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The Boulder World Cup circuit cruised into the latter half of the 2022 season with a thrilling event this weekend in Brixen, Italy. However, even before the event began, there were some stark indications of changes and evolutions in the season’s roster of big names
First, Team USA’s Brooke Raboutou—in the midst of her best Boulder season ever—announced that she’d be skipping the Brixen World Cup to focus on lead climbing: “From Korea to both SLC World Cups, final exams in between, moving out of my San Diego home and celebrating my friends’ graduation…I made the decision to skip out on the Brixen Bouldering World Cup to get a couple extra weeks at home and train for the fast approaching lead season,” Raboutou posted on Instagram on Friday.
Additionally, France’s Oriane Bertone, another standout of the current season, revealed that she’d be skipping the Brixen event too, citing a slightly tweaked finger and a recent illness. Her French compatriot Mejdi Schalck also decided to bypass the event, posting, “No Brixen for me, taking some time for training for the rest of the season.” Of course, that’s to say nothing of Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret, widely considered to be the Greatest of All Time, being absent from the Boulder World Cup circuit ever since April.
Yet, such absences allowed some other, newer names to shine in Brixen; and most of all, the Brixen World Cup provided a stage for Raboutou’s close friend and training partner, Team USA’s Natalia Grossman, to continue rewriting the history books and adding more highlight-reel moments to her already unforgettable season.
Grossman and Nonaka Battle Early
From the outset, Grossman was masterful—quite literally, as she rolled through the women’s qualification round by flashing every boulder, often in mere seconds. Several other women had strong starts to the event as well, including China’s 16-year-old rookie Zhilu Luo, Germany’s Hannah Meul, and South Korea’s Chaehyun Seo, who all managed to top all five qualification boulders too.
Japan’s Miho Nonaka, steadily improving and rising up the ranks this season, did not amass a qualification performance quite as good as Luo, Meul, or Seo. Still, Nonaka’s tops on three boulders were enough for her to squeak into the semi-final round. And once in the semis, Nonaka found more of a rhythm and flashed three boulders.
But as superb as Nonaka was, Grossman was just a little better and flashed all four boulders in the semi-finals. This eventually set up an intriguing battle for the final round, with Grossman and Nonaka seemingly in an echelon all their own—but a handful of others, including two additional members of Team Japan (Serika Okawachi and Anon Matsufuji), Germany’s Meul, and China’s Luo not about to give them an easy path to the podium.
Grossman Remains Cool Under Pressure in Finals
Meul, Nonaka, and Grossman pulled away from the pack early in the finals by flashing the round’s first boulder, a highly physical arête specimen with a crowd-pleasing 360-degree campus move. Yet, it was Meul who soon set the highest benchmark with a flash of the slabby second boulder. In doing so, Meul took a slight lead over Nonaka—who couldn’t secure the top—and a slight lead over Grossman, who took two attempts to ascend the slab.
Meul and Grossman stayed locked in a veritable back-and-forth on the scorecards for the finals’ third boulder: Meul ended up taking two attempts to reach the top, whereas Grossman flashed. But Meul kept the pressure on Grossman by zipping up the last boulder in just two attempts.
So, under nightfall and the voluminous glow of a full moon, Grossman was faced with her biggest challenge yet: Having to send the last boulder in two attempts (or less) in order to win gold. The boulder featured a stand-and-press overhead start, into which Grossman promptly contorted her frame. But a cruxy triple-clutch jump abruptly stymied her first attempt. Then, remaining composed and backdropped by a tense and hushed crowd, Grossman nestled into the overhead press position once more for her last chance at victory. She leapt—and Matt Groom provided some sizzle on commentary by exclaiming, “The gold medal is on the line!” Grossman successfully latched onto the boulder’s low slopers and this time stormed through the arduous triple-clutch sequence. Within seconds, Grossman breezed through the boulder’s upper section too, using a vital heel-hook for stability to reach the top. In doing so, Grossman secured the gold medal—her fourth this season—and consequently locked in the overall Boulder World Cup season title as the crowd roared. Meul, having assembled her own string of impressive climbs throughout the evening, slipped down to second place on the scorecards and received the silver medal. The bronze medal was awarded to newcomer Luo, who narrowly beat Nonaka and thus earned the distinction of being the first-ever athlete from China’s team to make a Boulder World Cup podium.
It’s worth reiterating and editorializing a bit about how clutch Grossman was in sending that last boulder. Fans had already seen some other stunning performances from Grossman (winning a world championship last year, earning previous World Cup gold medals this season, etc.). However, the final round in Brixen was the first time that fans saw Grossman having to dig deeper and having to employ a more intangible quality that only the truly all-time great champions have; she executed perfectly as the final round went down to the wire and there was absolutely zero room for error. Her ascent of the last boulder in Brixen could be compared to clutch situations in other sports—scoring a game-winning touchdown when there’s no time left on the clock in football, or hitting a three-pointer at the buzzer in basketball. But none of those capture the uniqueness of Grossman’s challenge—the slopers of the boulder’s triple-clutch sequence that had to gripped in precisely the right places, and the tension of Grossman’s entire core that had to be maintained on the wall’s overhanging lower panels. Most of all, Grossman had to unlock the boulder’s challenging upper beta on-the-fly amid the pursuit of victory.
In its storied history, competition climbing has had myriad other buzzer-beater finishes, but rarely have they contained the drama and the high-stakes of a final climber…in a final round…ascending a final boulder…on a final attempt for a gold medal (and an overall season title). History aficionados might recall Austria’s Anna Stöhr doing something similar to win the Vail World Cup in 2013, but that was nearly a decade ago. And since Stöhr is considered to be one of the Greatest of All Time in her own right, perhaps that’s a suitable note on which to end here: It feels like we’re starting to have more and more conversations that loop Grossman in with competition climbing nobility from all eras, past and present, and that makes Grossman’s star power shine even brighter during this incredible 2022 season.
Flohé finds the flow
The men’s division was marked by early scorecard perfection from Japan’s Kokoro Fujii and Germany’s Yannick Flohé, the only men to reach the top of all five boulders in the qualification round.
In the ensuing semi-finals, Flohé remained in the leader position, while Fujii’s teammate, Meichi Narasaki, topped three boulders to herald a mega showing from Team Japan. Soon Meichi Narasaki’s brother, Tomoa, reached the top on two boulders, as did teammate Yoshiyuki Ogata. This laid the groundwork for a captivating narrative for the final round, in which three members of Team Japan—Ogata and the Narasaki brothers—were joined by Flohé, Great Britain’s Maximillian Milne, and South Korea’s Dohyun Lee in a fight for the medals.
The first boulder of the finals entailed a run-and-jump with a sneaky toe-catch. The flashy beta didn’t shut down any of the men; everyone topped it, but Milne took a slight lead by being the only one of the bunch to flash it. Milne then extended his lead with a buzzer-beating flash of the second boulder.
Yet, just as it seemed like Milne might run away with the victory, a powerful third boulder, filled with a zig-zag of static presses, slowed Milne’s figurative momentum. Flohé was the only one to reach the top of the boulder, and in doing so, he wrested the lead away from Milne.
The fourth boulder proved to be too overcooked and went completely untopped, but a secured zone-hold for good measure was more than enough to ultimately earn Flohé his first-ever gold medal. Milne earned the silver—also his first-ever World Cup medal. And Tomoa Narasaki, who concluded the final round with one top, earned the bronze.
Members of Team USA dazzle in multiple rounds
American readers, in particular, will note that no members from Team USA advanced to the latter rounds in the men’s division, but there were still memorable moments from the Americans throughout the weekend. Sean Bailey and Ben Hanna locked in three tops apiece in the highly competitive qualification portion to finish in 31st place and 35th place, respectively. And Zach Galla, Colin Duffy, Ross Fulkerson, and Jesse Grupper each topped one boulder in the burly qualification round.
In the women’s division, Grossman’s friend, Cloe Coscoy, managed to finish in 19th place—thus continuing a streak of finishing in the Top 20 at every World Cup this season. “I’m excited about the experience I’m gaining at the World Cup level,” Coscoy posted on social media, regarding her result. Additionally, Quinn Mason and Kylie Cullen finished the Brixen event in the Top 30 (25th and 29th place, respectively), while Adriene Clark was just outside that margin in 31st place. Maya Madere finished in 47th, but such placement doesn’t fully do justice to the great performance that it took to get there—flashing two of the hardest boulders in the early round.
With a full American squad on the registration list for the next World Cup, a lead and bouldering extravaganza scheduled for June 22-26 in Innsbruck (and a Paraclimbing World Cup taking place there as well), there’s a good possibility of some more fireworks from Team USA given all the talent and depth.
- Yannick Flohé (GER)
- Maximillian Milne (GBR)
- Tomoa Narasaki (JPN)
- Dohyun Lee (KOR)
- Yoshiyuki Ogata (JPN)
- Meichi Narasaki (JPN)
- Natalia Grossman (USA)
- Hannah Meul (GER)
- Zhilu Luo (CHN)
- Miho Nonaka (JPN)
- Anon Matsufuji (JPN)
- Serika Okawachi (JPN)