Canada's Sean McColl struggles as sport climbing makes its Olympic debut

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TOKYO — Canadian climber Sean McColl walked onto the competition stage Tuesday at Aomi Urban Sports Park, dusted his hands with chalk, took a deep breath and smiled.

His sport was finally making its Olympic debut and the 33-year-old Canadian took a second to savour the moment.

"I have been working toward this goal for the sport and for myself for so long, I wanted it to be special," said McColl, who won his first of four world combined titles in 2009.

McColl started strong on the 15-metre climbing wall in the opening speed event, deftly forcing his taut frame upward from hold to hold -- imagine Spider-Man rocketing up a wall with bumps on it -- before slapping the button at the top in a personal-best time of 6.93 seconds.

It was one of the few highlights on the day for the 33-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C.. He struggled in the bouldering discipline and did not advance to the eight-man final, settling for a 17th-place overall finish.

Missed cut or not, McColl made history as the first Canadian to compete in Olympic sport climbing.

"It's hard to put into words," he said. "I can tell the story of how it happened, but we're here on the ground. I'm proud."

After his first speed climb, McColl pumped his fist in the air as he dropped back to the ground on his safety rope. He was slow at the start of his second attempt (9.18) so his first score was used, leaving him 14th in the 20-man field.

Competition at the outdoor venue started in the late afternoon. A few hundred officials, volunteers and media members watched in the blazing sun -- it felt like 38 C with the heat and humidity -- but athletes were on the shaded side of the climbing structure.

In bouldering, climbers use strength and flexibility to contort themselves into awkward positions as they try to scale four different fixed routes -- called problems -- to reach the top. Climbers can try again if they fall to the padded mat below the 4.5-metre wall.

McColl made progress on two of his four bouldering routes but was stymied on the others. The lead discipline closed the qualification session later in the evening.

In lead, athletes try to climb as high as they can on a 15-metre wall in six minutes. Climbers attach safety ropes to quickdraws along the route and have their top height recorded.

Introduced as the "Canadian Ninja" by the in-venue hosts who provided commentary as thumping dance music played, they tried cheering him on to greater heights. McColl, who's strongest in the lead discipline, was able to execute in the early going.

"About halfway through the route I could feel myself having fun," McColl said. "That was when I started just kind of yelling because I was having so much fun."

He was able to climb a little higher and finished eighth in that discipline, bumping him up one spot from 18th.

"At the end of the day, I have a great story to tell, and it was a lot of fun," McColl said.

Mickael Mawem of France finished first in qualifying, followed by Japan's Tomoa Narasaki and American Colin Duffy. Adam Ondra of the Czech Republic, an 11-time world medallist, also made the cut in fifth.

Sport climbing, which held its first world championship in 1991, was one of four sports added to the Olympic program at the Tokyo Games. The others were surfing, skateboarding and karate.

McColl is the lone Canadian climber with a world medal on his resume. He had a four-year run on the "American Ninja Warrior" television series starting in 2014.

Canada's lone entry in women's sport climbing, Alannah Yip of North Vancouver, B.C., will compete Wednesday. The men's final was set for Thursday, a day before the women's final.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2021.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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