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This weekend’s World Cup in Seoul, South Korea, a dual event with Boulder and Speed disciplines, had some of the most intriguing exposition of any climbing competition in recent memory. For starters, Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret recently announced she’d be taking a break from the comp scene—and since she is widely considered to be the greatest competition climber ever, the women’s podium picks for Seoul were suddenly made more unpredictable. In the men’s division, neither Sean Bailey (one of the American superstars of the World Cup circuit last season) nor compatriot Colin Duffy (who made headlines at the start of this season) were on the starting list for the Seoul World Cup—which gave the men’s Boulder podium its own heavy dose of unpredictability. And since last season’s Speed season was abruptly cut short due to the pandemic, this competition in Seoul was set to be the first time in nearly eight months that speed climbing would be contested at the World Cup level. On top of all that, the Seoul event was the first World Cup in South Korea since 2014, which helped create an exciting and frenzied atmosphere.
Whew—the event had a lot of significant backstory, but it all wove together wonderfully and allowed some new names to shine and some new stars to rise at Seoul’s Jungnang Sport Climbing Stadium.
Speed records get smashed
The fireworks began in the speed climbing discipline in Seoul before fans around the world even had access to a livestream. In an unbroadcasted qualification round, Poland’s Aleksandra Miroslaw bested her own previous world record by 0.2 seconds to establish a new women’s world record of 6.64 seconds. Moments later in the men’s division, Indonesia’s Kiromal Katibin broke the world record previously held by his compatriot, Veddriq Leonardo, with a new record time of 5.17 seconds. (Such a coupling, the men’s and women’s world records being broken at the same World Cup, has only occurred one other time—at an event in Nanjing, China, in 2017.) Naturally, news of the world records quickly spread around the Internet and made the ensuing finals of the men’s and women’s Speed divisions in Seoul some of the most hotly anticipated in the history of the sport.
As expected, Miroslaw rode the momentum of her new world record to blazing performances in the women’s final round. Although she slipped slightly in an opening race against France’s Lison Gautron, Miroslaw still managed to eek out a win—and soon won subsequent races against France’s Capucine Viglione and Poland’s Aleksandra Kalucka (the eventual bronze medalist).
Team USA’s Emma Hunt had an epic day in her own right, beating Poland’s Patrycja Chudziak, Indonesia’s Rajiah Sallsabillah, and Germany’s Franziska Ritter to cruise through the elimination bracket and set up a thrilling Big Final race with Miroslaw. Ultimately it was Miroslaw who won with a time of 6.72 seconds, edging out Hunt by just half a second to earn the gold medal. Hunt was awarded the silver medal, thus marking the second year in a row that Hunt has earned silver at the World Cup level. (Since Hunt had to withdraw from Collegiate Nationals less than a month ago due to a knee wound, the silver medal at Seoul was a particularly noteworthy accolade, indicating that she is back in top form.)
The men’s division showcased the Indonesian team, widely regarded as the powerhouse squad at the international level. In addition to the new world record holder Katibin and former world record holder Leonardo, the final round featured Aspar Aspar, Raharjati Nursamsa, Alfian Muhammad Fajri, Zaenal Aripin, and Rahmad Adi Mulyono of the Indonesian team. Those names are perhaps less familiar to American fans since Indonesia never sent a full team to the World Cups last year, but they are all competitors to keep an eye on as speed climbing is set to be contested as an independent discipline in the 2024 Olympics.
Katibin and Leonardo both clocked incredibly fast times (generally hovering just above or below 5.50 seconds) in Seoul to bolt through the bracket of other competitors and set up the men’s Big Final. Their Indonesian compatriot, Adi Mulyono, ultimately beat Italy’s Speed standout Ludovico Fossali in a race for the bronze medal. Unfortunately, the climactic Big Final race between Katibin and Leonardo for the gold medal proved to be dramatic for all the wrong reasons: In a rarity for the sport, both competitors false started. The judges decided to reset both competitors for another attempt, but Katibin false started again—deeming Leonardo the gold medalist by way of Katibin’s false-start disqualification. Anticlimactic as that concluding race was, the resulting podium—featuring Leonardo, Katibin, and Adi Mulyono, all of whom hail from Indonesia—reaffirmed the Indonesian team’s dominance and sets up a new narrative for the rest of the season: Can Speed standouts from other countries (such as Italy’s Fossali, Austria’s Tobias Plangger, Kazakhstan’s Rishat Khaibullin, Iran’s Reza Alipour Shenazandifard, and Team USA’s John Brosler, Noah Bratschi, or Samuel Watson) beat the top stars from the Indonesian squad?
Team Japan Can’t Be Stopped
If the men’s division in Speed was largely a spotlight on Indonesia’s team, the men’s Boulder division was a quintessential stage for Team Japan. Comprised of stalwart names like Yoshiyuki Ogata, Keita Dohi, Tomoaki Takata, Kokoro Fujii, and brothers Tomoa and Meichi Narasaki, the Japanese team barreled through the Boulder semi-finals—capping off the round with flashes of a bat-hang fourth boulder by Kokoro Fujii and Meichi Narasaki—to send a total of five athletes to the final round.
In the finals, Yoshiyuki Ogata separated early from his Japanese teammates with a top of the complex first boulder that combined a dynamic start with a palm-press and toe-catch midsection. Compatriots Fujii and Tomoa Narasaki soon topped the first boulder as well to keep the scorecards close. From a dramatic standpoint, the low points of the round came with the following two boulders—both severely undercooked and topped by almost every competitor.
But the last boulder reinvigorated the crowd as the competitors—including France’s Paul Jenft, the only finalist who was not a member of Team Japan—struggled through the steep boulder’s powerful moves. In the most thrilling moment, Fujii leapt for the top volume of the last boulder as time ticked down, perfectly pinpointing the volume’s subtle jib in a buzzer-beating finish. The ascent garnered a roar from the crowd and earned Fujii the gold medal. Tomoa Narasaki—who also topped the last boulder in the final seconds—could not catch Fujii in the scores and was awarded the silver. Yoshiyuki Ogata earned the bronze, thus solidifying a podium sweep by Team Japan.
American fans, in particular, were likely to notice the absence of Team USA’s Nathaniel Coleman, who was listed on the registration list at Seoul but decided to abstain from competing due to a finger injury. Coleman’s absence, along with the aforementioned absences of Sean Bailey and Colin Duffy from the event, allowed other Americans to dazzle: Palmer Larsen tied for 25th place—his best place ever in a World Cup; Ben Hanna placed 30th, as he continues to have his best World Cup season; Joe Goodacre tied for 37th, and Ross Fulkerson tied for 45th.
USA’s Superstar Duo Does It Again
Janja Garnbret’s absence from the women’s Boulder division theoretically opened the door for anyone to clinch the gold medal. And there were valiant efforts and memorable performances throughout the weekend, including consistent climbing by Serbia’s Stasa Gejo, who topped all five qualification boulders, and newfound composure and patience on the wall from France’s 17-year-old phenom, Oriane Bertone—who has already garnered comparisons to a young Garnbret.
But beneath all the intrinsic unpredictability, Team USA’s Natalia Grossman was always the heavy favorite, based largely on her silver medal (behind Garnbret) at the Meiringen World Cup last month and her proven ability to be as good as the legend Garnbret on any given day.
Grossman was simply masterful in Seoul. She topped all five qualification boulders (in just six total attempts), and set a commanding tone early in the women’s semi-finals by flashing the first boulder of the round in approximately one minute. She made quick work of the rest of the semi-finals’ boulders too; her ability to control the full-body swing—the swooping flick of the feet—at the top of the semi-finals’ third boulder actually garnered comparisons to Janja Garnbret, who is known to control big swings on the wall better than anyone in the game: “Forget the ‘Janja Flick,’ commentator Matt Groom proclaimed, ‘there’s the ‘Natalia Flick.’”
However, Grossman’s seemingly unstoppable momentum on the scorecards was slowed for a bit in the final round; brief struggles on the dynamic start of the first boulder allowed other finalists Gejo and Bertone to take the lead. But Grossman steadily clawed back, aided by a quick flash of the finals’ second boulder, a slab, and a top of the third boulder. Not to be outdone, Grossman’s good friend and American teammate, Brooke Raboutou, stayed in the hunt by also topping the second and third boulders. In fact, Raboutou’s ability to progress statically through the would-be dynamic arête sections of the third boulder exemplified why she is widely considered to be one of the most creative climbers on the American team, in terms of movement and crux solutions.
The final round came down to Grossman’s attempts on the last boulder. “[Grossman] has to top this one to win,” Canada’s Alannah Yip asserted on commentary. Yet, undaunted by the pressure of the situation, Grossman casually campused through the boulder’s burly initial move, which required feet-first inversion by other competitors. Grossman soon zipped through the boulder’s midsection too, unfazed by a tricky hand-swap on the zone jib. Finally, in the climax of the round, Grossman secured a firm claw-pinch on the top hold to secure the gold medal. Bertone, never far from the leaderboard, was able to reach the top of the boulder to claim the silver medal. And the round was given even more emotional gravitas with Raboutou’s top of the same boulder—with only 30 seconds of her allotted time remaining—to earn the bronze medal.
Interestingly, the podium trio in Seoul—Grossman (gold), Bertone (silver), and Raboutou (bronze)—mirrored the podium of the first Salt Lake City World Cup from last season. More importantly, it reaffirmed that Team USA possesses veritable legends-in-the-making with Grossman and Raboutou; the French team possesses its new marquee young star in Bertone, and the competition world still has all the necessary ingredients for an exhilarating event, even with the sport’s biggest name—Garnbret—taking a much-deserved break.
Furthermore, below Americans Grossman and Raboutou in the women’s scores were Cloe Coscoy, Kylie Cullen, Maya Madere, Sienna Kopf, and Adriene Clark in 10th, 11th, 32nd, 35th, and 39th place, respectively. Such a good, even spread—and, in the cases of Coscoy and Cullen, narrow misses of the final round—reveals the great depth of USA Climbing’s squad and ensures that the forthcoming World Cups in Salt Lake City are must-see events for American fans.
- Natalia Grossman (USA)
- Oriane Bertone (FRA)
- Brooke Raboutou (USA)
- Stasa Gejo (SRB)
- Camilla Moroni (ITA)
- Mia Aoyagi (JPN)
- Kokoro Fujii (JPN)
- Tomoa Narasaki (JPN)
- Yoshiyuki Ogata (JPN)
- Paul Jenft (FRA)
- Meichi Narasaki (JPN)
- Keita Dohi (JPN)
- Aleksandra Miroslaw (POL)
- Emma Hunt (USA)
- Aleksandra Kalucka (POL)
- Veddriq Leonardo (INA)
- Kiromal Katibin (INA)
- Rahmad Adi Mulyono (INA)