Now is a sensational moment in the history of rock climbing. We’re living what was, just a decade or two ago, unimaginable: Climbers are Olympians.
To people like me, who experienced the clash of climbing culture in the 1980s and 1990s, where grit and rebellion collided with the new wave philosophy of climbing as more sport than lifestyle, the Olympics represent an incredible transformation. And, in my view, evolution.
Given the popularity explosion of indoor climbing and the swell of support behind “alternative sports” such as climbing, surfing and skateboarding, the Olympics are, after all, the next step forward. Yet somehow, this feels like a great leap.
Perhaps that’s because here in Boulder, we’ve watched two of the first four Team USA climbers — Brooke Raboutou and Colin Duffy — start as kids, then grow up in our gyms and our community.
Raboutou, now 20 years old, was the first American climber to qualify for the Olympics, earning her spot way back in 2019. I spoke with her mom, four-time World Cup Champion, Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, who coaches Brooke and Duffy at Team ABC in Boulder. “She left here in her best shape ever,” she said, about Brooke. “Clearly, she’s ready.”
At 17 years old, Duffy is the youngest climber on Team USA, and likely the one who gained the most from the Olympics postponement. Since he qualified in February 2020, Duffy has grown, both in terms of height and muscle weight. “While the delay in the Games was the right thing to do for everybody’s health and safety, it was a benefit for Colin,” said his father, Eric.
Nathaniel Coleman (24) and Kyra Condie (25), both of Salt Lake City, round out Team USA’s climbing roster. All four Americans could very well be among the 8 climbers out of 20 per gender to make Finals, which take place Thursday for the men and Friday for the women.
Olympic climbing involves a combined score of three events: Speed, Bouldering and Lead — all of which are designed to impress the crowd. You’ll see wild stunts like full-body leaps, 360-degree rotations, bat hangs and other topsy-turvy tomfoolery. It’s exciting stuff.
“What we can expect to see are their best efforts, whatever they are that day,” said Erbesfield-Raboutou. “We don’t know what that will look like until we sit down and watch.”
Unlike most Olympic events, where competitors rehearse precisely what they perform, Bouldering and Lead will present athletes with unique boulders and routes they have never seen before. “It’s not something that they can practice for exactly,” said Erbesfield-Raboutou. “Kind of like surfing — they know how to surf, but they don’t really know those waves.”
As I write, Raboutou and Duffy, according to their parents, are both happy, healthy and eager to compete. And whatever happens in these Games, both climbers have upcoming outdoor plans and future competitions already on their calendars.
Both of Colin’s parents were on the phone when we spoke, and their excitement for him bubbled over. “He wants to continue to be a good climber for years,” said his mom Nancy, “so this is just a small …”
“I don’t know if we would say a small step,” Eric interrupted, “but there are lots of things he wants to do and he has long-term goals in climbing, so it’s great to be a part of his journey.”
“History.” Nancy interjected. “It’s great to be a part of history.”
Even as COVID wreaks havoc on Olympic norms, with quarantines, strict distancing rules and the absence of a grand audience (including families of athletes), climbers will always remember and celebrate these Olympic Games.
“We spent some really amazing mom-daughter time together,” Erbesfield-Raboutou said, referring to the past two years of training and preparation for Brooke to compete. “We’re closer than ever because of this time we’ve had.”
More than any individual, event, or medal, the fact that we’re in Tokyo at all, representing climbers from home and around the world, is an outrageous success. We’re in the Olympics! And the Finals begin early tomorrow morning.
So sit down, buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Contact Chris Weidner at email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8.
Where and when to watch: Live on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app
Men’s Finals on Thursday (All times MST): Speed 2 a.m.; Bouldering 3:30 a.m.; Lead 6:10 a.m.
Women’s Finals on Friday: Speed 2 a.m.; Bouldering 3:30 a.m.; and Lead 6:10 a.m.