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Akiyo Noguchi has long climbed in a league of her own when it comes to competition bouldering. The 32-year-old, raised on a cattle farm in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, has racked up 21 Boulder World Cup gold medals in her 16-year career, in addition to four overall Bouldering World Cup wins and three Combined wins. Since 2008, she has placed first or second overall in the IFSC Boulder World Cup every single year save for 2016 and 2017 (when she placed fourth and third, respectively).
The Tokyo Olympics, however, will be Noguchi’s last competition. Already contemplating the finish line in 2016, when she heard climbing would enter the Olympics in 2020, Noguchi officially announced that it would be her final hurrah. “When I heard the news, I decided to play for four more years,” she said in an article published on the official Olympics website. “I’ll give everything for the Tokyo 2020 Games and end my career there. It will be the first time sport climbing is held at an Olympic [Games]. Moreover, it will be held in Japan, my home country. If it was held in another country, or if it were not the first-ever Olympic sport climbing event, I think my motivation would have been different.”
Naturally, Noguchi isn’t just a major player internationally, but in the Japanese scene as well. She remains the only climber to win the bouldering portion of the Japan Climbing Cup nine times in a row. Her reign lasted from 2005 to 2014. She was unseated by Aika Tajima the following year, before coming back to reclaim her title in 2016.
In recent years, Noguchi has seen staunch competition from fellow Japanese climber and Olympian Miho Nonaka, not to mention Slovenian standout Janja Garnbret, who Noguchi called her “number one rival” in the Olympics.com interview. Noguchi qualified for the Olympics after the Hachioji 2019 World Championships, where she took a Bouldering silver, behind Garnbret.
Noguchi mentioned that she felt the Olympic postponement and cancellation of the 2020 IFSC season was, however, something of a boon for her. “Not having any of these competitions allowed me to reflect on my climbing carefully, and that was a huge plus for me. I’m still not satisfied with my climbing; I feel there is so much room to improve. There is a huge gap between the way I want to climb and my actual climbing. My endurance during lead climbing, my power in bouldering, my explosiveness in speed… It was great that I had a year to work on these elements I needed to improve.”
Noguchi’s 2021 season started out somewhat lukewarm, with a fourth-place finish in Meiringen in April (Garnbret took first place). She wrote on Instagram, “After I finished the Final, I have only one thing to think about ‘I want to be strong.’” She didn’t manage to make finals in Salt Lake City during the season’s second Boulder World Cup in May, placing 18th in Bouldering with a 13th place finish in Speed.
It’s worth noting that at 32, Noguchi is among the older climbers competing in Tokyo (Bassa Mawem [FRA] is the oldest, at 36). She’s also undoubtedly a bouldering specialist (though she has secured a number of Lead podiums), and her performance in 2021 thus far hasn’t been top shelf.
Still, she stands high as one of the most experienced and consistent climbers on the roster, one who has managed to keep a stranglehold over the international competitive scene spanning back to years when some of her fellow Olympians were still in diapers (not to mention the fact that she’ll be competing on her home turf in Tokyo). “I’ve competed in the World Cup since I was 16 [in other words… for half of her life], so I think I have more experience and intuitions than most players,” she said in the above interview.
Add that to the fact that she’ll be going all-in for the final, and biggest, competition of her life, and it’s indisputable that Akiyo Noguchi will be one to watch in Tokyo this August.
Feature image by Eddie Fowke