What counts as a tip? Controversy at the US Men’s National Team Trials

The US men’s national bouldering team was decided yesterday at the Stone Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. The event decided which three athletes would join US Olympian Nathaniel Coleman and World Cup gold medalist Sean Bailey on the US national bouldering team. The event was riddled with controversy, with some berating USA Climbing for playing as favorites or failing to make consistent judgments between rounds.

The controversy

According to the US climbing code, a top is defined as follows:

8.12.2 A competitor’s attempt will be judged differently “Successful” where the contestant is in a controlled position:

  1. i) with both hands on top hold; or
  2. ii) stand on the boulder,

and in any case the Climbing Judge may raise his hand and/or say “OK”.

In the semi-final round there was a concern regarding Charles Barron. Barron was awarded a top despite slipping while matching. Originally, he was not awarded the top. Ultimately, he earned the top after appealing the call. Under USA Climbing’s own rules, a top is described by controlling the target. Naturally, control is an expression of opinion. They assumed Barron was in control of the hold despite his slip.

That’s potentially fair, at least it’s part of the game. However, when the same thing happened in the final, he was not awarded a top on appeal. The trials are very similar in terms of matching time and control time. Near-tops are always heartbreaking, but important to judge properly. Zander Waller was pushed out of the final by this call.

Waller was penalized with two yellow cards for his reaction on social media. He apologized in the post above. It’s a rare thing to see, but when he struck, Waller slammed the judges and USA Climbing for favoritism. He did so in heated language. This language is actually a violation of USA Climbing 3.14.1 behaviour rules. Two yellow cards are grounds for disqualification. Waller is not allowed to compete in the lead this weekend.

Any of the following matters will result in an immediate disqualification for conduct:

a) Failure to follow the instructions of the Judges, Organizer or USA Climbing Officials when in the Competition Area;

b) distracting or obstructing any participant preparing or attempting a route;

c) refusal to comply with advertising regulations for clothing and equipment;

d) Issuing two (2) yellow cards in a sanctioned event.

In all sports, athletes must respect the decisions of the referees, but at the same time, USA Climbing and the IFSC have made provision in Rule 8.14.7 of the USA Climbing Rulebook for attempts that approach, but may not be the same, a top.

When a top at the Team Trial of at least a year with Colin Duffy was in question, Duffy returned to the mats to try the boulder problem again. He ultimately earned the top. The same happened to Canadian Olympian Sean McColl at an IFSC Bouldering World Cup in Salt Lake. McColl was brought back to the mat and he solved the problem. It is surprising that this decision could not afford Waller’s appeal.

Former US National Champion and commentator for that event, Alex Johnson, even mentioned that she didn’t give Barron’s try a top spot in the semifinals because she compared it to his near-top of M3. This was the context and first major story of the US National Team’s Trials competition. Barron, of course, is not to blame. Barron climbed a good competition and convinced like every athlete. It’s Waller’s verdict that’s a cause for concern.

The Chi family detailed this concern in a recent Instagram post. The text is reproduced below.

In case you haven’t heard, there was some controversy at the National Team Trials yesterday. In the semifinals (top video), a climber reached the finish line for a split second before his foot came off and he fell. At that time the judges did not give him the tip. He appealed the call and, after review, was awarded the contract. This allowed the climber to advance to the finals.

@zanderwaller, on the other hand, was knocked out and missed the finals due to the call. He reacted immaturely by letting his emotions get the better of him. He then got two yellow cards, his bouldering results were revoked and he is not allowed to compete in the lead.

Then in the bouldering final (bottom video) the same controversy happened again. The same climber adjusted the target hold for a split second before his foot came off and he fell. Again the judges didn’t give him the top and again the climber appealed. However, on appeal, the judges ruled that he had no control.

We believe that these two calls were incompatible. Both games lasted a split second before his foot slammed. However, note that we don’t think the climber did anything wrong, and we’re really sorry you’re stuck in the middle of this controversy.

We believe that allowing split-second matches with equal control leads to a slippery slope.

We believe that the decision in the semi-finals (ie handing over control) was controversial/surprising to everyone in the climbing community.

we believe that @zanderwaller had good reason to be angry. And although his actions were unsportsmanlike, he sincerely apologized for his actions.

We believe the climbing community deserves an explanation and better transparency going forward.

We believe that USAC @usclimbing should investigate the rumors of bias/preference.

But most importantly, we believe that USAC @usclimbing went too far with the disqualification @zanderwaller for the rest of this competition. Taking off his bouldering scores should be enough. And USAC should have shown some empathy, considering the original call was so highly controversial.

The competition

Then the event started. Barron came out first on M1 with a strong first try. A tricky and difficult pole preceded a long jump to the sloping zone hold. Barron couldn’t reach the handle. In fact, only four athletes managed to secure this zone in what appeared to be the toughest move of the competition.

Despite being unable to reach the top, Ross Fulkerson earned zone in the final seconds. That got him going. He was the only athlete to reach Zone without jumping, turning the move into an extended coordination move with a toe-hooking catch on the initial volume. He timed before moving to the front. Likewise, Ben Hanna was not top, but secured the zone several times. He couldn’t pull through the last meters towards the finish.

US Olympic gold medalist Colin Duffy made the climb in two attempts and Zach Galla climbed it in four. They held first and second place respectively as they entered M2. The tricky traverse saw even fewer tops than M1 and only Galla managed to squeak to the last hold. Duffy seemed frustrated with his attempts but held onto second place as no athlete including Duffy could reach zone on M2.

M3 brought with it a classic double dyno sequence, with athletes jumping and moving fast through ribbed volumes. Barron was out first and climbed the block well and reached zone on his third try. In doing so, he climbed past the zone and secured the top with one hand. Adjusting, he seemed steady for half a second, then shook himself off the wall when his left hand slipped off the volume he was pedaling at. We already mentioned this case in comparison to his semifinal boulder.

Fulkerson, Duffy and Galla Topped and Fulkerson replaced Hanna in third place. Galla retained first place with three tops while Duffy took second place with two tops. M4 also proved a challenge for everyone except Galla who almost blitzed the boulder. He shot up dry from a one-handed catch but picked up the problem on his next try. Duffy reached Zone but was unable to complete the problem. Hanna climbed to third place and the Boulder national team with his M4 Flash. Fulkerson lost to Hanna by tries.


1 – Zach Galla

2 – Colin Duffy

3 – Ben Hannah

4—Ross Fulkerson

5 – Lukas Muehring

6 – Charles Barron

Men’s Boulder US National Team

Nathaniel Coleman

Sean Bailey

Zach Galla

Colin Duffy

Ben Hanna

Featured image by Zander Waller

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