It’s ‘An Incredible Race’ For Climbing’s First Olympic Hopefuls

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4min 41sec

Originally published on December 2, 2019 5:18 pm

Rock climbing is making its debut in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the U.S. national team is training in Salt Lake City. For the eight elite athletes who make up the team, the games will represent a high point in their career.

“It’s a really exciting prospect,” says 23-year-old climber Kyra Condie. “I’ve always been a really big fan of the Olympics. The idea of being there is just crazy to me.”

But getting there is an uphill climb. Only a handful of the team members will win spots in the games — right now Condie is preparing for a qualifier in France. She leaps onto a wall and climbs like a cat — controlled and easy. 

Most commercial climbing facilities are multi-million dollar complexes. But the U.S. team’s training facility is housed in a cold, dark warehouse near downtown Salt Lake City. The only thing that lets you know it’s special is a team flag hanging from the ceiling. 

“The space is a little dingy,” says assistant coach Meg Coyne. “But it’s ours and we love it. It’s great for the training we’re doing.”

Coyne is tasked with getting a climbing team into shape. This is the first year the U.S. national team has funded athletes and travelled internationally as a team. They havet less than a year before the Olympics and Coyne says they lag behind other countries who have been building their teams for years. 

“It feels like an incredible race,” she says. 

Japan especially is a powerhouse, according to Coyne. So if the U.S. wants a shot at winning gold, they need to practice hard — this includes “spending skin on the wall.”

“Spending skin means you quite literally wipe off your skin when you’re training a lot,” Coyne explains. “Particularly your fingertips.”

But with only a handful of days before the qualifying event in France, Condi is taking it pretty easy. Her expertise is in a style called bouldering. It’s like the crossfit of climbing — combining power, balance and technique. The wall is only about 20 feet tall and soft mats are used for safety instead of ropes and harnesses. 

Condie is also adept at speed climbing. For that style, the wall is higher and climbers have a harness and rope for safety. Athletes race each other up identical routes.

Then, there’s lead climbing. This is probably what most people picture when they think of rock climbing. There are ropes and harnesses and the routes are often steep and 50 feet or taller. Whoever gets highest up on the wall without falling wins.

Normally, these three styles are separated into different competitive sporting events. But next year’s Olympics are combining them all into a single event. Senm McColl, president of the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Athletes’ Commission, told National Geographic it was a necessary constraint to get climbing into the games. 

“It’s really hard as a new sport that’s never been seen much on TV, or by anyone very far outside of climbing, to come and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this great sport, we want four medals per gender, and 160 athlete spots.’ There are constraints in the Olympics,” he said. 

Condie says the combined event is like competing in a triathlon. 

“I’m definitely mega stressed out,” she says. “But I’ve also been talking to a sports psych and that’s been really helpful, actually.”

A sports psychologist is someone who helps an athlete reduce stress and focus at the task at hand. 

Credit Nate Hegyi / Mountain West News Bureau
U.S. national climbing team member Kyra Condie practices bouldering at a training facility in downtown Salt Lake City.

“Like, you don’t want to be competing and thinking, ‘Oh my God, am I going to make the Olympics?” she says.

But despite Condie’s enthusiasm, climbing in the Olympics isn’t for everyone. Alex Honnold, star of the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo,” told one news outlet that he wouldn’t even qualify for the Olympics because it tests a different skill set than his — he is known for 1,000-foot climbing giant cliff sides, outside, without ropes. But this is an indoor, competitive version of the sport. Not everyone likes it. Patagonia founder Yvon Choinard says this kind of climbing has stripped the sport of its essence as a purist outdoor endeavor. 

“Sport climbing is indoor climbing,” he told the podcast MeatEater. “It’s climbing with no risk involved.”

Choinard would know. Before founding his outdoor apparel company, he was a climbing pioneer in the 20th century

Condie acknowledges this tension between climbing camps.

“There’s always been this trash talk between climbing,” she says. “But I don’t personally like it when people hate on one aspect versus another because we all love the same thing. We all love climbing.”

Now Condie will act as a new kind of pioneer in the sport by becoming one of the first climbers to compete in the Olympic games.

Update: On November 30, Kyra Condie earned a spot in the Olympics after reaching the finals of a qualifier in Toulouse, France. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Kyra Condie's last name. It is Condie, not Condi.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

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