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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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UCI looks for new host for 2020 World Road Cycling Championships

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The International Cycling Union (UCI) is looking for a new host for the 2020 World Road Cycling Championships due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Switzerland can no longer host the week-long event in late September after a national decision to extend a ban on events with more than 1,000 people through next month.

Amid reports the competition has been canceled, the UCI clarified Wednesday that it still hopes to hold it in some form, perhaps without some of the junior or senior races.

It now seeks an “alternative project,” preferably still in Europe and on the same dates (Sept. 20-27).

Worlds were due to start in Switzerland on the same day that the rescheduled Tour de France ends, though the senior elite men’s races are typically not on the first three days.

The Tour de France is still scheduled to start Aug. 29.

Last year, American Chloe Dygert starred at road worlds, winning the time trial in dominant fashion. Other world champions in Olympic events: Annemiek van Vleuten (road race), Rohan Dennis (time trial) and Mads Pedersen (road race).

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Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

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In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indianapolis Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by pre-race DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV sitdown on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

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