USA Climbing 2021 National Team Trials: Highs and Lows

 

In the lead-up to the recent National Team Trials, USA Climbing made a promotional point that it had been 409 days since the last “championship-level” competition. 409 days is a long time, but the number doesn’t fully convey the many challenges and difficulties of climbing’s pandemic hiatus. Within those 409 days were athlete quarantines, gym shutdowns, event postponements and cancellations at the national and international level…not to mention all the other mental, physical, and emotional coronavirus woes. So, almost out of necessity, the National Team Trials at High Point Climbing and Fitness in Memphis, Tennessee, made up for lost time and accommodated all the pent-up climbing stoke. 

Over the event’s five-day span, fans were treated (virtually, as no spectators were allowed to attend in-person) to memorable performances in all three disciplines, veteran faces and new names on the scene, and most importantly, an anointing of the American competitors who will represent Team USA on the IFSC’s forthcoming World Cup circuit.  

In the lead climbing discipline, Sean Bailey cruised through the early rounds of the men’s division and won in the final round by climbing more than four scored holds higher than any other competitor. In fact, Bailey fell while throwing for the top hold, and garnered praise from commentator Meagan Martin for being one of the most exciting competitors to watch. Kyra Condie was nearly unstoppable in the women’s lead discipline, achieving the highest rank in the semi-finals and finishing the finals in first place as well. 

The women’s bouldering discipline saw Natalia Grossman, the reigning Bouldering National Champion, become the only woman to top all four boulders in the National Team Trials’ final round. In the men’s division, Ross Fulkerson separated himself from the field early by being the only competitor to top the first two boulders in the finals. He continued the round by keeping his feet low to progress through the slab crux of the third boulder. But on his heels the whole time was Nathaniel Coleman, who topped the first and third boulders. The round came down to the fourth boulder: Fulkerson secured the zone, but couldn’t match the top. Coleman, who had to reach the top of the boulder to win, sussed out the beta on an initial attempt, and on a second attempt pinpointed a far right-hand jib on the top hold. This allowed Coleman to match at the top with his left-hand in the most tense few seconds of the day. With the heart-pounding ascent, Coleman secured the victory. “There was a lot of doubt going through my head back in isolation—it seemed like a few of the other competitors were pulling ahead,” Coleman admitted after his win. “I knew that the last boulder was my last chance, and it’s pretty satisfying to have it come together.” 

 Coleman’s showdown with Fulkerson and that vital ascent of the fourth boulder were among the most thrilling moments of the entire competition. But the standout discipline of the Team Trials was speed climbing. New American records were established in the men’s division by John Broslerand the women’s division by Emma Hunt. Brosler clocked a historic time of 5.62 seconds in the men’s qualification round (.14 off of Iranian Reza Alipour’s world record) shortly after Noah Bratschi broke the preexisting men’s national record by clocking a blazing 5.85. In a hotly anticipated men’s final heat, Merrit Ernsberger beat Brosler to earn a win and conclude a round in which Ernsberger had virtually no slip-ups or stumbles on the speed wall. And Hunt incredibly broke the women’s American speed record every time she participated in a speed heat during the women’s final round—clocking 7.95, then 7.76, and ultimately finishing the event with a personal best of 7.56 seconds. With that new American record, Hunt is now only .60 seconds off of Russian climber Iuliia Kaplina’s world record. 

Here’s a closer look at some of the other good and not-so-good aspects of the weekend’s event. Results and the National Team selections are listed at the bottom.

 

HIGHS

 

The Return to Comp Action: It’s worth reiterating how great it was to have high-level American competition climbing back. The fact that this was also the first time the United States’ national team was determined via an eponymous trial event with rounds of separate disciplines (as opposed to the disciplines being melded into a Combined format) gave the proceedings even more gravitas. But I always love the smaller storylines too, separate from the results and the magnitude of the event itself—and these National Team Trials had subtle narratives in spades. First, there were a number of promising youths (15-year-old Olivia Ma, 16-year-old Julia Duffy, and 17-year-old Campbell Sarinopoulos to name a few) taking part in their first adult-level competition; it will be fun to watch their climbing progress in years to come. Second, there were a number of young competitors, such as Quinn O’Francia, who boldly participated in all three disciplines. There was a rousing moment when another young competitor, Zander Waller, withdrew from the lead discipline following a pulley injury, but then returned for the bouldering discipline. I’m not advocating competitors trying to “climb through” finger injuries, but it was inspiring to witness Waller’s tenacity. To top it off, an announcement was made on the livestream that USA Climbing and Climbing Escalade Canada have partnered for a forthcoming North American Cup Series; this mini-circuit will feature five events throughout North America. Back-to-back World Cup events in Salt Lake City in May are on the horizon too, ensuring that there will be plenty more competition climbing action to come.   

 

Grossman Redux: About a year and a half ago, I wrote that Natalia Grossman was “America’s new comp superstar.” She was undefeated on the 2019 National Cup circuit, and then she capped off that season by winning the 2020 Bouldering Open Nationals. Despite the pause on comps, these National Team Trials proved that Grossman is still crushing. Grossman’s bouldering at the Team Trials was masterful, perhaps best illustrated by her flash of the burly fourth boulder in finals. Just as notable was Grossman’s success in the lead discipline, where she placed second and proved that she has broadened her skill set. 

 

Routesetting Goodies: I knew we were in for some surprises when USA Climbing released a route preview on YouTube for the men’s qualification rounds and a “double-mono” went viral; people were discussing it online, competitors were chiming in, and friends were texting me about it. But the double-mono was just the beginning. Over the course of the event, we also saw a rare instance of slab being featured in a lead route (best illustrated by Nathaniel Coleman’s ballet-esque rest at 1:39:33 in the livestream), a nimble volume trot that progressed to a dyno in the women’s bouldering finals, and a “palm-tree shimmy” up a long, vertical volume in the women’s lead final. Even a fist-jam in the women’s semi-final lead round was clever and memorable, despite its creation of a bottleneck in the scores; it allowed for some interesting variations, such as Kylie Szilagyi fist-jamming with her palm facing outward, and Thea Wulff opting to jam her wrist instead of her fist. The whole crew of routesetters, forerunners, and helpers—Brad Weaver, Ryan Sewell, Chris LoCrasto, and others—deserve high praise. At one point, Alex Johnson noted on commentary that the routes were possibly some of the most fun she had ever seen. I’d second that. 

 

Olympic Confidence: Heading into this event, the four American Olympians—Brooke Raboutou, Kyra Condie, Nathaniel Coleman, and Colin Duffy—already possessed places on the National Team. So it was better to consider the Team Trials like a formal exercise for them, as their training is designed so they’ll peak at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. That being said, it was evident that the Olympic prep is going extremely well for each of them, and that should amp up the Olympic psyche of all American fans. Each Olympian had shining moments during the Team Trials: Condie advanced to the finals of the women’s speed discipline and clocked a personal best time of 8.05 seconds; Coleman and Raboutou both made podiums in the bouldering and lead disciplines. And Duffy gave the men’s bouldering finals a jolt of excitement when he was awarded a top on the second boulder that was soon retracted because he did not demonstrate adequate control; he was then given two extra minutes to attempt to top the boulder again, which he did without being the least bit rattled by the unique situation. Much credit is due to the time each Olympian has spent at USA Climbing’s National Team Training Center under the guidance of American head coach Josh Larson. If the American Olympians look this strong now, the sky’s the limit for what they might be able to accomplish when the Olympics kick off in approximately four months.  

 

Commentary Competence: I’ll admit to being in the minority in saying that I didn’t mind when ESPN brought in commentators Sam Farber and Sean Woodland—each of whom are more used to calling sports like basketball and baseball—for the broadcasts of USA Climbing’s championships in 2019. I want competition climbing to become the biggest sport in the world, so I’m open to ancillary elements (like commentary) from other sports that possess much broader audiences and greater lucrative potential. But former competitors Alex Johnson and Meagan Martin quickly slipped into a welcomed rapport on the National Team Trials livestream. Their analysis was buffered equally by their climbing insight and their longtime friendship. At one point, they went deep into a discussion on the varying surfaces of climbing wall panels, and such a topic would not have been so expertly dissected had it not been for their extensive, collective climbing experience. Among other highlights, Johnson and Martin also analyzed Brooke Raboutou’s penchant for sticking the toe of her climbing shoe into holds’ bolt holes for purchase; they explained the upward motion with which Emma Hunt typically hits the buzzer at the top of the speed wall for maximized efficiency; and, essentially, they made the event appealing to knowledgeable fans and new viewers alike, which is always the objective for any commentary.  

 

LOWS

 

Early Departures: Anytime fields are as stacked with talent as they were for all disciplines of the Team Trials, you know there are going to be some surprising upsets, shockingly low falls, and heartbreaking cuts heading into later rounds. I wanted to see what Joe Goodacre and Dylan Barks could do in the men’s division on the finals’ lead route; I had high hopes for circuit veteran Sienna Kopf advancing to the bouldering finals; I wanted to see Palmer Larsen compete side-by-side in a finals with his friend and former climbing pupil Nathaniel Coleman. Sadly, those scenarios and many others were not to be at the Team Trials. Luckily, there was some redemption for a number of competitors in later portions of the event. For example, Quinn Mason powered back from 16th place in the bouldering discipline to match the then-highpoint and temporarily take the lead in the women’s lead semi-finals (and finish the round in ninth place). It might feel like an exercise in searching for silver lining, but it’s worth repeating that this event featured a field of the best American competitors. There was no such thing as a terrible place in the results, no matter how discouraging some of the early exits were. 

 

Pathway Perplexity: For most of the event, the selection process for the National Team was straightforward. The four American Olympians were already on the National Team, so additional team spots were awarded to the top three non-Olympian finishers in the bouldering and the lead disciplines. However, things got a little more complicated in the speed climbing discipline, where the National Team selections were awarded to the first-place finisher at the event, as well as the competitor with the fastest time at the event, and the competitor with the second-fastest time at the event—along with the Olympians. The pathway itself is logical; it gives some importance to fast times since a small mistake in a speed run can be so costly given the tournament-like bracket format. But it is not the easiest process to briefly explain or quickly understand, and I’m sure there were some fans who were a bit confused.  

 

Downward Danger: As mentioned above, the routesetting overall was stellar. But there was a move within the first boulder of the women’s finals that gave me pause. The beta, as demonstrated by Brooke Raboutou at 37:12 in the livestream, entailed a big swing and then a release—essentially a dynamic movement—to reach a zone hold that is clearly lower on the wall. In the midst of the competition, I thumbed through the USA Climbing Rulebook and found precisely what I was seeking: Under the Field of Play section in the Bouldering chapter (8.2.2.ii, if you’d like to check yourself), the rules state that boulders should be designed “without any downward jumps.” In case you’re wondering whether Raboutou’s beta was an anomaly, Natalia Grossman used essentially the same beta at 41:23 in the livestream, as did Kyra Condie at 18:45. I suppose the technicality is that this movement could be deemed a downward catch from a swing rather than a downward jump—maybe? Or maybe the routesetters expected competitors to somehow go down statically. Regardless, the rule is in place because any dynamic downward movement can be really dangerous, so watching competitors continually utilize the dynamic beta made me nervous. 

 

Results 

 

Men’s lead (top 5 are on the National Team)

  1. Sean Bailey
  2. Nathaniel Coleman
  3. Colin Duffy
  4. Timothy Kang
  5. Ellis Ernsberger
  6. Ross Fulkerson
  7. Ben Hanna
  8. Quin O’Francia

 

Women’s lead (top 5 are on the National Team)

  1. Kyra Condie
  2. Natalia Grossman
  3. Brooke Raboutou
  4. Ashima Shiraishi
  5. Maya Madere
  6. Julia Duffy
  7. Matti Dennis
  8. Cloe Coscoy

 

Men’s bouldering (top 5 are on the National Team)

  1. Nathaniel Coleman
  2. Ross Fulkerson
  3. Colin Duffy
  4. John Brock
  5. Ben Hanna
  6. Sean Bailey

 

Women’s bouldering (top 5 are on the National Team)

  1. Natalia Grossman
  2. Kyra Condie
  3. Brooke Raboutou
  4. Kylie Cullen
  5. Campbell Sarinopoulos
  6. Megan Lynch

 

Men’s Speed National Team (based on placement, fastest times, and the preexisting Olympic berths)

  1. Merrit Ernsberger
  2. John Brosler
  3. Noah Bratschi
  4. Nathaniel Coleman
  5. Colin Duffy

 

Women’s Speed National Team (based on placement, fastest times, and the preexisting Olympic berths)

  1. Emma Hunt
  2. Kyra Condie
  3. Julia Duffy
  4. Callie Close
  5. Brooke Raboutou

 

Feature image by Luke Webster

 

 


 

 

Also Read

USA Climbing, in Partnership with Climbing Escalade Canada, Announces North American Cup Series

  • John Burgman is the author of High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing. He frequently reports on climbing’s Olympic inclusion and also coaches a youth bouldering team.

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