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Highs and Lows: 2018 USA Climbing Sport and Speed Nationals

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The buzz felt amplified at Saturday’s USA Climbing Sport and Speed National Championships at Mesa Rim Reno. With the Olympics on the horizon, every success story or slip-up gets interpreted—rightly or wrongly—as a peep-hole glimpse into what the future might hold at “Tokyo 2020.” Without a doubt, the athletes are under increased pressure, but still put out incredible performances. Here’s how things went down at climbing’s version of March Madness.


Claire Buhrfeind’s Double Victory

Nobody came out of this event a bigger winner than Claire Buhrfeind. It was remarkable that she won both the Sport and Speed disciplines—both as an achievement by itself, and an indicator of her prowess in the discipline-combining format of the upcoming Olympics. Note that Buhrfeind also barely missed the podium at 2018 Bouldering Nationals. After this weekend, she’s a solid contender to make the games.

This year felt redemptive for Buhrfeind. After taking third in 2014 and 2015, she dropped off the podium, placing sixth last year. Now, at just 19 years old, this could be her big step into the world of adult comp glory after crushing youth championships for years. Next she’ll head to Innsbruck, Austria, to train for the upcoming IFSC World Cup and it’ll be exciting to see what threat she poses to international rivals. This is clearly Buhrfeind’s time to shine, and as an American, I can’t help but be excited for her future in competition.

Sean Bailey’s Comeback

Sean Bailey was a captivating question mark going into this event. Like Buhrfeind, he is also a young competitor (21) with a lot of international competition experience. However, he did not compete at Nationals in 2017. We know he’s good, but would he be in top form after a year away? Yes. Bailey came back rejuvenated and smoother than ever. While he did fall victim to the barn-door crux in Semifinals, his performance in Finals was fluid. He made easy work of the midway volume section deemed “the cube wrestle” by the commentators, and although he didn’t top, his high point was enough to claim victory. It was unfortunate that his win felt anticlimactic in the moment; it only became official after the final climber, Solomon Barth, fell—and that happened as Claire Buhrfeind’s victory played out live. But Bailey deserves recognition for making a big stamp with his return. 

Michaela Kiersch’s Grit

Michaela Kiersch placed fifth in last year’s Sport Nationals, so moving up to second this year is a laudable accomplishment. Beyond that, Kiersch gets props for giving spectators the most exciting moment of the comp: Shortly after nailing the “slam dunk” dyno on the headwall—and controlling the swing to a big pop from the crowd—she got stymied while attempting to match the route’s top hold. 

The drama was palpable; since several previous competitors—Brooke Raboutou, Margo Hayes, and Alex Puccio—had already topped the route, Kiersch would only stand on the podium if she could match the hold. She made several attempts, catching herself and then readjusted after each miss. She stayed focused the entire time, but never lost her smile. When Kiersch did top the route, it was like she had taken the crowd on the precarious ride with her. In other words, she connected with the spectators, which is what star power is all about. Coaches should use that moment to teach perseverance on the wall. And if the comp had a highlight reel, Kiersch’s composure and control would deserve a featured segment.

The Speed Climbing Trifecta of Piper Kelly, Amanda Wooten, and Claire Buhrfeind

More than any previous Nationals, this year’s Speed portion brought drama. Here’s how it played out. First, Piper Kelly cruised the route in a swift 9.45 seconds. Then Amanda Wooten narrowly grabbed the lead with a 9.41 second run. In her second attempt, Kelly wowed the crowd with a 9-flat. Buhrfeind’s first run had been a bust, so it all came down to her second attempt—could she beat Kelly to snag the championship? In the end, Buhrfeind cruised up the wall to a blistering 8.86 (mere moments after having claimed victory in the Sport discipline).

While all three women are worthy of individual praise, it’s that triangle-rivalry between Kelly, Wooten, and Buhrfeind that showcased what makes speed climbing so appealing to general spectators: it’s fast, it’s neck-and-neck, and the results are clear-cut. I’m excited to see how this trifecta progresses in the coming year, with each woman training and getting faster still.

John Brosler’s Reign

When I say that this year’s Speed portion brought some drama, I’m referring to the Women’s portion. That’s because John Brosler won Speed this year in the Men’s category—just like he has done the last five years. Going into the event, it felt like a foregone conclusion that he’d win again—and, yep, he did. If anything, Brosler’s dominance has caused spectators to take him for granted. So let’s take a step back here to appreciate the fact that he is a five-time National Champion—he has a ring for every finger, as they say. Aside from people named Puccio or Woods, most comp climbers never come close to that level of consistency. Brosler is in elite company.


The Absence of Shiraishi and Lightner

While Ashima Shiraishi and Kai Lightner are on every shortlist of the country’s greatest Olympic hopefuls, neither competed for the podium Saturday night—both due to injury.  The pair’s absence cast a “What if…” pall over the victories of Buhrfeind and Bailey—which isn’t fair to anyone. But simply put, everyone wants to watch crowns be defended—and the fact that Shiraishi and Lightner couldn’t compete was a bummer.

The Dual Male/Female Format

I understand there are certain production limitations that go into a livestream. There are time constraints, a finite number of cameras, and other details that spectators aren’t privy to. But the dual format—male and female competitors climbing at the same time—makes it difficult to focus on the climb of either competitor. And for newbie spectators, it creates confusion about which climber deserves the attention in any particular moment. Without at least a splitscreen of both routes, too many big moments happened off screen, like climbers falling off the wall.

The Routesetting of Women’s Finals

There was a lot to like about the routes in the comp. For example, it was smart to craft different sections with different brands of holds, indicated with their respective logos. It was exciting that the routes in Semifinals were bouldery and difficult. And it was fun that the routes in Finals meandered a bit at the headwall—and Mesa Rim Reno was a stellar venue. But the women’s route in Finals was obviously too easy. Brooke Raboutou, Margo Hayes, Alex Puccio, Michaela Kiersch, and Claire Buhrfeind all proved it by topping.

Chris Weidner noted late in the event that it was surprising how good the rests were throughout the entire women’s route. Viewers probably suspected trouble far earlier than that. For instance, Delaney Miller breezed through the “three fangs” section just south of the headwall that the setters probably intended to be a tricky sequence, and hardly any women struggled with the “slam dunk” dyno to the big pink hold near the top. Some competitors, like Puccio, even went to it statically. At one point, Weidner observed that the women were finding rests pretty much wherever they pleased. That’s a bad refrain in a sport that should aim to be more visually dramatic, not less.


Meagan Martin on Commentary

Meagan Martin was a nice complement to Chris Weidner and Brian Runnells in the commentary booth during Finals. I’m sticking her in the “Neither” category because Martin presumably would have rather been competing in Finals than commentating on it. But in the context of the booth, she added a lot. Weidner and Runnells have a great rapport, but Martin is still immersed in the nuances of competing—she can speak to the nerves, the evolution of comp styles, etc. She is also friends with (and in some cases, a coach of) several of the competitors, which also allows her to provide a more insider slant than Weidner and Runnells. Given her highly publicized experience on American Ninja Warrior, she’s no stranger to being in the national mainstream spotlight or to speaking in front of a camera, so USA Climbing should consider working with her more going forward.

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