Why the still-shunned ‘ugly stepchild’ of climbing is taking off in Salt Lake City

With its own medals at the Paris 2024 Olympics, speed climbing is reaching new heights. Salt Lake City could play an important part in who wins it all.

Millcreek • Moving to Salt Lake City, climber Piper Kelly believes, made her a champion.

Kelly, 20, was not drawn to Utah’s nationally acclaimed outdoor rock climbing, which has called to athletes for decades. Those natural wonders aren’t what has drawn other top competitive speed climbers — such as 2024 Olympian Sam Watson and hopeful Zach Hammer — to the state either.

Most of them, in fact, will rarely step a sticky-toed shoe outside a climbing gym since speed climbing is a mostly indoor sport. But USA Climbing’s campus for elite athletes, which is based at an aging warehouse in the Granary District, is not even tall enough to house a full-length elite speed course.

Instead, they’re coming for each other, seeking community — and competition — in Salt Lake. It’s like a stone sharpening a knife, only the stones are made of fiberglass.

“It’s a super-intense sport, so it’s hard to bring intensity by yourself all the time,” Kelly, 20, said. “Having other people to just push yourself and race and stuff like that is really beneficial.”

The proof is in the performances.

Kelly left behind her longtime home in Indianapolis for Utah six weeks before competing in the speed climbing championships at the 2023 Pan American Games in September. She won the competition to snag a spot in the lineup at the Paris 2024 Olympics this summer. The woman she beat in the semifinals, 17-year-old Sophia Curcio of North Carolina, also trains in Salt Lake City with and against Kelly.

“I don’t think,” Kelly said, “I would have won Pan Ams if I wouldn’t have moved here.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Speed climber Piper Kelly confers with Matt Maddison, USA Climbing's strength and conditioning coach, at Momentum Indoor Climbing in Millcreek on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.

A different breed

There’s a reason Kelly and others call speed climbing “the ugly stepchild of climbing.”

Traditional climbing, at its core, is a dance between a person and nature. From the original “dirtbags” to Alex Honnold, climbers have used aspects of nature — ledges and divots — to overcome it. Competitive boulder and lead climbing, though done on artificial surfaces, hews closely to that history with route setters creating unique “problems” that athletes must puzzle out on the spot.

Competitive speed climbing takes nature, and some say creativity, out of the equation.

Competitive speed climbing was born out of the boom in climbing gyms. Because it uses a set route — unchanged since it was established in 2007 — it can only be completed on artificial climbing walls. As a result, athletes know exactly where each potential foothold and handhold is placed. And some, like Watson and Hammer, who both started climbing almost before they could walk, may cover the same route hundreds of thousands of times over the course of their careers.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Piper Kelly. Speed climbers with Olympic aspirations gather at Momentum Indoor Climbing in Millcreek for a speed training camp on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.

What speed climbing lacks in variety, however, it makes up for in adrenaline. It’s the only competitive climbing discipline that pits athletes side-by-side in an exhilarating Spiderman-like crawl up the climbing wall.

Olympic organizers are betting that format, which is both engaging and easy to understand, will be a hit with viewers. So, instead of combining all three climbing disciplines into one medal event as Tokyo did in 2021 when Salt Lake City’s Nathaniel Coleman won silver, Paris 2024 decided to give the speed climbers their own set of hardware.

That delighted boulder-and-lead climbers — who often see speed climbing as some unnatural offshoot of the sport — nearly as much as the speed specialists. But it also means a brighter spotlight will be shining on a young sport featuring equally young athletes. At 24, John Brosler is the oldest member of USA Climbing’s elite squad. He moved to Salt Lake City in 2019 in an attempt to make the Tokyo Olympic team.

“It’s grown a lot from when I first moved here,” he said of the speed climbing community. “I used to reliably have sessions on my own. Just come to the gym, session on the wall, maybe talk to a few people in the lead area and that’s it. Now, it’s like not fighting for space on the wall, but we reliably have a crew to train with, which is cool.”

Salt Lake on the map

USA Climbing held a speed climbing training camp at Momentum Indoor Climbing in Millcreek last week with the intent of showing athletes what they are missing in terms of their routines. It entailed seminars on exterior influences on their performance, such as sleep, nutrition and physical therapy. It also included head-to-head races using the Olympic competition format. Athletes could see how they measured up and how racing someone as good as, or even better than, them might affect their performance.

About 20 of the country’s most elite speed climbers attended the camp. Three of them have already secured a spot at the Paris Olympics: Kelly and Emma Hunt in the women’s event and Watson in the men’s. Two others, Hammer and Brosler, will compete in the Olympic Qualifier Series this spring in Singapore and Budapest with the intent of securing the United States a second spot in the men’s event.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Speed climbers Emma Hunt and Zach Hammer high-five at Momentum Indoor Climbing in Millcreek for a speed training camp on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.

Of those five, all but the Georgia-based Hunt either currently live in Salt Lake City or plan to move there within the next couple of months.

Hammer, the youngest of the group at age 17, expects to move to Utah within days of graduating early from his Michigan high school in March. That will give him a couple months of access to USA Climbing’s resources before this spring’s Olympic qualifiers.

“I’m so excited,” said Hammer, the youngest in a family of competitive climbers. “I mean, the training here, everything. The atmosphere is so much better. I have more faster people to race, which is super beneficial. And also I have access to [physical therapists] like massage therapists [and] nutritionists. It’s so impressive.”

What Hammer and the other climbers don’t have access to is a dedicated speed climbing training wall.

USA Climbing, which itself relocated to Salt Lake City in 2019, has plans to build a new facility near the Gateway that would feature a competition caliber 15-meter wall with parallel routes and electronic timers. Salt Lake City’s approval of those plans was put on pause last month, however, after climbing gym owners across the country expressed consternation that the facility — which would also feature bouldering and lead-climbing walls — would be at least partially open to the public.

Until that gets sorted out, the national speed climbing team has been training mostly at Momentum, which has one of the state’s two 15-meter walls (about 35 exist throughout the country), but also at other climbing gyms around the city. During one afternoon at the training camp, when 200 or more paying customers filled the gym, elite athletes were found searching for a quiet nook to review film with their coaches and waiting in line to use the bathroom. At times, it can also mean waiting to get on the wall.

Athletes face those same issues at their home gyms in other states, though, except instead of sitting next to their coaches, they’re typically talking to them over Zoom. Moving to Utah may cause them to miss Mom’s spaghetti, but tasting the hot times they can cook up on the race route with their peers pushing them keeps them coming back for more.

“If you’re training on your own, you can become numb,” said Matt Maddison, USA Climbing’s strength and conditioning coach. “You need to find others out there who are trying to improve.”

Maddison said the U.S. needs to seize any advantages it can get. He said he expects times at this summer’s Olympics to be up to 20% faster than those recorded in Tokyo. Part of that is due to the decision to award separate speed medals and part is due to the maturation of the discipline. Since the first speed climbing world championship in 2011, men’s and women’s times have dropped approximately 20%. Just last year, Indonesian climber Veddriq Leonardo twice finished under 5 seconds, a feat many once believed impossible.

The thrill of trying to break her own record is what Kelly said keeps her coming back to speed climbing. While the races appear to pit climbers against one another, she said, each is really racing against her own potential. That approach, she said, explains how the climbing community can be both her source of competition and a source of comfort.

Which is key considering her roommates are also competitive speed climbers.

“It is competition with each other, but climbers in general I feel like are more friendly and community-based,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to train together and talk about speed at home with them, too.”

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