Climbing rises to new heights in Olympic debut

Sport climbing will be featured for the first time in the Olympic games
Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 10:28 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 21, 2021 at 10:35 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - “It’s like moving meditation.” That’s how Keith Kubiesa describes a favorite pastime of his, although on the surface, the sport of climbing may seem anything but calming.

Scaling walls and dangling from the ceiling, all without a rope or harness, Kubiesa nimbly navigates the gym he owns, Summit Strength & Fitness. In January, the Madison climbing gym will celebrate its sixth anniversary.

“At first I opened the gym I thought it was going to be just experienced climbers coming into the gym, but it’s been a pretty good balance of people brand new to climbing, and a lot of experience,” he said.

Climbing has been rising in popularity over the past years as climbing gyms have been popping up across the country, according to Nick Wilkes, owner of Devils Lake Climbing Guides.

“The prevalence of rock climbing gyms in the last 20 to 30 years has really changed the sport of rock climbing where almost anybody, especially from urban areas, has access to climbing walls,” Wilkes said. “As we see more and more people from the cities learning about climbing, having climbing be a regular part of their lives, we’re seeing more and more people get interested in climbing outdoors.”

Now, for the first time, sport climbing is getting an international spotlight with its debut in the Olympic games. Athletes will need to compete in three different types of climbing – speed, bouldering, and lead.

The goal of speed climbing is to climb the face of a wall as fast as you can while racing another climber. In bouldering, athletes navigate different “problems” or routes up the wall, without a rope or harness, in a fixed amount of time. Lead climbing involves athletes using a harness and rope, with the goal to climb as high as they can up a wall within a set timeframe.

Kubiesa said typically climbers will focus on one specific type of climbing, and that having athletes compete in three disciplines to place at the Olympics will provide an extra challenge. Kubiesa likened it to asking a marathon runner to compete in a 100 meter sprint – while both events require running, they are extremely different disciplines.

“The more exposure, the more those pros can get paid, the more they can help continue to push the sport and teach people how to do it the right way,” Kubiesa said of sport climbing debuting in the Olympics. “If you can get a fraction of what I feel with climbing, I think a lot of people would be a lot better off.”

Wilkes also said he is looking forward to the exposure the sport will get from the Olympics.

“It’s always great when we have more people interested in rock climbing,” Wilkes said. “I’m pretty interested to see what happens with climbing in the Olympics. It’s great for climbing to get more exposure. What I’m really excited for is anything that directs more public attention and appreciation to our public resources, I think is a great thing.”

Wilkes leads a group of kids and teens in a summer climbing camp, where he helps guide and teach them on the rock faces of Devil’s Lake State Park.

“When they’re up here they act carefully, they respect the place we’re in and the responsibility that this opportunity is providing them,” he said. “Doing something that’s sort of a life or death activity helps people rise to the occasion where they can make good choices and they’re being trusted.”

As for the future of climbing, Kubiesa hopes the Olympics will pique people’s interest in the sport. While he said his gym is getting ready in case there’s an influx of people wanting to try climbing, they’re not putting all their eggs in one basket. He also said he anticipates climbing gyms to serve as a place where young people can come together.

For a sport that’s literally on the rocks, climbing has been on the rise.

“I haven’t run into any other activity in my life that is as helpful for having a great day as rock climbing,” said Wilkes.

For more information on sport climbing in the Olympics, click here.

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