Sean Bailey had three flashes under his belt walking up to the fourth and last finals problem at USA Climbing’s Bouldering Open National Championships on Saturday night. But Nathaniel Coleman—defending three-time National Champion—was hot on his heels, with two flashes and another top in just two attempts. If Bailey could flash this last problem, gold was his.
Bailey walked up cooly to the overhanging Entreprises wall, red volumes screwed on to all facets, and launched into a wild, three-part coordination dyno. He stuck it. The crowd erupted. He was only halfway through the problem, but no one had a doubt: Sean Bailey was about to become the new Bouldering National Champion.
Sean Bailey after flashing the last problem in men’s finals and winning the national championship. Photo: Daniel Gajda.
Such drama was par for the course this past weekend at USA Climbing’s Bouldering Open National championships in Bend, Oregon. Earlier in the night, Ashima Shiraishi had won the women’s bracket in similar storybook fashion. After flashing the penultimate problem of the night—a problem none of the other five finalists could finish in multiple attempts—she headed to the final boulder with gold hers to lose. The prior two years she had won silver, playing second-fiddle to Alex Puccio at National Championships, but now she was finally climbing a National Bouldering finals the way everyone knew she sooner or later would. When Shiraishi flashed the last problem and clinched her first gold medal at the event, she turned to the crowd, beaming.
Asked to describe his emotions about winning it all in perfect fashion, Sean Bailey told Rock and Icesimply, “Franky, I’m speechless.” When the announcer questioned her after her win, Shiraishi was at a similar lack at first just telling the crowd, “Hey!” before thanking them for getting behind her when she needed it.
But as dominant as Shiraishi and Bailey were when the chips were on the table, it was a weekend with twists and turns that could have ended up with a number of different climbers atop the podium if just a couple things had gone differently. With stacked fields in both the men’s and women’s brackets, nothing was a foregone conclusion, from semis to finals, with buzzer-beating sends and upsets to spare.
Take a look back at some of the highlights, round-by-round.
The Qualification round on Friday morning and afternoon saw a steady stream of competitors—54 women and 76 men—try their hands at four problems, for which they had five minutes each.
Ashima Shiraishi set herself apart early by finishing all four problems—the only woman to do so. She managed three flashes, and fell just twice on the second problem before polishing it off on her third go.
On the men’s side, two lesser-known climbers graced the top of the leader board after qualifications: Sam McQueen, a 17-year-old from California, in first, and Dylan Barks, a 23-year-old from Michigan, in second. The most impressive part of the round was Barks’ top of men’s 2, a problem that ended with a double-clutch compression move. Barks was the only one—the only guy out of 76-–to send this problem.
In semis on Saturday morning, some of the heavy favorites missed out on scoring one of the six finals spots available for each gender, while some less-expected competitors made it through.
For the men, Drew Ruana qualified for finals in first with tops of all the semis problems. Qualifying in second position was Nathaniel Coleman, who also topped all the problems, as did Zach Galla, who moved onto finals in third. Galla earned the first men’s spot on the U.S. Combined Team two weeks ago when he won USA Climbing’s Combined Invitational in Salt Lake City. Dylan Barks finished semis in fourth, followed by Matty Hong, best known these days as one of the strongest American sport climbers on real rock. Sean Bailey rounded out the men’s final cohorts, barely squeaking through in the sixth and last spot.
Shiraishi, as she had after qualifications, led the women’s field after semifinals, followed by Claire Buhrfeind. Each of them ticked three of the problems in the round. Alex Johnson qualified for finals in third place, also with three tops. Johnson, Bouldering National Champion back in 2009, and silver medalist in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2015, has competed far less in recent years, but recently announced her Olympic ambitions. (Johnson is a contributing writer for Rock and Ice.) Margo Hayes finished semis in fourth—she too with three tops—while Sienna Kopf and Brooke Raboutou rounded out the women heading to finals, in fifth and sixth places, respectively.
The most dramatic problem in women’s semis was a series of cube-shaped volumes going out a roof and around a corner. The climbers had to wrestle under, around and between these boxes, culminating in a powerful mantle in an obtuse corner. The problem was long and pump-inducing—Sierra Blair-Coyle spent two full minutes eking out a send.
Kyra Condie and Alex Puccio, two odds-on favorites to win it all, ultimately missed out on finals. Puccio is the most dominant American competition boulderer in history, having won Bouldering Nationals a staggering ten separate times, including 2017 and 2018. Condie was fresh off a win at Combined Invitationals.
Women’s finals kicked off Saturday night with a devious slab involving a barndoor-y finish that cruelly spit off more than one climber who thought she had the thing in the bag. Brooke Raboutou and Sienna Kopf started things off by coming achingly close to sticking the final hold. Margo Hayes was the first woman to top out, devising a slightly more dynamic method to ensure she could counter the swing. Alex Johnson matched Hayes, and was able to use her length to do the move more statically. Next was Claire Buhrfeind, who managed a top just two seconds before the buzzer; the crowd roared with delight. Last up was Shiraishi—the women’s leader throughout the entire comp thus far. But like Kopf and Raboutou, Shiraishi couldn’t keep her body from barndooring out, and failed to get a top before her four minutes expired. Was the magic for her up?
The second women’s problem of finals was perhaps too easy, as everyone topped it save for Kopf. Nonetheless, it had some of the most eye-catching movement of the night, including a spectacular rose move at the top requiring the women to turn and face the crowd.
The whole competition ultimately came down to the third problem. It was the hardest of the round. Raboutou, Kopf, Hayes and Buhrfeind all struggled to contort their bodies beneath a quarter-sphere volume. Alex Johnson very nearly flashed the boulder, slipping off the final hold. She turned to the crowd with a look of pained shock on her face. She tried again, but was unable to match her highpoint. (Had Johnson sent this problem, she would have beat Ashima by being the only climber to send all four blocs.) Finally, Ashima, regained her form from earlier in the competition, dispatching the boulder that none of the other finalists could do in just a single attempt.
After problem 3, the final problem of the night became a victory lap for Shiraishi. Hayes, Buhrfeind and Johnson all topped it, and Shiraishi flashed it to put an exclamation point on her National Championship performance.
Men’s finals also started off with a slab. Sean Bailey was first up and flashed it with ease. Coleman and Barks scored flashes as well, while Ruana and Galla both managed tops after falls. Matty Hong struggled to read the route, finally figuring it out as time expired.
Problem 2 featured one of the wildest dynos of the competition. Bailey, Coleman, Ruana and Galla all managed tops—the former two on their first burns—while Barks and Hong settled for the ten-point hold.
Moving to problem 3, Coleman and Bailey were dead even. Should they both finish with four flashes—something Coleman has done before, including when he won last year– Coleman would win gold based on his higher ranking after semi-finals. Bailey managed to flash it, putting the pressure on the defending champ. When Coleman was up, he flubbed an early move and peeled off. He sent on his second attempt, but the lone fall equated to one-tenth of a point deduction. The competition was squarely in Bailey’s hands, and, as recounted in the opening of this piece, he dropped the hammer on the last problem.
The men’s podium was rounded out by Coleman in second and Drew Ruana in third, while the women’s podium saw Alex Johnson on the second riser and Margo Hayes on the third.
Johnson told Rock and Ice, “I came back to bouldering nationals with a goal, but no expectations. I wanted to make finals and just do as well as I could, which sounds cliche, but being away for four years I knew the game had changed and I’d have to work extra hard to keep up with the strong young athletes. I was happy to have held my own and then some.”
Photos by Daniel Gajda and Andrea Laue