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These days, with his favored Denver Nuggets sidelined and NCAA tournaments cancelled, climbing whiz kid Colin Duffy spends much of his free time testing his skill with Rubik’s cube algorithms.
As most of us know, finding the fastest ways to get to six solid colored sides in the 3D puzzle isn’t as easy as it looks. A clockwise turn here, a half-turn counter-clockwise there, a double rotation and — you’re often right back where you started.
Kind of like what sometimes happens when climbers try to conquer a bouldering wall with the fewest attempts, in the shortest time possible.
“It seems simple, but there are a lot of intricacies that really make climbing a super-unique sport,” Duffy said. “It’s part solving a puzzle in your mind, and part physical.”
The high school sophomore from Broomfield, Colorado, put all the pieces together at the 2020 IFSC Pan-American Championships last month in Los Angeles, winning a gold medal and a ticket to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, where climbing will make its Olympic debut. Postponed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Games are now scheduled to begin July 23, 2021.
In a grueling, week-long contest of three climbing events — speed, bouldering and lead — Duffy conquered a bad cold, food poisoning at his hotel and a slow start in the unpredictable speed rounds to win his favorite event, lead, and with it the title. He joined three USA Climbing members already qualified for Tokyo: Nathaniel Coleman, Kyra Condie and Brooke Raboutou.
Those four all earned their quotas by name, meaning their status will not be affected by the Games’ postponement. The U.S. has earned the maximum four Olympic quotas for the sport.
At just 16, Duffy is the youngest member of the climbing squad. The Pan-Am Championships was his first international senior event.
“I’ve been youth climbing for the majority of my career, but the last year I really made my way slowly into competing at adult competitions,” Duffy said. “While this was really my first big international adult event, I’ve been doing U.S. events around the country this year, to prepare for competition with all of the older people.”
Older people? You mean all those senior citizens in their early 20s?
“Well, older compared to me,” he laughed. “It’s definitely a shock to me. I’ve pretty much gone from my name being big in the youth world, to all of a sudden now being in the Olympics.”
There’s little doubt climbing greatness was predicted for Duffy; he’s just ascending the peak a little early. As a 10-time youth national champion, as well as a two-time youth world champion in the lead event, his eye was on the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Now that he’s won his way on to the Tokyo team, he’s determined to make the most of the chance.
“I had not been on the adult circuit a long time, so I’d say the Olympics became a dream at the start of the year, when I was able to qualify for Pan-Am,” he said. “But it wasn’t until recently I understood I would be able to be a part of the Olympics. … Qualifying and having the chance to represent Team USA means more than I can ever put into words.”
Duffy’s parents, Nancy and Eric, are still getting used to the idea.
“We knew Colin was a youth national champion and very good at what he does, but we didn’t have this Olympics on our radar,” said Eric, an investment manager. “We thought maybe 2024, but things went well this year leading up to Pan-Am and he performed really well. We’re all still trying to get adjusted to having an Olympian in the house.”
Keeping a narrow focus helps the family stay on an even keel, Nancy said.
“I think the reason Colin is able to take things in stride is we try not to make a big deal out of things,” she said. “We focus on one thing, and then go on to the next thing. Some people keep a broad focus; we try to make it narrow and just (concentrate) on what we’re doing at that moment.”
Mom describes herself as too nervous to accompany her son to his competitions — “I don’t want to harm my child’s chances,” she laughed — so dad is the traveling parent.
“I’m more actively involved in going to competitions and going on outside climbing trips, but Nancy is certainly the anchor getting Colin to practices and making sure we’re all set for things,” Eric said. “It’s definitely a family affair.”
An only child, Colin knew from age 4 that climbing would be a big part of his life. Trips to local recreation centers introduced him to the sport, and by 7 he was training at ABC Kids Climbing in Boulder, where he still trains alongside fellow future Olympian Raboutou.
“My parents did not climb; I found the sport on my own. It really caught my eye,” he said. “Climbing found me, instead of me finding climbing. … My love for the sport grew and grew. I started to compete with Team ABC and went all over the state.”
Duffy combines his athletic career with full-time studies at Stargate Charter School, which he has attended since kindergarten. Not surprisingly for a puzzle lover, he favors math and science.
“I want to go into engineering and hopefully set up a career path for myself after my competitive climbing career is over,” he said. “I’m going straight to college after high school. I really enjoy STEM, that’s why engineering is the goal.”
For now, like most of the world, Duffy spends the vast bulk of his time at home, along with Nancy, Eric and the family pets: Lucky, a Labrador-border collie mix, and Sparky, a cat. He’s staying fit by climbing a small wall in the basement and joining virtual sessions with his personal trainer, as well as his Boulder climbing team.
Unruffled by the Olympic delay, the youngster thinks it might accidentally work in his favor, by giving his teenaged body time to mature. He may also gain chances to test his skills against top Japanese and European climbers in the IFSC World Cup Series.
“For me, it means I get a whole year of growth and training and, hopefully if competitions are rescheduled, I’ll get some more experience,” he said. “I’m just relieved to settle down a little bit and have a whole year to process.”
Duffy hopes the Tokyo Games mark only the beginning of his Olympic career.
“If everything goes on track, looking at athletes being in their 30s and climbing, it’s not far-fetched I could compete at several Olympics, even up to four,” he said. “That would be my goal, qualify for more Olympics.”
Then he seemed to catch himself, perhaps remembering his family’s mantra: do first things, first.
“I’m really trying to roll with the punches a little bit,” he said. “I will definitely have to balance training with college, but right now, I’m really trying to focus on getting through high school.”