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Few Expected Alberto Ginés López To Win Olympic Gold. How Did He?

His was a remarkable rise from small-town life to Olympic immortality.

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To some people, the assessment of the already historic career of Spain’s Alberto Ginés López—his meteoric rise on the competition climbing scene, his accomplishments therein, his vaunted Olympic gold medal last summer in Tokyo—is best done with words of chance: fluke, luck, …quirky Olympic sport climbing format. Even Ginés López himself admits to being shocked at times along the way, as if his Olympic accomplishment was beyond the realm of comprehension as it was happening. But any dismissal of Ginés López’ success now misses the whole point: Competition climbing is, at times, largely a game of surprise, of chance and luck, and the backstory of Olympic greatness for Ginés López is actually one of talent, training, and a dedication to the craft that is practically unmatched. Or, to think of it another way, there are never flukes in good art, only commitment and completion.

To that point, good art begins with an understanding of space and shadow, so look, here, at the current life of 19-year-old Olympic gold medalist Alberto Ginés López. He is at an expansive gym, Sharma Climbing Gavà, just south of Barcelona’s bustle. But at the moment he is not training; he is greeting fans under the bright lights. A pen draws the eye, particularly shiny in his chalky hands, and with it he gives an autograph. This public, steady stream of recognition and reciprocation has gone on for a while and seems like it could go on forever. Ginés López is gracious during it all—some selfies and handshakes, smiles and waves. But at some point he has to climb.

Detaching from the throng, he approaches a section of the wall and rechalks his hands. Then he moves from a starting hold to a steep section of one of the gym’s boulders, moving and ascending panther-like—although the nickname for him that was volleyed around by Olympic commentators was El Matador. Whatever the apt moniker, Ginés López climbs all the way to the top of the wall, backdropped by the oblong-shaped climbing holds in their dazzling hues on the gym’s vertical blue panels. All of this is carefully framed and photographed by many of the same selfie-seeking fans, and it will soon become part of the social media cosmos. To that point, everything about the sketch seems at once artistic and disorderly, as is often the case when a celebrity calibrates to a climbing gym. But it all works because the larger subject here is Ginés López himself, a global superstar. In addition to relishing in the newfound fame, he was recently nominated for Laureus World Sports’ Action Sportsperson of the Year Award. He was voted the first runner-up for the World Games’ Athlete of the Year Award too. Everyone seems to love Alberto Ginés López and wants to capture his life in motion these days.

Until the Olympics no one paid particular attention to Alberto Gines Lopez. (Photo: Eddie Fowke/IFSC)

Soon that motion, beyond the gym, will look like this: The first Lead World Cup of the season will begin in June in Innsbruck, Austria. That is the same event where last year Ginés López charged through much of the opposition—the likes of the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra, Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki, and Germany’s Alex Megos—to claim fifth place. Ginés López’ athletic climbing style and youthful abandon impressed fans and pundits alike at that event. (The on-screen play-by-play, when Ginés López willfully disregarded some foot placement on the finals’ route: “Alberto cutting loose—who needs feet, really?”).

After Innsbruck, the 2022 World Cup calendar will pit-stop for weekends here and there in Switzerland, two different cities in France, and Slovenia before casting off for Indonesia and China, 5,000 miles and eight time zones away from the comforts of home in Spain.

It will keep Ginés López busy until mid-October, and there will be little time to rest when it’s all over. The pathway to qualify for the 2024 Olympics, scheduled to take place in Paris, will likely begin in earnest in 2023—and Ginés López has that gold medal to defend, that one he won at climbing’s Olympic debut last summer. “I will say my big challenge now is Paris,” he admits. “I want to win another medal there.”

So, any depiction of Ginés López, whether greeting fans or pursuing more Olympic hardware, must convey movement. “Now, it’s been so crazy,” he says, abridging all the heave and tug of media requests and ancillary obligations, the renown and the recognition. He has been practicing his English too because he knows of his far-reaching stardom. “I have a lot of new opportunities that I couldn’t have imagined.”

A Climber Reflecting

Go back in time to when Ginés López literally could not imagine all the post-Olympic attention because climbing had not yet debuted at the Olympics. One of his first athletic interests, as a child in the small Spanish city of Cáceres, was gymnastics. He admits he wasn’t very good, which eventually made it easy to abandon gymnastics altogether and gravitate to other activities. But childhood gymnastics at least allowed Ginés López to experience the joy of movement, to develop an appreciation for training and to value progress in athletics.

Bracing this was a fierce competitive streak. “Everything I do, I want to do in a good way,” Ginés López says. His older sister by two years, Myriam, did not have such a sharp-fanged competitive streak, which meant that Ginés López was without an antagonist much of the time and instead turned the competitiveness inward on himself. But he needed an adequate outlet, and despite five years of dedication to gymnastics, that activity just wasn’t it. Fortunately, a climbing connection was soon made because Ginés López’ father, Alberto Ginés, was himself a climber. Alberto Ginés López remembers it as such: “[My father] saw I liked to climb everything—trees, rocks—so one day he said, ‘OK, we should go to a climbing gym.’”

The reality was more complicated and with more sentimental undertones. The elder Alberto Ginés was an engineer by trade, and very busy at that, so climbing with his children presented the precious and rare opportunities for some quality bonding. But there were no climbing gyms in Cáceres, nor were there good outdoor crags to speak of. However, there was—and this should be sketched in the most ramshackle way—a modest outdoor climbing wall at a local park.  The wall was, says Ginés López, “So small and so bad.” The vertical structure in 2005 was so dilapidated that it was eventually removed due to safety concerns, but not before elder Alberto Ginés used it to give his young children a few initial climbing lessons. “And then we started to go more to rocks, but we had to travel so much—two or three hours every weekend for rock climbing,” Ginés López recalls. “Then they opened a new gym—it wasn’t anything better, but we had the gym during the week, and we went rock climbing on the weekends.”

This pivotal climbing period, happy as it was, cannot be fully detached from the congested time schedules of his parents. Ginés López’ mother, Mavi López, was employed at a hospital—she was extremely busy with her career too, and so young Ginés López and his sister Myriam were often under the loving guise of their grandfather, Juan López, in a different house altogether. “The house was quite close to my school, so I spent most of my time there,” Ginés López says of the unique rearing setup. “I was eating and everything with my grandfather, then I’d go to school, then I went for training.”

The training was still mostly self-created. Alberto Ginés recognized his son’s talent but did not let the aptitude supersede the initial enjoyment. “My father said, ‘OK, if you like it, we will do everything we can to make you happy’—that’s why [my parents] invested so much time and money in me for climbing, not because they thought, ‘He will be an Olympic champion,’” Ginés López quickly specifies.

Still a young child, Ginés López continued to like climbing, even if it was mostly recreational at the time. This changed in one fell swoop in 2013, while 10-year-old Ginés López and his father were on one of their weekend crag outings. Also at the crag at the time was David Macià, famed climbing coach of multi-time World Champion Ramón Julián Puigblanque. Fortune favors the bold, so Alberto Ginés, in that classic and intrepid parental way, took his shot: He introduced himself to Macià and asked if Macià would train young Alberto.

In some ways, this crucial meeting epitomized elder Alberto Ginés putting his engineering skills to use in an interpersonal way to help his youthful son: Build the best climber by hiring the best coach, logically. And Ginés López does not totally dismiss that contextualization (“My father knew that David [Macià] was one of the best coaches in Spain, and he wanted the best for me.”)

Macià agreed, even though he didn’t exactly see young Alberto Ginés López as a superstar phenom. “I cannot say that [he] was unique,” Macià says. “He was just another child—among other children—who had great climbing skills.” But Macià did recognize in young Ginés López, “a lot of potential, especially because of his attitude and fighting ability, even as a 10-year-old boy.”

Macià also recognized some similarities between Alberto Ginés López and megastar Ramón Julián Puigblanque. “Alberto is a born fighter, like Ramón,” Macià explains. “He also has the same values of humility and honesty—for me, as a coach, this is the most important thing. Everyone trains hard and for long hours. Values make the difference in the last steps towards the goal.”

So, any sketch of this key moment becomes something of a diptych, Alberto Ginés López and his new coach, David Macià, together, on an early course toward eventual Olympic history.

The Lonesome Prodigy

For all its promise, Alberto Ginés López’ connection with Macià continued as a gray, murky scene. As Macià learned more about the young phenom with the precocious father, he became more impressed and certain that Ginés López possessed some world-class talent. But the coaching was, at first, mostly distant, periodic, and remote. To remedy this, Macià requested that young Ginés López move to Barcelona for improved access to better training facilities. Particularly, Macià was based in Barcelona, so it made sense to have Ginés López—his new pupil—take up residence there too.

So, at just 15 years old, and with the permission of his parents, Ginés López packed his bags, left his hometown of Cáceres, and relocated—alone—to Barcelona. He recalls it as a very lonely time, especially the first few months when he lived in a dormitory for Spain’s best athletes, the Centre d’Alt Rendiment (CAR) Sant Cugat. The adequate silhouette here would be that of imposing city buildings and crowded streets, gnarled Gaudían architecture, and Ginés López brooding as he ambled to and from the city’s climbing gyms on a daily basis, spending “many hours” alone on buses and trains in the city. “I just knew David [Macià] and his sons,” Ginés López recalls. “And in the [dormitory] I didn’t know anybody, and there weren’t many climbers.”

For his part, Macià looked after Ginés López, becoming something of a surrogate father figure. “My family and his family have a very good relationship, so we took care of him,” Macià says. “I would take him to training, and we would host him at the house on the weekends to go rock climbing.”

Other bright spots emerged as well. Ginés López made friends with elite athletes of other sports who also resided in the dorm, and he utilized the dormitory’s comprehensive resources. “I was training in the gyms around Barcelona,” he says, “but in the center we had a big team of physical therapists and psychologists, all this stuff.”  And through the training with Macià, now year-round in Barcelona, Ginés López could better apply his competitive drive, testing his climbing skills against other talented climbers in the big city. “I think everybody that competes wants to be the best—we want to win and be first,” he postulates. “Mostly we say, ‘I don’t compete against anybody—I compete against the wall,’ but, in fact, you’re competing [against] other people.”

An early foray into the world of competition climbing came in a Spanish Cup in Zaragoza, but competition climbing soon turned into an all-out obsession for teenaged Ginés López. Among other results, he placed tenth at a European Youth Cup and eventually won his age category at a European Youth Championship. In 2018, at his first adult World Cup, in Arco, he advanced to the final round alongside his idols Adam Ondra of the Czech Republic and Domen Škofic of Slovenia.

Ginés López placed seventh at that World Cup in Arco, but the result held importance beyond the event itself. While Macià and Ginés López had quietly been targeting the 2024 Olympics as a potential long-term goal, they now realized that Ginés López already possessed the skills to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. (“We started to think, ‘Maybe we can make it.’”)

So, training in Barcelona shifted to accommodate the unique 2020 Olympic format that would feature speed climbing , bouldering, and lead climbing. Competition results continued to improve too: Third place in the Boulder discipline at a European Youth Championship in Brixen; Second place in Lead at a World Cup in Edinburgh; even a respectable 25th place in Speed at the same Edinburgh event. It all culminated just one year after that World Cup debut at Arco, when Ginés López earned an Olympic berth by finishing in seventh place at the Olympic Qualifier in Toulouse. “Until that competition in Toulouse, I didn’t think I would really make it into the Olympics,” Ginés López admits, noting that it was Macià who truly believed the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo were a realistic objective. “It was like a dream—we were trying it, but I wasn’t seeing it as a possible thing,” Ginés López discloses.

Gines Lopez at his first World Cup in Arco, Italy, just two years before the Olympics. He placed seventh, and went in his mind from trying for the 2024 Olympics to the 2020 Games in Tokyo. (Photo: Eddie Fowke/IFSC)

An Olympic Colossus

Even now, over half a year removed from the Tokyo Olympics and fully aware of their thrilling outcome, Ginés López fames them as a chaotic affair. He takes deep breaths and shakes his head a lot when recalling how they played out—their unlikely pandemic-forced postponement from the summer of 2020 to the summer of 2021, and their novel and oft-maligned Combined format, in particular: Speed, Boulder, and Lead disciplines strung together in same-day succession.

But for Ginés López and Macià, the chaos began even before the Olympics. The global shutdown, prompted by the COVID pandemic, resulted in Ginés López being a veritable orphan on the completion circuit in the preceding summer months of 2021. “We couldn’t travel to Japan because of the restrictions, and we couldn’t go back to Spain [to train] because the gyms were locked down,” he explains. “So, we said it was either [do the full World Cup circuit] or stay in Innsbruck.”

Gines Lopez was criticized for competing just before the Olympics while the other qualified athletes sat it out, but the practice proved crucial to his Olympic win, hardening him for the pressures of the Games. Here, he competes in the World Cup in Innsbruck, Austria, in 2021, where he would place fifth in lead. (Photo: Lena Drapella/IFSC)

So, while practically all other qualified Olympians steadily recused themselves from World Cup competition to rest and focus solely on the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, Alberto Ginés López continued to compete on the circuit and stack up results: Among them, fifth place at a Lead World Cup in Innsbruck, fifth place at a Lead World Cup in Villars, and seventh place at a Lead World Cup in Briançon—approximately two weeks before the Tokyo Olympics kicked off.

The decision to stay so active on the World Cup circuit was questioned and even lambasted by pundits at the time, particularly because some of Ginés López’ pre-Olympic World Cup results were not as impressive—such as a 41st place finish at a World Cup in Innsbruck. Such low results hinted that he might be exhausted or overzealous. “Many people criticized this decision, they even questioned our planning,” Macià remembers. “But we were clear about it. It was [a] road mapped out to the Games.” He adds, “For us there is no better training than competitions. The wear and tear that they may cause is strictly mental.”

Gines Lopez next to the favorite to win Olympic gold, Adam Ondra, at the Olympic qualifiers in Toulouse, France. Gines Lopez would qualify for the Olympics and go on to surprise nearly everyone by winning the gold there. Photo: Eddie Fowke/IFSC

But there were additional frustrations with the pre-Olympic training. The figurative orphan status around Europe essentially meant that only commercial climbing gyms could be used for any additional climbing—in other words, private space usually could not be reserved, nor could boulders and routes be set exclusively for Ginés López within the gyms. “It was very hard,” Macià reflects. “Sometimes we would get discouraged, especially when I had to argue with [gym staff] so that Alberto could climb.”

The start of the Olympics did little to change any critical opinions related to the training methodology. Although Ginés López blasted more than a half second off his lifetime personal best in the Olympics’ initial qualifying Speed race against France’s Mickaël Mawem, Ginés López lost to Mawem in the successive race…and got shut down by three boulders in the following discipline. He didn’t win the Lead portion, but his score of 41+ was enough to eek into the finals in sixth place.

Yet, the rest of the Olympics would prove to be legendary for Ginés López, beginning with three consecutive victories to finish first in the Speed portion of the final round. While some of those wins came as a result of mistakes by opponents—slips by Team USA’s Colin Duffy and Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki, for example— Ginés López is quick to point out that he never fell or stumbled during a race; he even proposes that he might have been the only competitor to be so consistently flawless, despite not being a speed specialist or the favorite. “I knew that I was maybe one of the best at Speed in the Speed final, but there were a lot of other climbers—Colin [Duffy], Nathaniel [Coleman, also of Team USA], Tomoa [Narasaki]—that weren’t Speed specialists, but they were quite fast. I would have expected [Narasaki] or [Mickaël] Mawem to win Speed.”

Ginés López had to fight an urge to do quick math in his head and calculate how the incredible first-place finish in the Speed portion could impact his overall Olympic result. “I was doing some numbers in my head—‘OK, OK, I have a really good chance now to get a medal,’” he admits, “But, in another way, I didn’t really think about it while I was competing because that’s not good for the mindset.”

Results in the successive Boulder portion were not good, but that was not surprising for Ginés López. He admits that he and coach Macià didn’t train bouldering as much as Speed or Lead prior to the Olympics, and of the other Olympic finalists, Ginés López says, “I was thinking they will beat me easily [in bouldering], and that’s what happened.” However, it was surprising just how much those other finalists struggled on the boulders as well, with the entire round featuring a notorious dearth of ascents. If nothing else, this created a frenzied atmosphere for spectators around the world, everyone anxious to finally see some action on the conclusive Lead portion. There, Ginés López did not disappoint, cruising past the early high points set by Narasaki and Mawem on the Lead wall. Then Ginés López surpassed Coleman’s high score as well. It was not until the 38th hold that Ginés López would fall, while attempting to lunge into a slopey side pull move in a steeply overhung section of the route that the commentators had deemed “the fight section.”

Although it would not be the Lead portion’s high water mark, as Ondra had already climbed a bit higher—and Duffy and Austria’s Jakob Schubert would soon exceed the mark too—it was enough to propel Ginés López to first place in the Combined format’s multiplied scoring methodology. With that, to a roar from those in attendance, Ginés López was declared the Olympic gold medalist, the precursory chaos converted to celebratory cheers. The buzz reverberated out of Tokyo. Ginés López became a celebrity in his home country of Spain overnight, and through that, a global sports star. “I was trending number one on Twitter,” he recollects, a vivid anecdote of the Olympic aftermath. “That’s so crazy for a climber.”

The New King

 It’s not accurate to say the craziness has subsided with that Olympic finale in the rearview, but Ginés López would like to see it less about him and more as an indicator of productive change going forward. He points out that Spain does not yet have a high-end training center for its national climbing team. (This is part of the reason why he chose to stay on the World Cup circuit and roam around other European countries in the Olympics’ lead-up.) He and Macià hope that Ginés López’ elevated status now can help spur on the construction of such a national facility, state-of-the-art in accommodating all climbing disciplines. The goal is for the facility to have a speed climbing wall, a lead climbing wall, and an expansive bouldering space and be completed by January, 2024—before the 2024 Olympics.

Alberto Gines Lopez stops the clock in the Olympic Speed Finals. His flawless performance winning Speed was crucial for taking the gold in the combined format. (: Ryu Voelkel)

Macià points out that this type of “isolated place” would allow Ginés López to “train in peace” with the rest of the Spanish national team. “Olympic gold has changed Alberto’s life,” Macià acknowledges. “Now he has many commitments. Customers ask for autographs while we train in the gyms. Sometimes it is difficult to maintain the concentration necessary to train.”

Beyond having a desire to help accommodate the country’s most elite climbers with a would-be national training center, Ginés López is pleased to see climbing’s popularity surging in his home country now. It’s impossible to see this as anything but an extension of his Olympic mega-narrative, inspiring so many people by himself becoming the world’s best. “Since the Olympics, [climbing is] growing so much,” he notes. “They are opening a lot of new gyms—there are a lot of new climbers, and I think it’s really nice for the sport.”

One of those relatively new gyms is Sharma Climbing Barcelona, in the bustling and beachy Sant Martí district. The gym opened a few years ago, then temporarily closed during the COVID pandemic, and reopened amid the Olympics’ whirl. Ginés López sometimes sessions there, an alternative to Sharma Climbing Gavà, and climbs with the gyms’ founder, Chris Sharma. It’s a fitting coupling. In some ways, Sharma, as the sport’s alpha, created the template a decade or so ago that Ginés López can play off of now: Global superstardom, mainstream crossover appeal, all funneled into growing interest in climbing around Spain. “We are really good friends,” Ginés López says of Sharma, who is nearly two decades older. “I want to do more rope projects with him—he’s the king.”

The Men’s 2020 Olympic medalists in Sport Climbing: Nathaniel Coleman (USA), Alberto Ginés López (ESP), Jakob Schubert (AUS) (: Jess Talley, Jon Glassberg/ Louder Than 11)

It might be true, but for the time being, Ginés López is a king too, sharing the throne with Sharma, but never stopping enough to fully enjoy the comfortable seat. And in the constant motion and commotion—the Olympic gold medal, the Twitter trends, the fans, and the strangeness of fame—there is, naturally, art. “It’s still a little bit weird sometimes,” Ginés López says of it all, searching for the proper words in a language within which his vocabulary is quickly expanding. “But I start to realize it.”