When the Olympics begin in Tokyo later this week, 17-year-old Colin Duffy of Broomfield is ready and waiting to compete in a sport that's never been in the Games before – sport climbing.
It’s one of six new sports added to the Summer Games this year, including surfing, skateboarding, karate, baseball, and softball.
Duffy thinks the elevation of his sport to Olympic status is a “super monumental” game-changer and he says it’s been a long time coming.
“I think climbing is a very unique sport,” Duffy told Colorado Matters. “It's pretty big in Colorado since we have lots of mountains and lots of climbing gyms, but in other places of the country, it's not well-known.”
Now Duffy, one of four athletes on the US climbing team, will be seen scaling colorful synthetic-rock-studded walls on televisions across the globe.
All sport climbing athletes will compete in three disciplines in the Tokyo games: lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing. And each person’s final score will be a combination of how they fare across the board.
Duffy believes his biggest edge is in lead climbing. “I've had the most success there,” he said.
In lead climbing, the athlete uses a rope and other gear as they scale the wall. The objective is to get as close to the top of the route as they can. “The routes are difficult and a good test of endurance and really push athletes to the max,” Duffy said.
Bouldering is similar, but without ropes.
And then there’s speed climbing.
In lead climbing and bouldering, “every time you compete, the route is different and the movements are nothing like you've exactly seen before and problem solving is really important,” said Duffy. Speed climbing, on the other hand, uses a standardized route and is the same every time. So training for that discipline, Duffy says, can feel very different.
Watching videos of Duffy swinging and leaping from black hold to blue hold to yellow hold to red is like watching some kind of strange but elegant dance. “Whenever I'm in the zone,” he said, “things just feel more effortless than in a normal training session. That adrenaline rushing through my body really helps me to be at my peak strength and kind of feel like you're defying gravity.”
Duffy says he’s kind of always been a climber. “I would always climb on furniture at the house, like exercise bikes and the railings.” He discovered wall-climbing when he was just four years old at a local recreation center. “I was really psyched to get on the wall and try to ring the bell at the top.” And then when he was about seven or eight he started taking it more seriously. “That's when I found real climbing gyms,” he said.
And he rose quickly to the top. He was just 13 when he won his first youth world championships. And just 16 -- a high school sophomore -- when he qualified for the Olympics.
He says he doesn’t mind all the buzz about his age. “I think it's pretty crazy how young I qualified,” Duffy said, “and I guess it's cool that people recognize that.”
He also says his age gave him an advantage when the 2020 summer Olympics were postponed due to COVID-19. It might have been a blow to older athletes worried that waiting another year could hurt their chances in competition. “For me personally,” said Duffy, “I think it was a good thing. Being so young and growing and having that extra year to train has been super beneficial.”
Managing training during a pandemic, all while being a kid
Training during the pandemic was not exactly what he was used to though. Most climbing gyms were closed so he trained on a wall his parents built him in the basement of their house. “I won't say it's very good,” said Duffy, “but it's just making the most of the space.”
He also had the Great Outdoors. “Being in Colorado, I was able to climb outside instead of training in a gym,” he said.
Having nearby rocks and mountains to train on may have helped another Team USA climber. 20-year-old Brooke Raboutou of Boulder is Duffy’s longtime climbing friend. Her mother, Robin Raboutou is the founder of Team ABC, the gym where they both grew up climbing and training. “Brooke has been a part of my training ever since I was a little kid,” said Duffy. “It's super cool to have someone I know so well be on the Olympic team with me. And it's awesome that two out of the four team members are from Colorado.”
Duffy says being an Olympian can sometimes get in the way of high school academics. But he tries to plan his schedule so he has time for both. And he plans to go into engineering in college. He says his math teacher is also a climber and he thinks there may be a connection between the two. Climbing is physical, but also very much about problem-solving. “So,” he said, “I think a lot of people that enjoy solving real life problems also enjoy climbing for that reason.”
Duffy spoke to Colorado Matters just days before he flew to Japan. He said he was looking forward to the mental focus of being in Tokyo preparing to compete without the distractions of everyday life. You know, he said, “like every day having to go run errands with my parents.”
The sport climbing events in Tokyo will take place August 3rd - 5th.
More stories to read about Colorado and the Olympics
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