Nathaniel Coleman went from barely hanging on to hanging a silver medal around his neck.
The Murray native worked his way up from eighth place after qualifications to the podium, claiming the first silver medal in climbing in Olympics history Thursday at the Aomi Urban Sports Park in Tokyo.
Coleman said he “never dared to acknowledge the dream that I could medal at the Olympics. Just making finals was like my Hail Mary goal.”
With his parents, aunts, uncle and cousins cheering him on in Salt Lake City, Coleman moved into medal contention by winning the bouldering portion — the second of the three disciplines. He then secured his medal with the fifth-best lead performance of the day.
Rosane and Richard scribbled intently on a pad of paper in an effort to keep track of Coleman’s overall placing. They’ve been involved in sport climbing for years, but with the standings shuffling frequently throughout the competition and an athlete’s final score dependent on his placing in each discipline, it was difficult to keep track.
“Did they just say Nathaniel Coleman?!” Coleman’s father asked, his eyes widening in disbelief as he stared at the TV at a family watch party while the medalists were announced.
Coleman, 24, was bumped past Adam Ondra of the Czech Republic when Jakob Schubert of Austria, the final competitor, was the only one to top out on the lead climb.
“Thank you, Jakob!” Coleman’s mother, Rosane, shouted with tears in her eyes.
Schubert, 30, secured himself the bronze by winning the lead portion. He also pushed 18-year-old Alberto Gines Lopez of Spain into position to claim the sport’s first gold medal. Coleman trailed Lopez by just two points, 28-30, in the final standings. Schubert scored 35.
“I’m proud of him, really proud of him,” Richard said of his son. “I wasn’t expecting this really. I’m just totally thrilled. Just thrilled.”
Coleman’s biggest challenge of the day was the finals format.
The Murray High graduate would have come out of the initial speed discipline in second if athletes had advanced solely on time, as they do in qualifications. He climbed the course, which hasn’t changed since 2007, in a personal record of 6.21 seconds. That was behind only the 6.02 laid down by Tamoa Narasaki of Japan. But a bracket format is employed in the finals, and a slip near the top on his first run and in the middle of his third run left Coleman in sixth place and staring up at most of the rest of the field.
But bouldering was next.
It’s Coleman’s specialty, having honed his skills at the Momentum climbing gym in Sandy and in the quartzite fields in Little Cottonwood Canyon. But it hadn’t looked that way Tuesday in qualifications. He’d struggled in the suffocatingly hot and humid conditions and finished 11th, which seemed to doom his chance at reaching the final. But a fourth-place finish in lead proved just enough to lift him to the top eight.
Given a second chance Thursday, he channeled the same live-in-the-moment attitude as he had during the 2018 Bouldering National Championship in Salt Lake City, which he’d won while climbing with an injured tendon in his finger. In Tokyo, he flashed his first boulder problem, putting pressure on his competition. He then was the only one to top the second boulder. On the third boulder, he, like all the others, reached the zone on his first attempt but couldn’t get to the top.
“I could not believe how well bouldering went,” Coleman told his parents in a brief post-podium phone call. “It was — whew.”
Coleman’s medal hopes then hinged on how high and fast he could scale the 50-foot wall in lead, the final discipline. He entered the event tied for first in points with Narasaki and France’s Mickael Mawam.
For about half the competition he stood to become the first Olympic climbing champion, but Ondra surpassed him by climbing within just a few holds of the top. Then Schubert, the bronze medalist at a World Cup bouldering event in Salt Lake City in May, made his run from last place onto the podium.
“It was kind of a fortune final in the fact that the audience got to see how much the route setting can affect the competition,” Coleman said. “The lead route was perfectly set. There was one man to top it, at the very, very last (opportunity). That’s the pinnacle of excitement in the lead-climbing competition.”
Ondra, the winner of one of the bouldering World Cups in Salt Lake and considered the favorite heading into the event, was unusually off in the bouldering portion and failed to even get a zone on the second boulder. That greatly threatened his medal hopes and he ended up sixth overall, just ahead of Coleman’s 17-year-old USA Climbing teammate, Colin Duffy of Colorado.
Ondra, 28, said he’ll use his placing as motivation during his preparation for Paris 2024.
“Coming back home without a medal from the first Olympics makes me definitely motivated to go in three years to Paris,” he said.
Climbing was one of six sports selected by Tokyo as part of a new IOC rule that allows host countries to add a few sports just to their program to give a local flair and bring in a younger audience. Paris has also opted to include climbing — along with surfing, skateboarding and breakdancing — but with some changes. It will offer men’s and women’s medals in speed climbing as well as ones in a combined boulder and lead event.
Rosane texted her son Wednesday night — Thursday morning in Tokyo — and encouraged him just to be present and enjoy the moment. Coleman said those messages put him in a good headspace.
Rosane could tell. She said “it was a joy” to watch him in the final.
“To know that he had such a great speed run, got a personal best, did great in bouldering,” she said. “He just had such a good day. He was so happy and climbed so well.”
1. Alberto Gines Lopez, Spain
2. Nathaniel Coleman, USA
3. Jakob Schubert, Austria
4. Tamoa Narasaki, Japan
5. Mickael Mawem, France
6. Adam Ondra, Czech Republic
7. Colin Duffy, USA
8. Bassa Mawem*, France
*Did not compete due to injury