, including beating Janja Garnbret at some events, making the Olympic finals, and winning a World Championship gold medal. She’ll enter this season as an 18-year-old and already a multi-year veteran on the international circuit, which means she’ll be adding wisdom and experience to her extraordinary talent. That’s a recipe for success, if not total domination. Particularly in the Lead discipline, the year will likely be defined by the climber who can emerge triumphantly from the elite group of Garnbret, Natalia Grossman, Laura Rogora, and Seo.
How can anyone not root for Serbia’s Staša Gejo? It was a long road back from a debilitating ACL injury in 2019, but her story concluded with a spot on the podium at the World Championships last year. Most importantly, she seems to be climbing better than ever, evidenced by a bronze medal at a World Cup in Innsbruck last year too. Her popular YouTube channel has given her a larger fanbase than many other competitors, which adds to her intrigue anytime she competes; she is a crowd favorite in any country in the world, and she is precisely the type of charismatic personality that the sport of competition climbing needs. There will likely be a number of viewers tuning in to World Cups this year just to watch Gejo, and that’s as good a reason as any.
Any time the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra is on the roster for a World Cup season, he is capable of stringing together a legendary run of wins. Although the Tokyo Olympics certainly did not go the way he had hoped last summer (as he missed out on an Olympic medal after devoting years of training to the Games), he still had a solid 2021 season overall—acquiring some bouldering gold in Salt Lake City and Meiringen. The interesting factors with Ondra heading into this year’s World Cup season are his age—he’s 29 years old—and his continued enthusiasm/interest in competition climbing. He has already won multiple World Championships and been a mainstay on World Cup podiums for years; if appearing in an Olympics was a bucket list item, he has ticked that box too. That is to say, considering his affinity for outdoor routes, it is not hard to imagine Ondra gracefully exiting the competition realm soon—unless he is aiming for another shot at Olympic gold in 2024. Regardless, if he is on the starting list for any of the 2022 World Cups, he will be one of the biggest draws and should be considered a perennial podium favorite.
Perhaps the biggest surprise last year was not that the United States was one of the few countries to fill its Olympic quota and send four climbers to Tokyo, but that one of those American climbers—Nathaniel Coleman—came close to winning the Olympic gold medal. Coleman gave a performance that will become ever-more legendary as time goes on, winning the Olympics’ bouldering portion and, for a while, possessing the high point on the wall in the lead climbing portion of the Olympic finale. It will be particularly interesting to see what Coleman can do on the international circuit this year, when he does not have to have his World Cup performances coinciding with Olympic training.
Check back soon for a list of ten more competitors to watch this season…