Tokyo Olympics

Why Janja Garnbret Is One of Sport Climbing's Greats Even Before Tokyo Olympics

Slovenian Janja Garnbret has won six world championships since 2016 — two each in combined, lead and bouldering

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What to Know

  • Elite climbers look at a wall and see pieces of a puzzle. Janja Garnbret is one of the world’s best at seeing the pattern in these puzzles. The 22-year-old Slovenian has no rival when it comes to putting it all together
  • The six-time world champion was the gold medal favorite heading into sport climbing's Olympic debut and lived up to expectations by leading qualifying at the Tokyo Games
  • Garnbret treated the Olympic bouldering walls like she was climbing playground equipment and finished all four on her first try. Now all eyes will be on her in the finals

The average person would look up at the Olympic lead climbing wall and see a random array of multi-colored shapes.

The bouldering wall? Forget it. They'd have no idea what those crescents, triangles and wedges are even supposed to be, much less consider climbing it.

Elite climbers see pieces of a puzzle.

Janja Garnbret is one of the world's best at picking out the patterns in these puzzles. She has no rival when it comes to putting it all together.

“When you look at the route, you just have a certain image in your head, what to do, where to go” Garnbret said. “You don’t have time to think about anything else. You have to be fully focused on what’s in front of you.”

Garnbret has already accomplished more than most climbers do in a lifetime.

The 22-year-old Slovenian had the typical backstory of an elite climber, scaling whatever she could get her hands and feet on, from staircases to trees as a child. Garnbret dominated the international youth circuit and kept climbing above the rest of the world as a professional, winning nearly everything she entered.

Garnbret has won six world championships since 2016 — two each in combined, lead and bouldering. She was the first woman to win two disciplines at one world championships, in 2018, and was the first to repeat at bouldering champion.

Garnbret rolled a perfect World Cup season in 2019, solving 74 of 78 “problems” while winning all six bouldering events, and has 30 wins overall. She arrived at the Tokyo Olympics as a prohibitive gold medal favorite.

Garnbret has been just as proficient on a rock.

At 16, she “onsighted” — first attempt with no advice — an 8b climb in Croatia and completed her first 9a climb in Spain in 2018. Garnbret also joined her boyfriend, Slovenian climber Domen Skofic, in scaling the tallest chimney in Europe, a 360-meter smokestack from a decommissioned power plant in Slovenia with artificial holds affixed to it.

All those accomplishments, yet she still felt nervous before the start of Olympic qualifying.

The Olympic climbing program has three disciplines, and Garnbret dominates two. Speed climbing takes an entirely different skill set — it's like a sprint up a wall — and it's easily her weakest link.

Speed was the first discipline in qualifying, so it added to the nerves as Garnbret prepared to climb on the world stage. She slipped on both runs and finished 14th of 20 climbers in the event.

“You don’t expect that from me anytime, but I have to admit this time I was pretty nervous,” she said after Wednesday's qualifying. “At the world championships, I'm never nervous or at least not as nervous as I was today.”

Climber Brooke Raboutou says one of her first memories of her sport was climbing on a small plywood board with holds on it in her parents' basement.

No problem.

After shedding a few tears between rounds, Garnbret fell back into her comfort zone, treating the difficult bouldering problems like she was climbing on playground equipment, quickly completing each in her first attempt. Only two other climbers topped three boulders.

That put Garnbret in solid position to make the finals, barring a big letdown in the final qualifying discipline.

Though not completely focused in lead, she still finished fourth to lead combined qualifying.

“I felt relief because of bouldering I knew that I’m already in the finals, so I didn’t climb my very best in lead,” she said. “I just wanted it to be over to feel no pressure.”

Now all eyes will be on Garnbret in Friday's finals. As she's proven before, no climb is too hard, no spotlight is too bright.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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