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Promise, Hope and Dreams of Olympic Rings

Checking in with the leading young women of today

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Most observers who even went to Vail, to the only climbing World Cup held on U.S. soil, would be unaware of this portent: In the quarterfinal, which slashed the field of 55 to 20 for semis, Brooke Raboutou, only 16, placed sixth. In semifinals, climbing adeptly and comfortably, she finished ninth—top 10 in her first adult WC, in bouldering, at the GoPro Mountain Games in Colorado, June 2017. Had it been second, that first round would have put her in finals, which are exceedingly hard to make.

Raboutou followed with results of 10th and 13th in adult lead World Cups in Chamonix and Briançon in July, and won overall—for lead, speed and bouldering, plus lead outright—at the PanAmerican Youth Championship in Montreal in October.

Brooke Raboutou on Barefoot on Sacred Ground (V12), Hueco Tanks, 2016. Photo by Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou.

The combination of three genres will be the Olympic format in Tokyo in 2020—which used to seem far away, and now doesn’t. There competitive climbing will gain a global stage, and as the season takes off, the new combined format raises challenges and questions as to how or whether top candidates are preparing.

For now, Raboutou, newly 17 this week and a resident of Boulder, politely defers an interview, texting: “I am going to Switzerland for the first World Cup of the season! … I am sitting at the airport right now, about to get on my near 12-hour flight.”

Also part of a healthy crowd convening in Meiringen, near Bern, are Claire Buhrfeind, 19, of Plano, Texas, another clear leader for an Olympic berth after wins in both lead and speed on March 17 at the 2018 U.S.A. Climbing Sport and Speed Open National Championships, and Margo Hayes, 20, of Boulder. A perennial high finisher and real-rock climber, Hayes in early 2017 made history and won hearts as the first woman to climb a confirmed 5.15 with La Rambla, Siurana, Spain, and in September, in Céüse, France, sent Chris Sharma’s great Biographie, the world’s first 5.15.

Also bound to be a contender is Shiraishi, 17, of New York, who (as did the Basque climber Josune Bereziartu) sent an early “slash grade” 5.14d/15a—in her case Open Your Mind Direct in Santa Linya, Spain, at only 13—was absent from the above nationals this year, though she won at the 2017 Sport and Speed Youth National Championships, at which many participants, aware of the Olympic format, first tried their luck with speed. At this year’s Bouldering Nationals, in early February, Shiraishi and Alex Puccio approached the last problem in finals in a dead heat, though Puccio strolled off with a near-unbelievable (or not) 11th title. Shiraishi had been tops in semis, while Hayes, winner of the 2017 Bouldering Youth National Championship, had come out of qualifiers in first.

Margo Hayes having some fun in Hueco Tanks, Texas. Photo by Clayton Boyd/The North Face.

In September, Shiraishi and Raboutou were second and third in Innsbruck at the very Olympics-oriented IFSC Youth World Championships Combined.

Hayes, who was third in her division there, encountered the new format for the first time. “I have just started to train for speed seriously,” she emails from Meiringen. “I have traveled to Atlanta a few times and worked with Olexiy”— Olexiy Shulga, a speed coach from the Ukraine—”to learn sequencing and technique. I am actually really enjoying the process of learning this new discipline!”

Buhrfeind writes from the same locale, “I love to compete, I always have. Since I was 10, I’ve participated in all three disciplines. I want to be the best all around athlete I can be; the opportunity to go to the Olympics is incredibly exciting.

“There are many strong women, from the US and around the world, that I admire and respect. I’ll be proud to support whoever represents climbing in the Olympics.”

Among others to keep on the list, if you remember to include a pure boulderer as opposed to double-triple types, is Alex Puccio, 28, who has 15 podiums in major international events (with wins at Vail in 2009 and the prestigious Arco Rockmaster in 2014) and was seen putting on a rope this year at Nationals and, unsurprisingly, acquitting herself just fine, in third place.

For the present she is training for all three disciplines and hopes to “keep up with my newfound endurance.”

“I found that sport climbing is actually less stress on the body. Who knew?”

She and Hayes are open about Olympic dreams. “It’s going to be a challenge to qualify, but I’m going to give it my best shot,” Hayes writes. “There is no other way to qualify but try!”

From Puccio: “I definitely want to try my hardest to make a good push for the Olympics. … the very first time climbing [is] ever in it! This is a huge deal for our sport and I would love to be a part of it!”

Alex Puccio on Wing Chun (V12) during a recent trip out to Ibex, Utah. Photo by Joel Zerr.

According to some accounts, this country may be able to send a maximum two men and two women, with selection based on international standings. Michaela Kiersch of Chicago, 23, who just became the first woman (and only 17th person) ever to climb the early Sharma testpiece Necessary Evil, Virgin River Gorge, Arizona, and has been running through 5.14’s at the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, is among those in an active holding mode: “I am waiting for more information on the Olympic format and selection process for 2020 before making an absolute decision. It is definitely an option, though!” she says in a message from a climbing trip to Spain.

“I have mixed goals for this year and next concerning my climbing. Many of my objectives are outdoor rock climbs, and I tend to favor these because I love the experiences that come from traveling to climb outside.” However, Kiersch grew up doing comps and remains motivated for them. “I love going to our national championships, and maybe will attend a few of my favorite World Cups.”

Claire Buhrfeind on Lucifer (5.14c), the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. “I want to find a better balance between competing and climbing outdoors,” she tells us. “I just want to continue to climb what inspires me.” Photo by Matty Hong.

Perhaps most intriguing is how these top young women, many of whom have grown up on and dreaming of real rock, will balance their focus and effort. Raboutou spends most of her time on competitions and school, but sent several V10s on a three-day trip to Joe’s Valley, Utah, in March and a 5.14c, Cosi Fan Tutte, two years ago in Rodellar, Spain.

Puccio considers the rock-plastic balance to be key. “My body and mind heal a bit when I take a break from competitions and training, and climb outside,” she tells Rock and Ice in an e-mail. “I decided not to attend the first half of the Bouldering World Cups this year … I’m healing a few finger injuries among some other body aches, and climbing outside seems to help or at least not make it worse.”

Team USA in Switzerland for the bouldering World Cup opener. Left to right: Kai Lightner, Lisa Chulich, Nathaniel Coleman, Margo Hayes, Josh Larson, Meagan Martin, Sean Bailey, Sierra Blair-Coyle, Brooke Raboutou, Maya Madere, Claire Buhrfeind. Photo by Vladek Zumr,

Her World Cup season will begin at Vail on June 7-9, followed by domestic events and then a flight to Europe for the World Cup lead series, which starts in July, and the World Championships (only held on alternate years) in Innsbruck, where she is game for all three disciplines. She will follow that with bouldering at Magic Wood, Switzerland, for “some fun and relaxation in the rocks!”

In 2014 she took an extended break from the drill of (bouldering) World Cups to “go outside for a while.”

“That is when I climbed my first V13s and then V14s. After that I started splitting my time more between my newfound love for real rock and old love for competitions.”

Margo Hayes speaks similarly. “I am definitely going to be taking some trips outdoors! Climbing outside grounds me. I need the connection with nature and the challenge of a rock face. Climbing outdoors also feeds my creative needs. The combination of indoor and outdoor climbing keeps me balanced.

“Last year was quite exciting, and it whetted my appetite for more rock!”

Stay tuned.

Also Read

Born to Climb: Brooke Raboutou

Snapshot: Claire Buhrfriend – When Your Hardest Week is Your Best

Claire Buhhrfeind’s Phenomenal Week in the Red

Fourth V14 for Alex Puccio: Penrose Step in Leavenworth, WA

Snapshot: Michaela Kiersch – the Chicago Hustle

Michaela Kiersch on Patience: A Necessary Evil