At the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail last weekend, the IFSC World Cup saw a stunning turn of events with the American Sean Bailey duking it out with Rei Sugimoto of Japan in the men’s finals, and Alex Puccio blasting her way up the final women’s problem to the spot atop the podium.
America managed to send five women to semis, including longtime American superstar Alex Puccio, as well as two men, Nathaniel Coleman and Sean Bailey. Coleman shone in the qualifiers with tops of all five problems and three flashes, finishing second in that round. The other American women to make semis were Kyra Condie, Sierra Blair-Coyle, Maya Madere and Michaela Kiersch, along with Canadian climber Alannah Yip.
The four problems in the women’s semifinals thinned the American herd. Nearly half of all the women did not manage a single top, but Puccio and Condie made it through to finals. Last year’s British champion Shauna Coxsey, who flashed her second problem, narrowly missed out on finals after her foot slipped and she fell from the top hold of W4. Puccio led the field, flashing her first two problems, and was the only climber to manage three tops. Akiyo Noguchi and Miho Nonaka of Japan, Fanny Gibert of France, and Alma Bestvater of Germany also advanced to finals, with Yip finishing eighth, only two spots out of finals.
Men’s semifinals saw a perfect reversal of the U.S. positions, with Sean Bailey, 16th in qualifiers, flashing his first two problems in impeccable style and soaring into finals ranked third, behind Tomoa Narasaki of Japan and the confident, swaggering Jernej Kruder of Slovenia, who dominated with two flashes and three tops, flashing his bright yellow tongue ring to the audience as he celebrated. Coleman, however, did not manage any tops and finished 16th overall, just ahead of Tai’an 2018 goal medalist Alex Khazanov, who also struggled. 2017 Vail champ Jongwon Chon, of Korea, managed two tops as well, but was bumped out in seventh place after taking seven tries for the top of M1. Ryuichi Murai, Rei Sugimoto, Tomoa Narasaki, and Tomoaki Takata, all of Japan, also moved into finals.
The men’s finals saw Kruder drop heavily. The Slovenian fought hard, smiling all the while. He took several big falls from the top of M1 in particular, which required a long horizontal dyno right off the bat, and then a large move up to the final hold. Still, Kruder came short of topping any of the four problems, as did Takata and Murai. Bailey and Sugimoto, however, came out strong, and both climbers flashed M1 and M2. Narasaki also flashed M1, but struggled on M2. Bailey slipped from the top of M3, which Sugimoto sent on his second attempt (after electing to take his chalk bag up with him), and Narasaki also sent in two attempts. Bailey nearly came back and flashed M4—which would have been enough for gold—but the final problem ultimately held off every competitor, and Sugimoto took home the gold, his first since Munich in 2013, with Bailey taking silver and Narasaki bronze.
The women’s finals was perhaps the best show of all. Neither Bestvater or Condie reached the zone hold on W1, but Nonaka came out and calmly flashed the problem, moving up the pyramidal volumes with precision. Puccio sent the problem on her third try.
Both Nonaka and Puccio sent W2 in two attempts, along with Gibert. W3, which involved some wild stemming out to the right wall, required climbers to go completely horizontal. The problem nearly resulted in disaster when Nonaka fell just before the zone, hitting her face on a large volume. The Japanese climber was undeterred, however, and continued to climb; the timer cut her off just short of the zone. The only climber who managed a top of W3 was Noguchi, who sent it on her second try. None of the other women could reach the zone.
Nonaka was in the lead going into the final problem, which required a low traverse across overhung pinches and toehooks just to reach the zone. Noguchi, Bestvater and Gibert never reached the zone hold, and while both Nonaka and Condie gained it, neither could pass it. Then Alex Puccio, the final climber, came out, needing a send to beat Nonaka.
Before starting, Puccio used time off her four-minute clock to scope the problem from the ground, lay out a small towel at the base, and ask one of the officials, “Is it O.K. if my feet touch the gray volumes?” referring to the volumes to the right of a likely dyno at the top of the route. The lower crux move that had defeated all the other competitors appeared barely a blip on Puccio’s radar. She was already focused on a valid send. In a finale straight out of the movies, she flashed the problem to thunderous applause, moving across the traverse, up to the zone, and swinging one-handed through the dyno, winning her second World Cup gold. The first was at Vail in 2009, but she has twice had injuries there since then; and in 2014 she also won the prestigious Arco Rockmaster. -Owen Clarke
Post-Vail, Nonaka, who has yet to place below second in a World Cup this year, is now ranked first overall in the world with 500 points, followed closely by Noguchi at 495. Kruder still leads the men with 400 points, followed by Narasaki and then Sugimoto at 396 and 322, respectively.
For all results, see http://www.ifsc-climbing.org.
All photos by Levi Harrell.