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Garnbret, Grossman Battle At Lead World Cup Finals

Most Olympians skipped the Lead World Cup in Slovenia, but the field remained world class.

A significant chapter of the IFSC’s 2021 season concluded earlier today with the last Lead World Cup of the year, in Kranj, Slovenia. And while this season was uniquely interrupted by some thrilling Olympic action, it felt like business as usual in its conclusion—with Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret reigning supreme in the women’s division. 

Garnbret’s victory did not come without some challenges. She only topped one of her qualification routes and finished that early round situated in fifth place—uncharacteristically low for someone who many consider to be the Greatest of All Time. Yet, the scores set up a particularly exciting semi-finals round that saw Garnbret chased closely by her Slovenian compatriot Vita Lukan and Italy’s Laura Rogora for the top semi-final rank. Then, in the finals, both Lukan and Rogora progressed past a cruxy section of “egg” volumes on the wall before falling with identical scores of 39. Team USA’s Natalia Grossman climbed slightly higher onto the wall (for a final score of 41+ and ultimately a bronze medal), with the battle for gold coming down to progress on the headwall by Garnbret and South Korea’s Chaehyun Seo. Seo fell shortly after securing a faraway 46th hold with her left-hand. Garnbret not only stuck the same big reach, but continued climbing higher—literally into the rafters—before falling while reaching for the 50th hold. 

By winning the competition at Kranj, Garnbret also secured the 2021 Lead season’s overall title, a fitting accolade for a year that also includes an Olympic gold medal for her. Grossman concluded her dream season with a second-place finish in the overall season rankings, with Rogora earning the third-place women’s overall spot—the first Italian to do so since Luisa Iovane did it more than three decades ago. 

In the men’s division at Kranj, Japan’s Masahiro Higuchi was not even in the Top 15 at the conclusion of the qualification round, but he made a big statement by finishing the semi-final round in first place with a score of 41+…well ahead of Italy’s Stefano Ghisolfi, the Czech Republic’s Martin Stranik, and many other competitors who have had particularly strong seasons. The final round was marked by some surprisingly slow slips by several competitors—some of Higuchi’s Japan compatriots among them—and a longstanding highpoint of 31+ set by Slovenia’s Domen Skofic. Germany’s Sebastian Halenke and Skofic’s Slovenian teammate Luka Potocar reached the same spot, a left-hand crimp on the headwall, but could not surpass it. Higuchi, climbing last, smoothly stuck the move and worked into an upper cross section before falling. The progress earned him the gold medal, with Potocar and Halenke receiving the silver and bronze, respectively. In some ways, the victory can be seen as redemption for Higuchi, who fell low on the finals route at Villars earlier this season after reading a static sequence as a dyno. 

The victory at Kranj also earned Higuchi third-place in the men’s overall Lead season rankings, with second place going to Team USA’s Sean Bailey and the overall season title being awarded to Ghisolfi. Here are some other highs and lows from Kranj. 

HIGH

Garnbret, un-trained: It was mentioned on commentary that Garnbret was not even in a training cycle following her Olympic gold medal—which makes her victory at Kranj even more impressive. It was also mentioned that Garnbret was only taking part in the event at Kranj because it happened to take place in her home country. That makes it all sound like a matter of luck that she was even participating, but somehow no outcome would have been better than what we got: Garnbret winning in front of the home crowd, earning a standing ovation, and not even realizing that she had won the overall title until the commentators told her on screen. 

Three cheers for Team USA: Let’s shine the light a little more on Grossman and Bailey finishing so high in the overall Lead season. In the case of Grossman, this entailed making the podium at four events of a five-event Lead season. Incredible. And Bailey won at Villars and Chamonix, and narrowly missed out on the podium at Briançon. There’s so much to love about Team USA right now, and accolades like these put a nice stamp on that. 

Chaehyun’s subtle comeback: Seo led the women’s field for most of the final round, so it was easy to forget that she almost had a disastrous event. In the semi-finals, she missed one of the clips, seemingly not seeing it as she progressed into the headwall. Upon realizing the mistake, she downclimbed in hopes of clipping, rectifying the situation, and continuing. But she fell as she was downclimbing and her highpoint of 37 was eventually downgraded to 36. It was a costly blunder, but it could have been much worse in the scores if the clips had been situated farther apart. 

The wisdom of Stasa: It is always a treat to have Serbia’s Stasa Gejo doing co-commentary in the booth, and the finals at Kranj were no different. She has a talent for being able to get technical in her analysis—talking in detail about muscle groups, for example—while also offering genuine exclamations (“This is insane!”). But what I liked most this time were all Gejo’s little truisms—the kind that could be packaged into a comp training booklet. Two that come to mind are: “If you’re good in Japan, you’ll be good in a World Cup,” and “When the panic kicks in, you stop thinking rationally.”

The Awkward Clip Award: Did you see how Slovenia’s Lana Skušek struggled to pull the rope up, against the inside of her scrunched leg and hooked heel, and clip high on the wall in the semi-finals? It showed incredible poise considering the precarious body position on the edge of a yellow prism-shaped volume. Even the commentators noted how challenging the clip was—but somehow Skušek made it work, clipped the draw, and then rocked onto her foot and continued.

LOW

The knee bump: Japan’s Natsuki Tanii had one of the most unfortunate falls of any competitor in the finals: She was cruising up the route until her own knee inadvertently knocked her hand off a handhold. She finished with a score of 26 but clearly had a lot more in the tank. Still, let her overall season (which included a fifth place finish at Chamonix) be an indicator that she’ll be a force in the coming years. She is only 17 years old and has already become a familiar name in event finals. 

The right-hand doesn’t have it: Upon closer examination, many of the low falls in the men’s final entailed competitors simply being too stretched out. Japan’s Ao Yurikusa couldn’t stick a right-hand crimp (at hold 16) because his feet were too low. And Slovenia’s Milan Preskar tried to reach dynamically past that same crimp—to a slopey pocket in the wall—but would have likely been too extended as well, had he stuck the big move. Still, it was nice having both of them in the finals, and it was even nicer seeing a cruxy move like that so low on the route, as it helped further separate the men’s field. 

See ya, Speed: The oddity of the Olympics’ three-event Combined discipline was underscored when it was revealed by commentator Matt Groom that most Boulder and Lead specialists have already abandoned the Speed discipline entirely—less than a month removed from the Olympics.  Apparently Janja Garnbret has said that she’d be open to working some Speed training into her future training, but Groom was skeptical. I’m skeptical too, although there’s something to be said for Garnbret continuing to do whatever type of training she was doing this year for the Olympics. The results are clearly working for her.  

Lack of Olympians: I’m sure most of the competitors who took part in the Olympics are either enjoying some relaxing downtime now, or busy with public appearances amid newfound fame. I get it. But it was a bummer to not see some of the biggest names of the sport participating at Kranj: No Adam Ondra, no Alex Megos, no Nathaniel Coleman, no Colin Duffy, no Jakob Schubert, no Alberto Ginés López. I wanted to watch them climb and cheer them on. 

MISCELLANEOUS

A tip of the hat is due to the Netherlands’ Jorg Verhoeven, a competition legend who took part in Kranj, his first IFSC World Cup since 2018. I think most fans figured Verhoeven had retired; I certainly did, and even commentator Matt Groom admitted to thinking the same thing. Most impressively, Verhoeven finished in 17th place. 

Grossman’s third-place finish was the highest of any American at Kranj. Other members of Team USA placed as follows: In the women’s division, Julia Duffy placed 32nd, Kylie Cullen placed 40th, Quinn Mason placed 41st, and Ashley Fisher placed 44th. In the men’s division, Bailey placed 15th, Isaac Leff placed 40th, Charlie Osborne placed 49th, and Cody Stevenson placed 52nd.

 

Natalia Grossman battles to the bronze. (Photo: Jan Virt/IFSC)