We left Andorra in a spa-induced haze. Never before had we experienced such comfort. As we planned to depart this wonderful country, our driver cancelled on us. We thought we had a reliable person in him. We shared jokes, laughs, and memories in the few messages we created. How could Isaiah do this to us? We thought he cared! He was supposed to destroy the Sith, not join them!
Eventually, we had to book separate rides. After a mishap that involved one of us having both passports, and another having none, we eventually ran into each other’s arms, back in France. Finally, reunited in another new city, this time, in Toulouse.
Toulouse was one of the few anchor points of our trip. As soon as we learned in September that there would be a rock-climbing event where 12 climbers (6 men/6 women) qualified for the Olympics, we knew we wanted to make the journey.
It turned out, however, that beyond the rock climbing aspect of our time in Toulouse, we were entirely charmed by this city and the kind people that it contained. Toulouse felt like a city where one could get a little bit of everything—there were stone streets and lots of history and culture in the small city center, there were students everywhere from the city’s universities, there was a vibrant industrial element, and it was much more affordable than the other areas in France we had been. We arrived on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. Due to our transportation cancelling on us last minute, we took two separate cars that each had one seat available from Andorra. We met up again in front of an old-timey carousel in a park in the center of the city, and then made our way to the suburbs where our Airbnb was. There we met our host, Christine, who warmly welcomed us and remains one of the most kind and memorable people we met on our journey.
The following day, Thanksgiving Day, we got up early and headed straight for the gym for Day 1 of the competition. The men were competing in their qualifier first, and on our walk over, we speculated as to what the format of the day would look like, what the gym layout would be, and how many people would be there. It ended up being much less structured than we imagined, where there was just one enormous room (maybe 15,000 square feet) with bleachers up against one wall, plastic foldable chairs on the ground, and the climbing routes set up on the opposite wall. Coaches and athletes were milling about amongst the crowd throughout the day and we geeked out chatting with some of our favorite climbers and taking photos with some of the athletes that had already qualified for the Olympics and were coming out to the event for support. The day started with speed climbing, with two speed climbing routes set up side-by-side so that two climbers where always ascending the route head-to-head. We were amazed at what it looked like in person to see someone streak up nearly 50 feet into the sky in around 5 seconds flat. It appeared almost animalistic the way they moved their limbs up the wall—imagine the footage you see of a cheetah in a dead sprint trying to take down a gazelle, except in the y-axis. (See here for average professional speed and here for super fast professional speed)
With our vocal cords thoroughly warmed up after cheering for speed climbing, we then moved to the other side of the room and turned our attention to the bouldering portion of the day. There were four bouldering routes hidden behind navy blue curtains, and in the break between the two disciplines, a staff member had the unlucky job of getting up on a ladder and revealing the boulders as a bunch of necks craned to see what the athletes would be up against. We went up and looked at them closely, postulating about what the trickiest parts of each route would be and how the movements may look. We have no idea if it actually sounded as if we knew what we were talking about, because in reality the boulders looked so difficult, we had no idea how the climbers would even start.
The event began and it was formatted in such a way where the first few climbers cycled through Route 1 one-by-one until eventually there would be one climber on Route 1 and one of the climbers that had already completed Route 1, on Route 2. This continued until eventually all four routes were being climbed simultaneously in front of our eyes. To say it was entertaining would be an understatement. It was riveting. It was during this time that it hit us how much more this sport is going to explode after being featured in the Olympics if it is this exciting to watch. Of all the routes, Route 3 was the most incredible to behold. Climbers had to start facing the crowd, with their back to the route, and grab onto the starting holds, flip themselves upside down, and wedge their foot between two boulders to get off the ground. They then had to contort their bodies around to put their hands where their foot was, and then move up to a round hold that only had enough room for a single finger. They then shift their weight and ever so delicately switch their single finger in the hold from their left to their right hand before finishing off the route (See here for the legendary Adam Ondra easily do it). We watched this in total awe, knowing that in no universe would we ever have even 1/10th the skill and strength these climbers had.
After bouldering there was a long break, and the third discipline, lead climbing, finished off the day. Based on how the athletes were performing, we realized that the Japanese climbers competing were likely to top the leader board. This made the day extremely interesting, because based on current Olympic rules, only 2 men and 2 women from each country can compete in the Olympics and 2 Japanese men had already qualified in a previous event. That meant that the top 8 climbers of the day would be going to the Olympics. The first day of the climbing event was supposed to a men’s qualifier and the third day was supposed to be the men’s finals, but with the success of the Japanese climbers, it essentially nullified the significance of the finals and made it so just qualifying for the finals ensured your spot on the Olympic team. The lead climbing route was interesting to watch in that each climber went one-by-one climbing an incredibly long and complex route and after a few climbers went, it became clear where the most difficult sequences in the climb were. It would get incredibly loud with cheers each time a climber would get to a difficult portion of the climb. During this event, an American climber named Nathaniel Coleman cemented his position in the top 8, and our cheers were saturated with patriotism as he climbed his way to the Olympics.
The day finished up at around 7 p.m. and we rushed home to start cooking an abbreviated Thanksgiving dinner. The menu consisted of scalloped potatoes, a vegetable medley and, as an homage to our current country, croissant stuffing. Our host Christine looked at us quizzically as we tore up ten croissants and added them to our dish. “We don’t usually use croissants this way…” she said, making us worried we had committed a sacrilegious act by using croissants as something other than an accompaniment to a tiny espresso. We finally had our meal at around 10 p.m. with a bottle of French wine and a baguette, and together with Christine had a lovely rest of our French Thanksgiving. Our Francsgiving.
The second day of excitement kicked off the women’s side of the competition and it was another full day of unbelievable athleticism and edge-of-your-seat action. In the women’s competition we had three American women vying for a spot in the Olympics and the same situation occurred as with the men: the Japanese climbers were on the top of the leaderboard and since two Japanese women had already qualified for the Olympics in a previous event, making the finals of the Toulouse competition was all the female athletes needed to punch their ticket to the Olympics. The highlight of the day was the last event, lead climbing. The route was of greater difficulty than the men’s had been the previous day, and the last few moves of the route were by far the most difficult. The crowd was on their feet as climber after climber made it to the top portion, only to be undone right before the finish. Not a single climber topped the route. Based on the results, one of our American women, Kyra Condie, finished in the top 8 and secured her Olympic spot. We were sitting nearby when the results were calculated and it was a priceless sight to see her burst into tears of joy with her parents by her side as she found out she would be an Olympian (Life time achievement unlocked).
After two days of incredible climbing displays, we spent our third full day in Toulouse in the climbing gym trying to tackle our own routes in an experience that can only be gently referred to as…humbling. We got that feeling you get after watching too much sports where you’re all amped up to go do that sport yourself and you think that just by watching the sport you somehow got better. The gym in Toulouse was extremely difficult and after a few hours we decided to throw in the towel, thoroughly exhausted. We went home and made dumplings using our Thanksgiving leftovers and ate away our sorrows.
Our final full day in Toulouse was spent exploring the city and visiting old churches and quaint cafes. We spent the entire afternoon perusing an extremely crowded Christmas market and picked out some nice gifts which included, but was not limited to some Nutella-like hazelnut spread with Pop-rocks in it. It was a true success and an enjoyable way to close out a grand experience in a beautiful little city.
Until next time fellow reader(s),