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Sport climbing sets sights on 2020 Olympics

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Climbing is on the precipice of becoming an Olympic sport, raising the profile of a recreational activity that is seeing a surge in young participants.

The ascent to potential Olympic inclusion got a boost on Wednesday after the International Olympic Committee executive board gave its approval to include climbing along with four other sports: baseball-softball, surfing, karate and skateboarding. The IOC will decide in August whether to add the sports to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japanese organizers initially proposed the new sports in September and looked at climbing as a competition that could appeal to teens and young adult, an age where there is already increasing interest.

“My dream is to … keep on helping getting [climbing] bigger and bigger so hopefully I can compete in the Olympics and win it maybe,” said 15-year-old Ashima Shiraishi, a New Yorker whose parents were Japanese immigrants. Her spider-like ascents up rock walls and cliffs have made her a viral sensation online and drawn the curiosity of late-night television.

There were roughly 35 million climbers worldwide in 2015, according to the International Federation of Sport Climbing, up 40 percent from two years earlier. As of last fall, about half of the total was younger than 25 “thanks to the latest trend of urban/action sports,” the federation said in a report.

USA Climbing had almost 3,800 registered members age 19 and under as of the 2015-16 season, an increase of nearly 90 percent in nine years — a boom that could position the United States to emerge as a top Olympic contender.

The United States “is already a very active country for climbing and we trust the national federation will keep on developing its expertise and keep on bringing kids to our competitions, which would be definitely a plus for a possible medal in 2020,” said Anne Fuynel, spokeswoman for the international federation in Turin, Italy.

Many young climbers are getting a foothold indoors at climbing gyms, which have grown in number to nearly 400 across the United States. One young climbing star, 16-year-old Kai Lightner, got his start indoors after visiting a gym in Fayetteville, N.C., a decade ago.

“Kids like me have access to these resources that did not exist decades ago,” Lightner said. “When you are able to start training at high levels, as young as 6, 7 years old, it shouldn’t be surprising that kids are becoming more skilled at younger ages.”

Indoor climbing removes barriers inherent outdoors, like weather, travel and expensive equipment, said Ian McIntosh, president of Mesa Rim Climbing Center in San Diego.

Techniques can be perfected year-round indoors. It’s an option to fill time between soccer seasons for the average, on-the-go pre-teen in the suburbs.

Lily Canavan of Boston is one of the top competitors at her age bracket. Now 18, she got into the sport about eight years ago while attending a birthday party at a gymnastics facility that had a climbing wall.

The physical demands can be extreme, but Canavan is attracted by the mental side of climbing. Finding the right route and piecing it together with the right movements is like solving a puzzle.

“So you can be the strongest person ever and not be able to climb as (well) as someone who isn’t strong,” Canavan said.

She was among 134 participants at USA Climbing’s Bouldering Open National Championships in Madison this year, an increase of 47 percent from 2010. The youth nationals in Madison a month later drew 499 competitors, up 37 percent from last year and almost 55 percent from 2010.

USA Climbing’s goal over the last 10 years has been to focus on developing its youth program. While Olympics inclusion has never influenced the organization’s decisions, CEO Kynan Waggoner said, the potential addition to the Summer Games “can’t do anything except promote the sport and raise the profile level, period.”

In the 2020 Olympics proposal, competition would only take place on manmade structures, though it hasn’t been determined if walls would be constructed indoors or outdoors. Participants would take part in the disciplines of speed, bouldering and lead (also known as sport), with results combined into one overall ranking system to determine medalists.

Waggoner said he likes the strides American climbers have made on the youth level in international competition. If the Olympics were held now, the United States would be competing with top contenders including France, Austria, Germany and Japan.

Waggoner stopped short of predicting how success now might translate to performance in four years, even with top young climbers like Shiraishi and Lightner presumably in the mix.

One wrinkle is that climbers usually specialize in one or two disciplines. For the Olympics, they would need to take part in three.

“I don’t know who we’ll have ready to go in 2020,” Waggoner said. “I do know some of our best U.S. athletes … are starting to train.”

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Joey Mantia extends U.S. medal streak at speed skating worlds; Dutch dominance returns

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Joey Mantia ensured the host U.S. finished with a medal at the world single distances championships. Ireen WüstKjeld Nuis and Jorrit Bergsma ensured the Netherlands finished atop the medal standings.

Mantia joined Shani Davis as the only U.S. men to earn individual medals at three different editions of the championships, taking bronze in the 1500m on the last day of the speed skating meet at the 2002 Olympic oval outside Salt Lake City.

Mantia won the mass start at the last two worlds in 2017 and 2019 (and finished fifth on Sunday, after the 1500m bronze).

Mantia clocked a personal best 1:42.16 in the fifth of 12 pairs of the 1500m. It held up until Nuis (1:41.66) and countryman Thomas Krol (1:41.73) in the last two pairs.

“Was starting to think that I’m so old that I can’t time trial anymore,” Mantia, a 34-year-old whose last 1500m personal best came in 2015, told media in Utah. “Maybe there’s a little bit of hope left.”

Mantia’s medal extended the U.S. streak of making the podium at every world championships this millennium — 16 straight. The single bronze is the smallest medal output since 2000.

Full results are here.

Wüst and Nuis gave the Dutch a sweep of the men’s and women’s 1500m titles, two years after they did the same at the PyeongChang Olympics. Bergsma, an Olympic and world 10,000m champion, earned his first global medal of any color — gold — in the 16-lap mass start.

The Netherlands failed to earn any golds on the first two days of the four-day competition. The dominant Dutch, who topped the medal standings at every Olympics and worlds dating to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, entered Sunday trailing Russia.

But Wüst began the day by clocking 1:50.92 to win the 1500m by .21 over Russian Yevgenia Lalenkova. American medal hope Brittany Bowe, the 2015 World champion who took bronze last year, finished 14th a day after taking eighth in her world-record 1000m distance.

Nuis and Krol went one-two in the men’s 1500m to tie Russia’s medal total. Then Irene Schouten took bronze in the women’s mass start to put the Netherlands ahead for good, followed by Bergsma’s capper.

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Netherlands on the board; more world records at speed skating worlds

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It took four world records from other countries before the Netherlands won its first title in an Olympic program event at the world single distances speed skating championships.

Jutta Leerdam got the dominant skating nation on the board on the third day of the four-day competition and in the ninth Olympic program event. Leerdam scored an upset over defending champion and world-record holder Brittany Bowe, the American who ended up eighth.

Leerdam, 21, prevailed despite having zero World Cup podiums to her name. She clocked 1:11.84, just .23 slower than Bowe’s world record set on the same Utah Olympic Oval last year. Bowe, who recently had her yearlong win streak snapped in the 1000m, finished in 1:12.92.

“It’s a nightmare,” Bowe said, according to media on site.

Later, the Netherlands won the men’s team pursuit in a world record 3:34.68, the fifth world record in Olympic events the last two days on the world’s fastest ice at the 2002 Olympic oval outside Salt Lake City.

Full results are here.

The world championships conclude Sunday, highlighted by American Joey Mantia defending his world title in the mass start.

In other Saturday events, both the men’s 1000m and women’s 5000m world records fell. On Friday, world records were lowered in the men’s 10,000m and women’s team pursuit.

Pavel Kulizhnikov followed his Friday world 500m title with the 1000m crown, repeating his double gold from 2016. Kulizhnikov was one of the Russians banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after he served a prior doping ban.

On Saturday, Kulizhnikov clocked 1:05.69 to take .49 off Dutchman Kjeld Nuis‘ record from last March, also set at Salt Lake City. Nuis, the Olympic 1000m and 1500m champion, took silver, 1.03 seconds behind.

Russian Natalya Voronina and Czech Martina Sablikova both went under Sablikova’s world record in the 5000m. Voronina came out on top in 6:39.02, 2.99 seconds faster than Sablikova’s record from a year ago and 2.16 seconds faster than Sablikova on Saturday.

Voronina’s time would have been the men’s world record as recently as 1993. Sablikova won the previous 10 world titles in the event dating to 2007.

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