Top of the rock: Speed climbing comes to Olympics, Rockville

Rock climbing will become an Olympic sport at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, featuring a mix of three disciplines: bouldering, lead climbing, and speed climbing. While the latter might be the most foreign right now, it seems to have every ingredient to be a breakout sport on the international stage next summer.

The races are fast and exciting. They’re finished quickly enough to fit the entire video on the social media platform of your choice. They even have a nostalgic pull, for those of us that grew up watching American Gladiators (albeit, minus the spandex-adorned, muscle-bound hulk grabbing at competitors’ ankles).

But, surprisingly, speed climbing hasn’t really caught on as quickly in America as in other parts of the world. At Earth Treks in Rockville, even Cyrus Capuzzo-Hojaji, the instructor running the clinic, has only been speed climbing for about six months.

“Speed climbing was always kind of seen in a different light than sport climbing or bouldering,” he told WTOP. “It’s just a really quick, fun, easy way to climb.”

In some ways, speed climbing is the antithesis of other forms of the sport. Rather than use a wealth of knowledge and skill in a unique way to climb a mountain, speed climbers follow a heavily rehearsed set of scripted movements, powering through them as quickly as possible. Instead of approaching a rock with many different paths to the top, there is a single, uniform wall, identical in nearly every way, all around the world, on which climbers compete.

The speed climbing wall is 15 meters high. It is set at a five degree overhang angle just past vertical, back toward the competitors below. Each hold is the same size and shape, bolted to the wall the exact same angle. The only material difference, between official World Cup courses and community climbing gyms, is the wall surface itself.

The official competition wall is made by Bulgarian company Walltopia and is much tackier. That allows climbers to use their shoes to push directly off the wall itself in some spots, rather than searching blindly, midrace for footholds, a technique called smearing.

Despite the uniformity of the course, there have already been innovations. A move to streamline the route, skipping the fourth hand hold altogether, was named after Reza Alipour, the Iranian who currently holds the world record at 5.48 seconds.

Adam Grossman calls “The Reza” the Fosbury Flop of speed climbing. It’s an analogy that fits coming from him, as a former Division I track sprinter at UMBC now in his mid-30s who picked up speed climbing a couple years ago. He’s the quick climber in the video at the top of the article, climbing a 10-meter wall that replicates the lower two-thirds of the full, 15-meter speed climbing competition wall.

“You don’t necessarily need to have an extensive climbing background to learn this and be good at it — what you need to be is explosive,” Grossman told WTOP. “I think if you had an elite sprinter that decided to try their hands at this, and they spent a lot of time practicing, I think they could become a world-class speed climber.”

Grossman competed in the 2019 Sport and Speed Open Nationals, which were held in Alexandria in March. The winner, American record holder John Brosler, posted a time of 6.26 seconds. Grossman isn’t at that level, especially with competitors in their primes, a decade or more younger than him. He expects the popularity surge after the Olympics to bring a whole new wave of young climbers to the sport.

“I think you’re going to have a bunch of 10-, 11-year-olds at home watching it,” he said. “Then making their parents drag them out to a gym to start learning it.”

Mike Downey, with Earth Treks, sees the particular appeal of the discipline.

“I think speed climbing is the clearest objective in climbing,” he said. “If you watch rope climbers and boulderers, it can be kind of hard to tell what’s going on. It’s really incredible, but it’s a little difficult to understand just from an observer.”

Still, he warns that it’s not as easy as it looks, especially for those with no climbing background.

“Technically, there’s a lot to learn,” said Downey. “Having that experience coming in doing regular rope climbing or bouldering is going to build that foundation so then you can go up there and have some pretty good success.”

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