For Olympic climber Brooke Raboutou, every wall is a puzzle to be solved as much as conquered.
Each presents different challenges and requires a dynamic blend of strength, speed and patience.
Raboutou, 20, has spent nearly her entire life solving these problems, zipping up towering indoor walls, hanging from precarious ledges by just her fingertips, escaping impossible impasses with equal parts ingenuity and muscle.
Her family has been likened to Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” the animated family of superheroes, for the mind-bending athleticism they exhibit in competitive sport climbing.
A college student who was raised in Boulder, Colo., Raboutou is helping to push her sport to new heights. Sport climbing will make its Olympic debut this summer in Tokyo as Olympic organizers, who fear diminishing interest and relevance in the massive quadrennial sporting event, have expanded the scope of the Games in hopes of luring a younger audience. So alongside traditional events such as swimming, running and wrestling, these Tokyo Games will feature sports that traditionally have been better suited for energy drink commercials and the X Games: climbing, surfing and skateboarding.
Sport climbing at the Olympics
At the Olympics, competitors will be expected to excel in three disciplines: speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing, with each posing different challenges. The climbers who reach the medals podium will be the ones who fare well in all three disciplines.
As Kyra Condie, a fellow Tokyo-bound climber for Team USA, points out, the 140-year-old Latin Olympic motto is the perfect descriptor for one of the country’s fastest-growing sports.
“It really relates to climbing, I think,” Condie said. “Higher is lead climbing, faster is speed climbing, and stronger is bouldering. It’s kind of cool there’s that relation.”
Competitors race each other up a wall towering 50 feet with 31 holds on it.
The wall and its holds have been the same for the past 14 years.
The key is memorizing a path and mastering it.
The clock starts when a climber steps off a pressure plate and doesn’t stop until he or she hits a button at the top. In between, it’s a blur of carefully orchestrated movements as climbers launch themselves from hold to hold, leaping with their legs and pulling with their arms in a lightning-fast vertical dance.
The fastest men in the world can do this in less than six seconds; the fastest women, in less than seven; and most of the Tokyo competitors should be under 10.
The decision to combine three disciplines into a single format in Tokyo didn’t make climbers happy. For the most part, the world’s fastest speed climbers aren’t competing in Tokyo because their more narrowly focused skills don’t always translate as well to the other disciplines, which require more raw power and quick problem-solving skills. Olympic organizers have decided to make speed climbing its own medal event at the Paris Games in 2024, and many climbers hope for three separate events by 2028.
Raboutou had always competed in all three disciplines but took advantage of the year-long postponement to fine-tune her speed climbing. She utilizes a “beta” — climbing lingo that denotes the strategy and details of a climb — that involves skipping the third hold and taking a more direct route to the top. In training, Raboutou typically breaks the wall into five-meter segments, trying to master one piece at a time before putting it all together at competitions.
“If you’re doing 15 meters every time, you’re working on endurance but not perfecting the exact coordination of that move or foot placement,” said Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, Brooke’s mom and coach. “Everything has to be perfect when it comes to the speed climbing wall.”
Raboutou’s fastest climb came in August 2019 at the world championships, where she became the first U.S. climber to earn a spot in the Tokyo Olympics. She scaled the wall in 9.1 seconds that day in Hachioji, Japan. It’s more than two seconds off the world record pace but a time Raboutou feels she can beat this summer.
“There’s so many things to work on,” Raboutou said. “I have so much to work on — and I’ve been doing it since I was 2 years old.”
In lead climbing, athletes attack a wall that’s at least 15 meters (49.2 feet) tall. They have only one shot and must wear a harness for safety. The wall is a different puzzle each time, and climbers are kept in isolation ahead of the competition, allowed just a few minutes to study the holds before the clock starts ticking.
The goal is to reach the top while grabbing as many handholds as possible within the six minutes allotted. There could be 50 or more possibilities, and judges observe the climber’s grip on each hold, making sure it’s stable and controlled.
Bouldering features a smaller, five-meter (16.4-foot) climbing surface and includes unforgiving angles, impossibly small holds and tricky transitions that often require acrobatic maneuvering.
Competitors have just a few minutes to study the boulders and must problem-solve on the fly. Working without a rope, they get as many attempts as they can muster as they try to reach the top in less than four minutes.
Bouldering requires power, creativity and patience. Climbers often find themselves leaping to a hold that’s a few feet away or hoisting themselves up with just a finger or two clinging to a narrow ledge.
“I love that in bouldering and lead climbing, it changes every single time,” Raboutou said. “I think that’s something that’s amazing about climbing: I’m not practicing the same thing over and over. I get to try new things and new skills.”
Scoring sport climbing
Competitors will be ranked at the end of each event, and their combined scores will be determined by multiplying their three rankings. The lowest multiplied score wins. So a climber who finishes first in speed but 20th in both bouldering and lead climbing won’t top a climber who manages seventh-place finishes in all three disciplines.
Raboutou grew up on a climbing wall, moving vertically not long after she learned to go horizontally. Her parents — Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou and Didier Raboutou — were world champion climbers and met three decades ago at a competition in Paris. They settled down in Colorado but continued to travel the world for clinics and coaching. Not long after having children, they decided to open a youth-focused climbing gym in Boulder called ABC Kids Climbing.
“We always had a climbing gym in our backyard,” said Erbesfield-Raboutou, who won four World Cup titles during her competitive days. “We never left them with a babysitter. It was always more fun to have them come along.”
How old were you when you realized this was something you could be competitive at?
I started competing nationally when I was 7 years old, and I am a pretty competitive person, so I think that the competitions always drove me to try harder and push myself more.
Growing up with a climbing wall in your backyard and your parents at the gym, did you see climbing as something fun or as training?
My parents never pushed me into it. They guided me into it. If I didn’t love it, they wouldn’t have wanted me to continue. So I really did fall in the love with the sport.
What was your reaction when you found out climbing would be in the Olympics? Did that immediately become a goal?
There are endless climbing opportunities in the gyms and mountains around Boulder and an ever-increasing number in cities and towns across the country. Rock climbing was a popular outdoor activity throughout the 20th century, but sport climbing began growing in popularity in the 1980s with major international competitions held toward the end of the decade and the first world championships staged in 1991.
The sport has erupted in recent years, with more than 530 climbing gyms now operating across the country, according to Climbing Business Journal, and many industry analysts expect a wave of new interest following the Tokyo Games. Raboutou and other young climbers have strengthened their grip just as climbing has garnered more mainstream acceptance.
Because of the pandemic, Raboutou went more than 400 days without a high-level competition. She had to cancel trips to compete in South Korea and in Switzerland. Climbing facilities across Colorado were shuttered, and Raboutou, who had never spent more than a couple of days out of the gym, was confined to her family’s basement climbing wall and forced to get creative around the house. She posted Instagram videos early in the pandemic in which she climbed up the steps, railings, kitchen counters and even fireplace of her parents’ home — as much a ninja warrior as an Olympic medal hopeful. They garnered hundreds of thousands of views, and one even landed on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
Despite — or because of — the year-long disruption, Raboutou said she’s much stronger this summer and the extra time on the wall has her more prepared for Tokyo — in speed climbing but in the other disciplines as well.
For Raboutou and all of the climbers in Tokyo, these Olympics are merely just one step — a single hold on a giant wall. With the Olympics’ backing, their sport is moving skyward at a blazing-fast speed.