When Colin Duffy first laid eyes on an indoor climbing wall, he was only 3 years old.
The colorful holds drew his attention and he begged his parents to let him give the sport a try. By 7, he was climbing in full-sized gyms. And now, at 17, Duffy was the youngest competitor in the first-ever Olympic sport climbing event.
“I think I just love how unique of a physical challenge it is,” he said about the sport. “Not only do you have to be strong enough to solve the climbs and problems but you also have to use your brain, figuring out body position and what the best strategy is going to be for each route.”
Duffy, a Broomfield resident and a student of Stargate Charter School in the Adams 12 district, grew up climbing in the area. He frequents local rock climbing gyms like G1 Climbing + Fitness, and his favorite local spot to climb outdoors is Rocky Mountain National Park.
Duffy qualified for this year’s Olympic Games in 2020 when he won the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Pan American Championship in Los Angeles.
“I was kind of just awestruck after qualifying,” he said. “It didn’t really feel real.”
Then, the Olympic Games were delayed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, Duffy, like many Olympic athletes, had to face a variety of new training methods due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For several months, gyms were closed and Duffy had to practice his climbing on an at-home wall in his basement.
When gyms opened, he adjusted to training while wearing a mask. Then, two weeks before the climbing competitions started, he traveled with the rest of the four-person U.S. team to Tokyo in early August. Once in Japan, Duffy and his colleagues began to work on acclimating to the humid, hot weather they’d be competing in.
“I think the most noticeable difference for me was the heat,” Duffy said. “I’ve always been used to dry heat and a lack of humidity, so being in such an intense climate and having to compete outdoors in that was really kind of hard to adjust to.”
At this year’s Olympics, the sport climbing event displayed three disciplines of indoor climbing: bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing.
In the bouldering event, athletes attempt to scale short, challenging pre-set routes, also known as problems, which are made up of plastic imitation rocks of various shapes and sizes. The walls in this event are about 15 feet high and surrounded by large pads. Climbers don’t use any rope for this event.
During lead climbing, the athletes are tied into a rope as they see how high they can get on a wall more than 50 feet high. As they climb, the competitors attach their rope into clips placed along the wall. On the ground, a belayer attached to the same rope is ready to catch the climber if they fall or finish the route.
While each route and problem in the lead climbing and bouldering disciplines is unique and never-before-seen by the athletes, the speed climbing event is different in that it presents the same route in every competition. Athletes dart up this standard route to see how quickly they can press a touchpad at the top. The fastest speed at the finals of the Olympics was 6.02 seconds.
In this year’s Olympics, climbers were required to participate in all three events, with their score being determined by how they ranked in each one. Some in the sport criticized this format because of the inherent differences between speed climbing and the other two disciplines.
Duffy’s favorite climbing events are bouldering and lead climbing, he said. In the next Olympic games, there will be one competition for speed climbing and one combining bouldering and lead.
Duffy was one of eight climbers who made it into the Olympic finals out of 20 male athletes. In the finals, he finished seventh overall. In the speed competition he ranked fifth, with 6.35 as his fastest time. In the bouldering event he finished in fourth place, and in the lead competition he ranked third.
Nathaniel Coleman, the other male climber from the U.S., took silver in the competition. Brooke Raboutou — from Boulder, Colorado — placed fifth in the women’s competition.
“I had a lot of fun,” Duffy said. “I think a lot of people probably look at it as the most intense event possible, but I think outside of the competition days, being around the village and being surrounded by so many incredible athletes, everyone is always smiling and just happy to be there with their teammates.”
Enjoying the games
As the youngest climber there, Duffy felt like he was able to relax and not put too much pressure on himself, he said.
“I think it allowed me to climb pretty loosely, especially in the qualifiers, I felt like I had nothing to lose being the youngest one there,” he said. “I know I’ll have other opportunities in the future, and being so young, there’s really no pressure or expectations on me, so my main goal was just to have fun.”
Due to the pandemic, Duffy’s family was not able to attend the games in person and instead had to wake up each night of the event about 2 a.m. to watch the competition in real time. But Nancy Duffy, Colin’s mom, said it wasn’t difficult to stay alert.
“When your kid is going, you’re nervous,” she said. “So it’s easy to stay awake at that point.”
Duffy hopes to compete again in the next Summer Olympics in Paris in 2024, he said.
“I just hope in the future that climbing continues to gain recognition. I think it’s a sport that … people are really fascinated by,” he said. “It’s much different than the traditional sports you’ll see. Hopefully people that watch the Olympics really enjoy it and it starts to gain more traction.”
For those curious about the sport, Duffy has one main piece of advice: “Search for a local gym around you,” he said.
“Everyone should try climbing. It’s a very fun sport,” he said. “And probably very different than most people are used to.”
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