Left to Right: Ashima Shiraishi, Tom Schaar, Alex Johnson
Taylor Ballantyne

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  • Thanks to the inclusion of new sports, a whole new group of athletes now has Olympic dreams.
By Charlotte Carroll
July 26, 2019

If climber Alex Johnson makes the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, blame it on Taylor Swift. 

While pop music and climbing may not seem to have much in common, the athlete and singer do share a birth year—1989. And it was at a Swift concert last year that Johnson says she didn’t originally want to attend where she was inspired to get back into competing. 

Now the 30-year-old Johnson is one year out from the 2020 Games and looking to make a squad that will be the first ever in its sport at the Olympics. Sport climbing joins skateboarding, baseball/softball, surfing and karate as new additions to the Games that could introduce the public not only to seasoned vets like Johnson, but younger stars that have stood out in their sports since they were children. 

Skateboarder Tom Schaar—who was the first ever to complete a 1080 at the age of 12—thought he’d be waiting around for the Olympics until he was too old to contend. He’s now 19 with eight X Games medals to his name. Ashima Shiraishi, who has been climbing into record books since she got her start at 6 years old on a Central Park rock, remembers growing up idolizing Olympians and wanting to one day be on that stage. 

Now the moment is a year out, and they’re looking at it as a chance to really grow their respective sports. And to introduce new viewers to what are normally very individualized sports, placed in a competition format.

"Taking these wild and extreme sports that have been on the outskirts gives them a little more legitimacy in sport," Johnson said. "It's not just this hobby. Skateboarding, rock climbing and surfing, they’re hobbies to some people and now giving it the rings legitimizes it as a sport and as a competitive sport."

Check out SI's full 2020 Olympics preview, with athletes and storylines to watch now that we are one year out from the Games.

One of the key questions when adding the sports to the Games was the competition format. Sport Climbing will be made up of three events that are usually competed separately: bouldering, speed climbing and lead climbing. In bouldering, climbers navigate a course in a fixed amount of time. In speed climbing, two athletes will race up a 15-meter wall, and in lead climbing, competitors will try to climb as high as they can up a 15-meter wall within six minutes. The inclusion of all three has frustrated climbers who know how difficult it is to become a master of just one or two. But it’s a step forward and was necessary to get the sport in the Olympics. 

Meanwhile, skateboarding will feature two disciplines to medal in: street and park. The street course will feature ramps and rails for riders to perform tricks. The park course is the same one used for BMX park and resembles an empty swimming pool in which riders will complete a routine.

While Schaar, Shiraishi and others make up the new generation, one legend is still debating a Tokyo run. Shaun White, one of skateboarding’s most famous active athletes, announced he would compete in the skateboarding world championships in September. The 32-year-old entered his first skateboarding contest in years in September but he's a master of the sport, winning five X Games skateboard medals between 2005 and 2011. But he won all of those in vert, which will not be an Olympic program. Schaar, who has skated with White a few times, said he wouldn’t be surprised if he made the Olympics, given White’s odds have been stacked against him previously. And, of course, White is a three-time Olympic gold medalist as a snowboarder at the Winter Games.

Like White, Johnson is hoping her years of experience, plus some added time coaching before the Taylor Swift concert got her back into competition, help her make the Games. The climber had written herself off before, based on age, but has taken a different approach since her return. Her increased training and better diet and strategy game? In a way, she says it’s Swift’s fault.  

But Johnson has an idea on what the singer would say if she were somehow to find that she is to blame for an Olympian’s quest. 

"She’s going to be like, 'Huh interesting,'" Johnson says. "Because I preface every time I [tell the story] that I didn’t want to be there. She’s going to be like, ‘Great OK, you're welcome.'"

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