After an exhilarating men’s combined final on Thursday, all eyes were on the women’s competitors on Friday. In a word: it was riveting.
Janja Garnbret of Slovenia captured the gold medal after dominating the bouldering and lead rounds. The remaining medals went to Japan—silver to up-and-coming boulderer Miho Nonaka and bronze to 32-year-old Akiyo Noguchi, closing out her legendary sport climbing career with a copper-tinted capstone.
Team USA’s hope for a medal lay with Brooke Raboutou, of Boulder, Colo., after Minnesotan Kyra Condie did not advance to the finals. Throughout the competition, Condie could be seen in the stands with fellow U.S. team members Nathaniel Coleman, who took silver in the men’s finals yesterday, and 17-year-old Colin Duffy. All three were decked out in red Team USA gear, cheering Raboutou on.
The presence of speed climbing specialists Anouck Jaubert, of France, and Aleksandra Miroslaw, of Poland, made for an explosive speed round, which through its tournament format, whittled down the competition until only the fastest scalers faced off against one another. After the quarterfinals, Miroslaw, Jaubert, Nonaka and Noguchi advanced to the next round. The two Japanese climbers lost their respective races, left to battle it out for third and fourth place. It was a tight race throughout its brief span, but Nonaka pulled ahead in the final few meters in an impressive demonstration of speed and muscle memory. Noguchi scaled the wall in 8.42 seconds, but Nonaka came in at 7.99 seconds, securing third place in the discipline, while Noguchi took fourth.
The final showdown came down to the two specialists. Jaubert had a powerful, energetic start, but there was no stopping Miroslaw, who finished with a world record time of 6.84 seconds, beating the previous mark of 6.96 seconds and taking first in the overall competition. Jaubert took second, her 8.84 lost in the shadow of Miroslaw’s crowning moment.
In the next discipline, the first bouldering challenge, or problem, was described by route-setters as the most difficult of the three. Its opening moves required athletes to travel horizontally across prismatic protrusions, balancing carefully while maintaining enough momentum to jump to their next anchor point, all at a very tricky angle.
In what would become a pattern for the bouldering round, speed specialists like Miroslaw and Jaubert struggled to remain on the wall, let alone complete the climb. Balancing maneuvers seemed to be particularly challenging for Miroslaw, who did not reach the midway checkpoint, or “zone,” on any of the three problems. In B1, athletes had to hug the wall with little to grab for stability—a skill that wouldn’t typically show up in a speed climber’s training. The specialists weren’t alone—the climb also proved exceedingly difficult for even the most seasoned boulderers in the competition.
Known for her gymnastic abilities and creative approach to climbing, the 20-year-old Raboutou zoned in an impressive contorting move and went on to advance farther than any other athlete thus far, very nearly solving the problem. In a nail-biting moment, she was able to get both hands on the top hold, but didn’t demonstrate the control necessary for the judges to consider it a successful completion. When she fell from the top hold, the audience audibly gasped—most of all her teammates in the crowd, watching wide-eyed with their hands over their mouths. Only Garbret, the two-time world champion in bouldering, was able to successfully top the problem.
The best boulderers know how to use their angles to their advantage—rather than a static front-facing approach, they contort, using their entire bodies in the vertical ascent. The second boulder problem—an intimidating route composed of large triangular forms and few holds—tested this skill, demanding that athletes twist and turn in harmony with the problem.
Climbers such as Noguchi, Nonaka and Raboutou were able to zone by inching slowly up the problem in a painstaking show of athleticism. But in an unusual twist, the route-setters had something different in mind when they designed the problem. Instead of facing the wall during the first move, climbers were meant to face the audience—something rarely seen in bouldering, or climbing in general. Based on the arrangement of the first few holds, the easiest way to start the problem would be to face outwards as the climber hoists herself off the ground.
Once again, Raboutou’s flexibility and willingness to contort got her tantalizingly close to a finish, as, with zero seconds left on the clock, she jumped to the final hold in a Hail Mary attempt. Even if she hadn’t fallen, she would have been out of time, but she had still advanced farther than anyone in the competition—that is, until Gambret stepped up to the mat. It was deja vu—once again, Garnbret blew the competition out of the water, succeeding where Raboutou had just barely faltered. Hanging from the top hold, she slapped it repeatedly in victory.
In topping both climbs, Gambret secured herself first place in the bouldering discipline without even reaching the third problem, which was the only one that went untopped by every contestant. Raboutou finished the discipline in second place and Nonaka in third.
After a grueling bouldering round, lead came as a relief to many of the athletes, who began to excel again in the comfort of a rope and a far more climbable course. Miroslaw fell after 9 moves, but nonetheless exited on the high note of a world record in the speed round and the promise of a medaled speed climbing event in Paris in 2024. Her fellow speed climber, Jaubert, joined her on the couch shortly after.
Raboutou, a lead specialist and one of the most promising contenders in the discipline, was up next. Though she was expected to ascend deep into the route, she slipped out of a two-finger hold about twenty moves in. Her disappointment was evident as she held her head in her hands on the way down—the fall had taken her out of the running for an Olympic medal.
As Raboutou recovered, Noguchi began her final competitive climb. She reached 28 moves before she fell, a satisfying end to an iconic career. She bade farewell to the crowd and left the stage, settling on the couch next to her co-competitors to watch Garnbret’s ascension.
Garnbret had only to pass Noguchi to secure a first place slot overall. Though it wasn’t a surprise when she reached the magic 29th move, the audience roared, growing in volume with each successive hold. Mere meters from the top but visibly exhausted, Garnbret fell on the 37th move, setting a steep goal for Nonaka, the next on the wall.
For her to have a shot at the Olympic title, she would need to pass Garnbret’s score of 37+. But when Nonaka prematurely fell on the same hold that ended Raboutou’s climb, the gold was Garnbret’s. In one slip, it became a fight for silver and bronze.
Austria’s Jessica Pilz came three holds away from the target of 37+, an impressive ascension that nonetheless would put her too low to medal. With Nonaka and Noguchi in second and third place respectively, Korean lead specialist Seo Chae-hyun needed to surpass Garnbret’s score to earn bronze. She stepped up to the wall, the final contestant of the night. Her peers watched rapt from the couch as the 17-year-old elegantly executed move after move, inching towards bronze with each one. She fell just short of medaling, surpassing Nogachi’s mark but not Pilz’s.
Her impressive climb secured the last of the podium—gold for Garnbret, silver for Nonaka and bronze for Noguchi. Raboutou finished in fifth overall. Garnbret’s competitors celebrated alongside her as sport climbing closed out its historic Olympic premiere.
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