In March of 2020, at the Sender One climbing gym in Los Angeles, California, then-16-year-old Colin Duffy topped out the final’s lead route during the International Federation of Sport Climbing Pan-American Championship. Cheers roared from the crowd, as the shell-shocked high school sophomore had secured his place representing the United States in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“I was excited and shocked when I won Pan Ams,” Duffy said. “It’s hard to describe the emotions I was going through in that moment since I was so in the zone and still trying to comprehend what was happening. I barely remember what was going through my mind.”
That surreal moment is not representative of the week of competition, nor of his remarkable grit. Duffy had been fighting off a cold that was exacerbated by a bout of food poisoning in his hotel room. His weakened physical state hindered his performance in the speed and bouldering qualifying rounds, but he composed himself for the lead qualifier and became the only competitor to top the route. Duffy rode that inertia into the finals rounds and crushed every event, taking home first in the men’s division and solidifying his place at the Olympics.
Twelve years prior, when Duffy discovered climbing as a four-year-old at a local rec center near his home in Westminster, Colorado, it is not likely that Olympic dreams were on his mind, nor the minds of his parents. But he took naturally to the sport and begged his folks to take him to the wall as often as they could. Within the next few years, Duffy joined a real rock gym where the pastime blossomed to passion. He learned to belay, boulder, and lead climb, and shortly thereafter, he began to compete.
In his competition career, Duffy has earned ten Youth National Titles, two Youth World Titles, and now the Pan-American Championship. He earned his first youth title when he was nine years old, and both World Titles were in the lead discipline of the Youth B category. During competitions, the stress of performing against his fellow competitors helps push Duffy to his capacity.
“I think pressure helps me rise to the occasion and keeps me in the zone,” he said. “From all of my experiences in comps I’ve learned to internalize pressure and focus on the task at hand.”
In addition to being a prodigious competition climber, Duffy is wickedly strong outside as well. He spends a lot of time climbing in the Front Range—Rocky Mountain National Park, Boulder Canyon, Clear Creek—and has been on trips all over the country. He’s ticked multiple V13s and sent three 5.14s in the same day.
“I went to the Red for four days back in 2019” Duffy said. “I was able to climb really well on my second day when I onsighted Omaha Beach (5.14a) and sent Pure Imagination (5.14c) and Southern Smoke (5.14c).”
On the same trip he also sent God’s Own Stone (5.14a), meaning that in four short days, the then-15-year-old sent some of the most notoriously difficult routes in the Red River Gorge, a lifetime achievement for any climber.
“Overall my trip to the Red was my favorite outside climbing memory with the stunning features and amazing climbing, and I hope to go back sometime soon,” Duffy said.
He continues: “Outdoor climbing and competition climbing are very different for me. I enjoy both equally, but I enjoy them very differently. I love outdoor climbing for the time spent outside and the projecting process, which brings different joys from indoor climbing.”
At this point in his life, however, Duffy’s focus is on indoor and competition climbing, and rightfully so. This summer he will be competing on the world stage as one of four climbers representing the United States in the Tokyo Olympics. However, in addition to preparing for the Olympics, Duffy also needs to focus on being a high school student.
On a typical day, Duffy wakes up in the morning and attends class for seven hours, followed by two hours of homework. He then spends three hours in the evening training and climbing, working in all three disciplines—lead, speed, and bouldering—every week. He trains with the legendary ABC Climbing Team based out of Boulder, CO, coached by Robyn Erbersfield-Raboutou. The ABC Climbing Team has now produced two of the four American Olympic climbers: Duffy and Brooke Raboutou. He also works with a physical trainer for cross fitness, tries to eat balanced meals, stay hydrated, and recover well.
When Duffy first qualified for the Olympics, he had less than five months to prepare. However, just a few short weeks after the Pan-American championship, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the entire globe to a screeching halt. For some athletes, the postponement of the Olympics could have disrupted their momentum, but according to Duffy it played to his advantage.
“Since I’m so young and I qualified only months before the Games were originally scheduled it has been very nice to have an extra year,” Duffy said. “In the last year I’ve grown a couple inches and have a more solid training plan in place.”
He continues: “When COVID first hit, I was not in the best place mentally after everything I was looking forward to was being cancelled and postponed,” he said. “However, I was able to stay psyched training on my home wall and took some time to enjoy climbing for fun rather than worry about competitions. As the summer continued I was able to find psyche climbing outside as the gyms were closed. Now, since I have access to gyms and my typical training the focus is back on competitions and I’m feeling psyched!”