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US sports climbers dominate Pan American Games

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) – The United States sport climbing team is dominating the Pan American Games in Chile, giving athletes a boost to bid for Olympic medals in Paris.

17-year-old Samuel Watson from Texas and 24-year-old exercise science graduate Piper Kelly won the men’s and women’s speed events in Santiago, and their US teammates were among the favourites for the boulder and lead competitions, which combine two techniques of rock climbing.

Watson started climbing at age 5 at a local Lifetime Fitness health club. Last year, as he perfected his ritual of kicking the wall before the start, he brought home a gold medal in his first year on the circuit.

In Santiago, Watson scaled the wall in just 5.37 seconds on Sunday to beat teammate Noah Bratschi and put his father Ray into tears as his son took the Pan American gold medal.

“Now it is all about getting stronger and faster for Paris,” Watson told The Associated Press on Monday before his other teammates competed in Chile. As many of climbers, he is preparing to go to Utah in the near future, but that wouldn’t be just for training.

“Paris will be nothing like I have experienced so far, but I want to live the same life. I am not planning to attend quinceañeras after this medal when I get home, I have a clear goal in mind and I also want to do business school at the University of Utah,” said Watson, who believes climbers need more than talent.

“It is not a natural thing. Sometimes you have to make a big decision in a split-second, that’s true, but without training you don’t reach those decisions constantly,” he said.

Sport climbing made its debut at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, with athletes competing in speed, bouldering and lead, with added scores at the end. The lowest scorer was the winner. Paris will offer two events; a combined competition of bouldering and lead events, as in Santiago, and the speed competition.

Kelly battled two other Americans to secure her place at the Olympics — silver medallist Emma Hunt, who had already booked her flight to Paris two months ago and ended her bid in Chile with a false start, and 17-year-old Sophia Curcio.

Kelly has a degree in exercise science, wants to study sports nutrition to remain involved with athletes after she finishes competing. Six weeks ago, the athlete from Indianapolis moved to Salt Lake City to train full time as she recovers from multiple partial dislocations in her left shoulder.

The ticket to Paris and the win at the Pan American Games boost her confidence.

“It feels pretty amazing now. I had a great training block in Utah, but when I started here I slipped several times in my first attempt. It just feels like things are on the right path now,” Kelly told the AP. “Speed climbing definitely puts a mental challenge for athletes, so much pressure for a millisecond. You have to try to enjoy it. And now I am more in the moment, that helps mentally.”

Kelly plans to do more than training when she returns to Utah after some family time in Indiana. “I can do the hiking, though not much of a skiier. I also want to take some classes, get a masters,” she added. “The goal is still to go to the 2028 Olympics. We will see how that goes financially.”

The United States´ Samuel Watson and Ecuador’s Isaac Estevez compete in the men’s speed sport climbing quarter finals at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile on Sunday. PHOTO: AP