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Newcomers Make Big Statements at US National Championships

The 2022 USA Climbing National Championships took place in Denver, Colorado from November 9 through 13. Here are the results.

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For a while, it has felt like the current generation of youth competitors is ready to usurp the established stars on the American scene, but this past weekend’s 2022 National Championships might have been the best example of that power shift starting to happen in real time. The championships, which featured separate Boulder, Speed, and Lead disciplines across two Colorado gyms (The Spot Denver and G1 in Broomfield), came on the heels of a seven-month-long World Cup season. Although the action felt like a figurative bookend to the international circuit, the registration list varied significantly from this season’s typical World Cup roster. Superstars like Natalia Grossman, Brooke Raboutou, and Colin Duffy did not take part in the National Championships, nor did last year’s marquee star Melina Costanza. However, on the flip side, many competitors who have previously shined on the youth circuit were taking part in their first-ever adult-level championship. 

It all amounted to some surprises and breakout performances, which ensures that the young generation is ready to be the driving force of the American comp scene. Here’s what happened in the various disciplines…

Countryman’s consistency is unstoppable; Sanders becomes a star in the Boulder discipline

It’s quite telling that the two eventual winners of the Boulder discipline—16-year-old “Bob” Dillon Countryman in the men’s division, and 15-year-old Anastasia “Annie” Sanders in the women’s division—were practically unstoppable from the get-go. Each competitor romped through their respective qualification rounds. In the case of Countryman, this meant reaching the top of four of the five qualification boulders to take the lead over veterans like Nathaniel Coleman, Ross Fulkerson, Sean Bailey, Zach Galla, and others. And for Sanders, this amounted to being the only woman to reach the top of all five qualification boulders. 

Still, the circuit veterans in each division were not about to let the young phenoms run away with victories without a fight. The men’s semi-final round, in particular, featured a burly third boulder and a dynamic, double-clutch fourth boulder that significantly divided the field; Countryman, Bailey, Luke Muehring, and the round’s eventual leader, Ross Fulkerson, snagged zones on the third bloc and tops on the fourth bloc to cruise into the finals. But once the finals kicked off, it was Countryman who again took a commanding lead by being the only competitor to ascend the “pseudo-slab” first boulder. A dud of a second boulder—completely devoid of tops, despite some crowd-pleasing lache moves—did little to shake up the leaderboard…but it did prompt the crowd to erupt in a rallying chant for Countryman: “Bob! Bob! Bob!” The most dramatic moment came when Countryman failed to reach the top (or the zone) on the final round’s third boulder, a smattering of dual-tex prism-shaped blocz volumes. This allowed perennial favorites like Bailey, Muehring, and Ben Hanna, all of whom did top the boulder, to remain in contention for the national crown. But Countryman proved flawless on the fourth boulder, voyaging through the dynamic palm press start and upper crimps without ever looking troubled. The send earned Countryman the gold medal; Bailey struggled with the palm press movement for several minutes before dialing it in and topping the boulder to secure the silver; and a top by Muehring was good for the bronze. 

"Bob" Dillion Countryman climbs
“Bob” Dillon Countryman, at just 16, on his way to winning in his first open Nationals. (Photo: USA Climbing)

Sanders’ voyage in the women’s division had some nail-biting moments as well. Through much of the semi-final round, she found herself tightly jumbled with several other powerhouses on the scorecards. For example, Sanders, Cloe Coscoy, Kyra Condie, Kylie Cullen, Mira Capicchioni, and veritable circuit legend Alex Johnson (competing in her 16th Boulder National Championship) all secured a zone on the semis’ first boulder and reached the top of the semis’ second boulder. But Sanders was one of the few competitors to secure even a zone on the “starfish” compression third boulder. This gave her a slight edge, which she soon extended by securing the sole top of the second boulder—a burly cave bloc with a crux of parallel pinches. (In fact, Sanders’ subtle use of a heel to progress through the pinches, and her patience to find subtle feet placement higher up near the top, was the highlight of the round and saved the second boulder from being a dud.) Securing the zone on the finals’ third boulder, a slopey collection along an overhanging arête, proved crucial in Sanders’ maintaining a lead, especially because Coscoy and Capicchioni snagged well-fought tops to keep the scores close. To that point, Coscoy and Capicchioni both reached the top of the finals’ fourth boulder too, a series of leaps up several dual-tex slopers. But once Sanders dialed in the opening dyno from an all-points-on perched position, she topped that fourth boulder too and secured the gold. Coscoy and Capicchioni earned silver and bronze, respectively. 

It’s hard to overstate how well Sanders and Countryman climbed throughout all Boulder rounds, especially considering their youthful ages. It’s also worth noting similarities in their gold medal performances—both having to remain poised despite the disappointment of not topping their respective third boulders in the final round. Most importantly, they each seem to be well on their way down a hallowed path previously blazed by Beth Rodden, Katie Brown, Brooke Raboutou, Natalia Grossman, Chris Sharma, Colin Duffy, and many others—acclaim and accolades at the youth level translating to eventual success at the adult level. And if Countryman and Sanders end up having competition careers at the adult level that are as memorable as the careers of those greats, remember that it basically all started here at this year’s National Championships.   

Annie sanders climbing
Annie Sanders’ victory, despite her age, was not all that surprising. She’s picked up plenty of hardware at past Youth World Championships. (Photo: USA Climbing)

Watson almost breaks the record; Close is golden yet again in Speed

Sam Watson entered this year’s National Championships as the runaway favorite in the men’s Speed discipline thanks to a gold medal two months ago at the Edinburgh World Cup. And although Watson, at 16-years-old, climbed superbly throughout all rounds, the highlight was Watson coming within a blink of John Brosler’s American record (of 5.20 seconds) at one point. Brosler did not participate in these championships, so a dream race of Watson vs. Brosler never occurred…but that did not stop Watson from putting together a captivating championship performance nonetheless. 

Watson clocked the fastest times in the qualification round and coasted through the initial brackets of the final round. As he did, other wild subplots materialized around him—including a thrilling back and forth race between Darren Skolnik and Evan Homan (which Homan won, clocking 6.29 seconds in the process), and a heart-pounding head-to-head heat in which Zach Hammer and Quinn O’francia traded leads until Hammer missed the finishing buzzer. This all funneled into a close race between Watson and Noah Bratschi (the eventual bronze medalist), where Watson set the personal-best time (5.29 seconds) that nudged him ever-so-close to Brosler’s American record. Moments later in the Big Final, Watson battled against his own coach—Merritt Ernsberger—in another close race, clocking a 5.37 en route to the gold medal. Watson’s victory also allowed him to showcase some novel, eponymous beta dubbed the “Watson Way” in the route’s upper section. Essentially a version of beta originally used by the Chinese national team and now used more commonly by several international squads according to national Speed competitor and coach Albert Ok, the “Watson Way” beta entails skipping the farthest right hold (number 19) in order to stay in a straighter vertical path, and it’s likely to become even more ubiquitous as the Paris 2024 Olympics approach.     

Sam Watson preparing to speed climb
Sam Watson set a personal-best time (5.29 seconds) that nudged him ever-so-close to John Brosler’s American record. (Photo: USA Climbing)

The women’s Speed discipline was also filled with subplots, including former American record holder Piper Kelly slipping during a race against Micaela Patajo in an early bracket of the final round. An early exit by Piper would have been a massive upset, but Kelly incredibly managed to hold onto the wall amid the slip and claw back to an eventual victory…while Patajo showed tenacity by pushing Kelly to the limit. 

Elsewhere during the final round, Liberty Runnels and Sydney Williams wowed the crowd with a back-and-forth clash (won by Williams when Runnels missed the buzzer). But the stalwart for much of the drama was defending champion Callie Close, who edged out a narrow victory against 14-year-old standout Lily Nguyen, then beat 16-year-old Speed sensation Katie Bone, and then ousted another 16-year-old phenom from the bracket, eventual bronze medalist Sophia Curcio. This led to a veritable dream match: Former American record holder Kelly racing against defending national champion Close for the gold medal. The duo kept the crowd on the edge of their seats with a neck-and-neck sprint, but a slight slip by Kelly in the upper section proved costly; Close stayed the course, smacking the buzzer with a time of 8.02 seconds to claim the gold medal for the second year in a row. 

Callie Close lowering off the speed route
Callie Close smacked the buzzer with a time of 8.02 seconds to claim the gold medal for the second year in a row. (Photo: USA Climbing)

Bailey and Grupper clash in Lead; Sanders acquires more hardware

As a capstone to the entire championships, the Lead discipline allowed many competitors who had stood out in the previous disciplines to conclude the weekend with spectacular performances. But the breakout star of the semi-finals was 15-year-old Zoe Yi, who fell when attempting to launch out of a deep heel hook with a score of 34+. Moments later, Kyra Condie showed some veteran tenacity by fighting nearly four moves higher than Yi. But none of the other semi-finalists could out-climb Annie Sanders, winner of the Boulder discipline, who timed out just shy of the top and led the women’s field heading into the finals. 

Defending national champion Quinn Mason rocketed through the lower slab section of the finals route and even remained untroubled when she missed a vital screw-on jib handhold higher up. She gritted to a score of 38 (out of 45 total points), which stood as the high point for a majority of the round. Kylie Cullen, Olivia Ma, Cate Harty, and Adriene Akiko climbed well after Mason but all fell at a cruxy crimp around hold 33. Zoe Yi and Kyra Condie couldn’t match or surpass Mason’s high point either, although their matching scores at the lip of the headwall eventually propelled Condie to a bronze medal. Only Sanders, climbing last, was able to approach Mason’s high point—despite getting temporarily stumped by the plethora of beta options at a series of volumes aptly labeled the “Dealer’s Choice” section by commentator Pete Woods. It was the only part of the route where Sanders, a very methodical climber, looked slightly out of rhythm. She made up for it by eventually matching Mason’s high point and earning the gold medal via countback (to go alongside her Boulder gold medal).

In the men’s division, Sean Bailey set an elite standard by being the only competitor to reach the top of both qualification routes. Other competitors kept close pressure on him, particularly in a close semi-final round. For example, Tim Kang, Hugo Hoyer, and Ellis Ernsberger bottlenecked just above a cruxy, ergonomic undercling in the semi-finals. They each finished the round with identical scores of 21+. Bailey did manage to climb a bit higher than that trio, approaching the lip of the headwall before unsuccessfully going airborne in a lunge for the 24th hold. Bailey’s score of 23+ was strong, but it was not enough to overtake Jesse Grupper, one of the season’s World Cup standouts. Grupper also fell while approaching the lip of the headwall, but a clutch heel hook allowed him to earn two points more than Bailey. This set up an intriguing narrative: Grupper, Bailey, Ernsberger, Hoyer, Kang, Luke Muehring—as well as Boulder champion “Bob” Dillon Countryman—scrapping for Lead supremacy in the men’s final round.

Of that group, Muehring impressed the crowd early by finding a hand-jam rest between two volumes in the midsection of the finals route. He continued upward until he missed a dynamic pinch for a concluding score of 27+. 22-year-old local climber Derek New wasn’t able to best Muehring’s score, but he earned “Move of the Night” honors for a Houdini match at a three-finger pocket midway up the wall. Countryman, Kang, and Ernsberger weren’t able to beat Muehring’s score in the finals either, although Hoyer briefly took the lead (and with it, the bronze medal) by matching Muehring’s 27+. 

The round culminated in a duel between Bailey and Grupper that brought the packed crowd at G1 to their feet. Bailey threw down the biggest gauntlet of all by making quick work of the route’s laybacks and compression sequences and earning a fast top. Grupper seemed poised to do the same until he began struggling with some footwork on the headwall. Unable to suss out suitable foot placement, Grupper fell just one move shy from the top; it was ultimately enough for the silver medal, but not enough to beat Bailey, who thus won the gold.  

Sean Bailey climbing
Veteran climber Sean Bailey on his way to victory. (Photo: USA Climbing)

Results

Boulder

Men

  1. “Bob” Dillon Countryman
  2. Sean Bailey
  3. Luke Muehring
  4. Hugo Hoyer
  5. Ben Hanna
  6. Ross Fulkerson

Women

  1. Annie Sanders
  2. Cloe Coscoy
  3. Mira Capicchioni
  4. Kylie Cullen
  5. Kyra Condie
  6. Alex Johnson

Speed

Men

  1. Sam Watson
  2. Merritt Ernsberger
  3. Noah Bratschi

Women

  1. Callie Close 
  2. Piper Kelly
  3. Sophia Curcio

Lead

Men

  1. Sean Bailey
  2. Jesse Grupper
  3. Hugo Hoyer
  4. Luke Muehring
  5. Ellis Ernsberger
  6. Derek New
  7. Tim Kang
  8. “Bob” Dillon Countryman

Women

  1. Annie Sanders 
  2. Quinn Mason
  3. Kyra Condie
  4. Zoe Yi
  5. Adriene Akiko
  6. Kylie Cullen
  7. Cate Harty
  8. Olivia Ma

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