Step, step, spring — whiff. Step, step, spring — whiff. Step, step, spring — whiff.
The fourth and final boulder problem Natalia Grossman faced in the IFSC Boulder World Cup women’s final in Salt Lake City last weekend hadn’t discriminated against her competition. It had summarily rejected the attempts of the long, lithe athletes and the compact, powerful ones alike. Each was allotted four minutes to get to the top of the 15-foot outdoor climbing wall, and yet, one by one, five of the top climbers from Europe, Asia and the United States would spend all their time just trying and failing to complete the first leap.
Then came Grossman’s turn. Step, step, spring — whiff. The 19-year-old, who moved to Salt Lake City in January to train at the USA Climbing facilities, pulled back on the small, black finger holds, dangled one leg behind her for more momentum and attempted to slingshot her body up the wall.
Step, step, spring — whiff. The 5-foot-2 climber needed not only to hurl her body the equivalent of her height up the wall, but then to catch its weight with the tips of her fingers on the pointed ledge of another large but narrow plastic hold. Struggling to ignore the burning muscles in her legs, she tried again and again.
The shouts of a rowdy crowd of about 3,000 spectators — the first fans allowed at a climbing World Cup event since the pandemic started — began to escalate. With the clock closing in on her final minute, she channeled their energy and tried again.
Step, step, spring — catch.
On her ninth attempt, Grossman’s palm and fingers gripped the hold. She not only pulled her entire body weight up the wall after that, she pulled USA Climbing up with her as well.
Grossman’s first World Cup victory, coupled with a third-place showing by teammate and best friend Brooke Raboutou in her finals debut, may in time be heralded as the moment the United States reached the elite rung of sport climbing.
“It’s a huge deal,” said Meagan Martin, a former elite-level sport climber who now provides commentary for ESPN. She added, “It’s just a really good sign for how the U.S. team is really progressing and how the organization has really just done a great job in the last couple of years of building a strong team and making us so competitive with the other international athletes. And that hasn’t been the case for a really long time. So it’s really exciting to see.
“It’s big for them, and big for the organization and it’s big for the country.”
The U.S. athletes will try to keep the momentum going this weekend when Industry SLC hosts two more World Cup competitions. The 2021 World Cup opener for speed climbing is scheduled for Friday and the third bouldering World Cup of the season is set for Saturday and Sunday.
These are the first IFSC World Cup events to be hosted in Utah and the first back-to-back climbing World Cup events held at the same site.
USA Climbing’s bold leap comes just as the sport prepares to make its Olympic debut this August in Tokyo. Team USA will be sending four of the 40 athletes who will compete at the Olympics: Salt Lake City-based climbers Nathaniel Coleman and Kyra Condie and Colin Duffy and Raboutou, both of Colorado. That makes it one of just three countries — France and Japan being the others — to qualify the maximum number of athletes possible for the Games.
USA Climbing CEO Marc Norman said that feat caught the attention of representatives from several climbing federations.
They said, “‘We always wondered when the U.S. would wake up. And we’ve always been worried about when the U.S. would wake up,’” Norman said. “We have an enormous, talented pool of athletes, but haven’t always been focused on the World Cup or even able as an organization to provide funding for the athletes to go to the World Cup.
“So I think, yes, we have woken up as an organization. Our athletes are stepping up their commitment to winning medals on the World Cup, world championships and hopefully the Olympic Games level. So, I think [there has been] a fairly significant shift across the organization and its athletes towards doing just that.”
Grossman’s win is but one fruit born from the labor Norman and his team have put into growing the sport nationally.
Though she said she didn’t have any grand plans for her future in the climbing, Grossman’s family moved from California to Boulder, Colo., when she was 15 so she could train at the prestigious ABC Climbing, a club that also counts Raboutou and Duffy as athletes. In January, after being named to the national team, she became one of the approximately 30 elite climbers to move to Salt Lake City specifically to train at USA Climbing’s recently built, state-of-the-art facility.
Results came quickly after that.
Grossman reached her first International Federation of Sport Climbing World Cup final when she took third at the boulder opener in Switzerland in April. When she hung on to win Saturday outside Industry SLC, she became the first American to stand atop a World Cup podium since Alex Puccio in 2018. And when Raboutou, who climbed outside with Grossman almost daily during the pandemic, joined her on the podium, it was the first time two Team USA women shared a World Cup podium since 2009 — and one of only a spattering of times in history.
Including Grossman and Raboutou, U.S. women made up a quarter of the 20 athletes in Saturday’s semifinals.
Grossman said after her win her mom sent her a picture of a vision board she created for a sociology project her senior year of high school. Printed at the top was “Win a World Cup.”
“That’s crazy,” she said. “That was only two years ago, but at the time it seemed impossible.”
Now it’s a reality. Similarly, the Olympics, which also seemed far-fetched when qualifiers began taking place in 2019, are something she’s warming up to.
She might have her chance in Paris. Though climbing is not currently a core Olympic sport and will not be included in future Games unless added by the host country, Paris has already announced it will be featured in the 2024 Summer Games.
But the competition for a spot on the Team USA roster will likely be even more fierce by then. Climbers like Grossman and Raboutou are raising the expectations at the elite level. In addition, a groundswell of interest at the youth level has taken hold. And when climbing takes over TVs in millions of homes around the world this summer, Norman said he expects to see a slingshot effect in the U.S. no less dynamic than the one that lifted Grossman atop the podium.
“I think the organization would probably be here in terms of growth either way,” he said. “And now it’s just like throwing fuel on the fire with the Olympics and the exposure that comes with that.”
Step, step, spring — ascend.
IFSC BOULDER AND SPEED WORLD CUP
When: Friday to Sunday — speed finals start at 8 p.m. Friday; boulder finals start at 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Industry SLC, 650 South 500 West, Salt Lake City
Tickets: $10-$40 at eventbrite.com