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Nathaniel Coleman of U.S. wins silver in sport climbing’s first Olympic championship

U.S. climber Nathaniel Coleman, right, climbs against Austria's Jakob Schubert
U.S. climber Nathaniel Coleman, right, competes against Austria’s Jakob Schubert in the speed portion of the Tokyo Olympics sport climbing finals Thursday at Aomi Urban Sport Park.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Not so long ago, when sport climbing was added to the Olympic program, U.S. officials had their doubts — they weren’t convinced that any of their climbers could so much as qualify to compete in the Games.

On Thursday night at Aomi Urban Sports Park, they got a pleasant surprise.

Nathaniel Coleman, one of two Americans to reach the men’s final, took silver with a performance that appeared to startle even him.

“Oh, my gosh,” he said. “I never, never dared to acknowledge the dream that I could medal.”

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The hands make all the difference in Olympic sport climbing. Fingers must be strengthened and thickened over years, all the better to dangle from a ledge.

His unexpected success was merely one of the highlights in a wild evening for climbing’s first Olympic championship. It wasn’t until after the last attempt, when all the points were tabulated, that Alberto Gines Lopez of Spain won gold, Coleman jumped into second and Jakob Schubert of Austria came from well behind to finish third.

“It’s a dream come true,” Gines Lopez said.

Sport climbing at the Games comprises three disciplines.

French climber Mikael Mawem uses his fingers to get through a tough part of the bouldering competition.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

First comes the blurry fast, side-by-side racing of the speed event, then some mathematical problem-solving on relatively short but tricky bouldering walls. Finally, athletes must find the endurance to scale a considerably taller wall in lead.

Coleman got off to a sluggish start, finishing sixth out of eight finalists in speed, one spot below teammate Colin Duffy. In bouldering, he came out with a “fighting mentality,” conquering two of the three “problem” walls, and suddenly the podium was within reach.

It helped that Adam Ondra, a medal favorite from Czechoslovakia, struggled for much of the night. Coleman tried not to think about what could happen with a strong effort in the last segment, but, he said, “the thoughts wouldn’t go away.”

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That humans can scale a 50-foot wall, scurrying from one small climbing hold to the next, and tap the buzzer in about six seconds makes this new Olympic event startling.

Within the climbing world, there has been significant consternation about combining three elements into one score. Speed is so different from lead and bouldering that it didn’t seem right to lump them all together.

But in its first go-around, sport climbing was given the minimum amount of medals to award — just one set for men, one set for women — so the international federation had a choice to make.

The one-size-fits-all format in Tokyo required a scoring system that had everyone confused about the final standings.

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Gines Lopez clearly did well enough in lead to win gold, and Coleman climbed high enough to keep himself in the running. The problem was, Schubert went last and turned everything upside-down by becoming the only competitor to reach the top.

“I didn’t do hardly any math,” Coleman said. “I knew it was going to be a close one.”

A few tense moments passed before the final standings flashed across the scoreboard and the U.S. climbing program got a boost that maybe no one could have predicted. Not even the athlete who provided it.


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