Brooke Raboutou, a freshman last year at USD, becomes the first U.S. climber to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
You can say Brooke Raboutou was trained practically from birth to be an elite rock climber.
You can’t say she was trained from birth to be an Olympian. Until three years ago, climbing wasn’t an Olympic sport.
But the 18-year-old USD sophomore is both now, becoming the first U.S. athlete to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games in the new discipline of indoor sport climbing based on her performance over the weekend at the IFSC World Championships in Hachioji, Japan, just west of Tokyo.
We’re still more than 11 months out from Opening Ceremony, and most U.S. athletes won’t qualify in their respective sports until next winter or spring. Raboutou is just the seventh of what figures to be nearly a 600-person U.S. team, joining three open water swimmers, two modern pentathletes and a triathlete.
Sport climbing was added to the 2020 Olympic program in August 2016 and, though just 15 at the time, Raboutou instantly became one of the favorites to make the U.S. team. Her parents, Didier and Robyn, were both elite climbers, with seven world championship titles between them. Her older brother Shawn is an accomplished climber as well.
They summered in France at a home with a climbing gym in the backyard and the famed rock walls of Chamonix not far away. At their home in Boulder, Colo., they have an elaborate training facility in the basement, with a variety of holds and bars to develop the finger strength so vital in climbing.
Didier builds climbing walls. Robyn is the founder and lead coach at ABC Kids Climbing gym in Boulder.
“It’s something that’s always been in our lives, just like a refrigerator or bathtub,” Robyn said a few years ago in a video profile on Climbing.com. “We’ve always had a climbing wall at our house.”
Brooke is just 5-foot-2, on the small side in a sport where wingspan can be an advantage in reaching for the next hold. She compensates by being flexible, powerful, creative and persistent.
And experienced. She started competing at age 7. By 11, she had conquered a 5.14b grade rock face. By 15, she had “sent” a 5.14c at the Southern Smoke climb in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge.
How advanced is that? Sierra.com describes the grading system for climbs as 5.0-5.7 being easy, 5.8 to 5.10 being intermediate, 5.11-5.12 being hard and 5.13 to 5.15 being “reserved for a very elite few.”
There are different events within sport climbing, but the 2020 Olympics will offer only a combined competition that uses results from speed climbing, lead climbing and bouldering on indoor walls. Twenty women and 20 men will qualify, with no more than two per country.
Speed climbing — two competitors racing up a 15-meter wall in five or six seconds — is the most TV friendly but also the most controversial among climbing purists, who don’t think it accurately reflects the sport’s skill sets and individual ethos.
Lead climbing also involves a 15-meter wall but, unlike the speed event, competitors work solo and don’t know the positions of the holds in advance. It is more technical and tactical, with six minutes to go as high as you can without falling.
Bouldering is on a shorter wall without ropes, and you’re allowed to reclimb it if you fall within the four-minute time limit. It is scored on speed, height and number of attempts.
Your placements in the three events are multiplied together. Lowest score wins.
Raboutou was unavailable for interviews because she was traveling from Japan to the World Youth Championships in Arco, Italy. In a 2016 interview with Mojagear.com, Brooke was asked what advice she’d give to climbers. “My advice to any level climber,” she said, “is to keep climbing, keep having fun and don’t let anything or anyone get in your way.”