Even before the final scores were calculated, Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret, the best female sport climber in recent years, dropped her head into her hands and shed tears.
She came into the Tokyo Games as the favorite to win the women’s sport climbing event in its Olympic debut, and said she had felt immense pressure to win. And even under all that stress, she did.
Climbers from Japan joined her on the medals podium: Miho Nonaka won the silver medal and Akiyo Noguchi won the bronze.
“This was the hardest competition of my entire career,” Garnbret said. “It was definitely super hard, especially mentally hard.”
In front of no paying spectators, with music pulsing throughout the outdoor arena and the announcer encouraging climbers by saying, “C’mon, push it!” and “Bring it on!” Garnbret pulled herself up walls of fake boulders and man-made rocks farther than her competition on Saturday.
Garnbret finished first in two of the three climbing disciplines that were combined into one Olympic event. In speed climbing, the first of the three climbing segments in the final, the competitors sprint to the top of a wall, using memory and sheer power. She finished fifth to set up the rest of her night.
“From then on it was actually easier,” she said.
She then finished first in bouldering, which requires climbers to problem solve as they ascend multiple climbing walls without a rope, and she reached the top of two of the three walls. None of her seven competitors could even get to the top of one.
At times hanging on only by her red, chalk-covered fingernails, Garnbret, 22, also was No. 1 in lead, the segment in which competitors use a rope to see how far they can climb up a technical wall given a set amount of time.
As she and the other medalists stood on the podium, the biggest cheers came when the Japanese climbers were announced. Not only did the volunteers in the stands applaud Nonaka and Noguchi, but groups of fans who had gathered on one big walkway next to the arena also leapt up and down in exhilaration. Those fans were warned not to stop and watch the event, even from afar, by volunteers holding up signs that told them to keep walking. Yet they stayed.
One man had dressed up as Mount Fuji and wrapped himself in a Japanese flag. Others raised their cellphones to take videos and photos of the climbers, who were just specks in the distance as they scaled the different walls.
At the end of the night, those fans might have recognized Garnbret. She was the climber who finished at the top.