USA Climbing Going Virtual in 2020-2021 Competition Season

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Qualifying in multiple series won't have the same spotlight this year, but a virtual format could allow athletes to stay competing on the wall. All photos courtesy of USA Climbing
Climbing competitions won’t look the same this year due to COVID-19, but a planned virtual format could allow athletes to keep competing. All photos courtesy of USA Climbing

USA Climbing (USAC) recently announced in a press release significant changes to the upcoming 2020-2021 competition season. Among the changes, USAC announced that the Qualification Series for Youth Bouldering, Collegiate and Paraclimbing will be “going virtual” this year. The press release also noted that the Qualification Series for Youth Lead/TR and the Regional Championships may go virtual as well. In order to deliver the events, USAC will be working with a third-party partner which will be named at a later date.

The announcement comes as many gyms in the United States have reopened their doors following temporary COVID-19-related closure and the industry continues to implement extra safety measures during this period. In June, Climbing Business Journal discussed the future of climbing competitions in a COVID-19 world, and last month the International Federation of Sport Climbing held its first ever remote speed climbing competition. Now, USAC will hold its own version of virtual events starting in November.

 

Making Safety of Athletes Paramount

Safety of the participating athletes was identified as one of the major reasons for the shift to a virtual format. “While we recognize it may not be consistent with the event experience you’ve come to expect, we believe it will provide the safest possible return to competition climbing for our youth athletes,” reads a section of the press release on changes to the Youth Bouldering series.

Instead of large crowds, the virtual format will consist of athletes competing in “events” held over a two-week period. Competitors will attempt sanctioned boulders/routes at the host gym and track their attempts and tops via an app. In order to maintain the “sanctity and integrity” of the competition, athletes will also be required to submit videos in the app of the top five sends which count towards their event score for verification.

Instead of large crowds, qualifying events in the Youth, Collegiate and Paraclimbing series are planned to be held over two-week periods in the newly released virtual format.

In addition to the goal of providing a safer competition environment, the press release noted other benefits of a virtual format for athletes and host gyms. “We also believe it will provide for significantly less travel within Regions for most competitors to achieve Regional Qualification, will be at less total cost for most members and will greatly minimize impacts on climbing gyms during a time of significant challenges,” the press release continues.

Minimizing Impacts on Athletes and Host Gyms

In terms of the impacts on host gyms, of note is that the virtual format will consist of participating gyms selecting existing boulders/routes at their facilities as the sanctioned ones for their event―as opposed to creating entirely new sets like in years past. Additionally, gyms hosting events across different series may hold the events during the same time period―and in some cases the same boulders/routes may be used for different series.

 

In keeping travel for participating athletes at a minimum, only event scores from competitions held in the athlete’s home Division―which will follow the new regional alignment―can count towards Regional Qualification. In addition, only an athlete’s single highest event score will count towards Regional Qualification. And the more gyms that are encouraged to host events, the greater the chance an athlete won’t have to travel as far to try and achieve Regional Qualification.

However, the press release does acknowledge the challenges this format poses for grading. Since grading varies across facilities, the USAC Routesetting Committee and USAC Routesetting Program Manager will be working with USAC’s Certified Routesetters to “achieve as much standardization of grading across the country as feasible,” according to the press release.

2020-2021 Calendar

While many dates are still to be determined and could be impacted by further developments around COVID-19, a tentative schedule for the 2020-2021 season was also included in the press release. The Youth series would kick off the season, with qualification events in Youth Bouldering starting as early as November 2. The Collegiate series is slated to launch in November, followed by the Paraclimbing series in January and Team Trials in the Elite series―formerly the Open series―beginning in March. The Recreational Series announced as part of the competition changes approved in February is estimated to commence in early 2021.

USAC also noted it will be hosting the Women in Climbing Virtual Summit beforehand on September 21-26. The week-long educational event will celebrate women in the climbing community and include presentations from female athletes, coaches and parents. Winners of the recently announced “Best-of-Season” awards and the complete 2020-2021 rulebook are expected to come out in September as well.

More information about the latest competition changes can be found in the full USAC press release, and stay tuned to CBJ for the latest coverage of developments around competition climbing in the U.S.