At the Tokyo Olympics this summer, several competitions debuted as medal events, including sport climbing. You might be more familiar with the activity if you replace “sport” with “rock.” This year, the world crowned the first Olympic champion rock climbers!

What’s the best way to determine an elite rock climber via competition? Is unadulterated speed up a relatively straightforward wall the best method? Is the skill to accomplish difficult situations – called “problems” in the rock climbing world – more apt? Or is the ability and stamina required to conquer big walls most important? Like the all-around in gymnastics, sport climbing decided to test all the disciplines to establish their titleholders.

Going into the Tokyo Games, the establishment overwhelmingly viewed one woman as the favorite to take the top spot. A Slovenian named Janja Garnbret is widely considered to be the greatest competition climber of all time. She is so good that Outside Magazine published a headline before the Olympics that read “What If Janja Garnbret Loses At the Olympics? Unthinkable? Let’s Think About It.” Garnbret is so good that she has earned the mantle of greatest of all time at the tender age of 22!

Janja Garnbret - photo by Henning Schlottmann

Garnbret began climbing at age seven and just a year later was already stellar enough to enter tournaments. By 2015, aged 16, she won a few bouldering (the name for the aforementioned competition that includes problems) meets and managed to finish seventh in the World Cup standings at the end of the season. Just a year later, she rocketed to a dominant level, winning most World Cup events. At 17, in 2016, Garnbret became the World Champion in lead climbing (the big-wall aspect) and the combined World Cup winner.

Since then she has triumphed in every combined World Cup season. She took gold at the World Championships in 2018 and 2019. The competition paused for a year due to the Covid pandemic but returned in 2021. Austrian Jessica Pilz became the first woman who is not Garnbret to win a major combined event since 2016.

Of course, there was a minor caveat to Pilz’ accomplishment: Garnbret did not compete. She decided to take a break after adding Olympic Champion to her resume in Tokyo!

Janja beat them all in Tokyo - photo by Action Images

Many pundits describe combined rock climbing events in running terms. It would be akin to track athletes competing in the 100-meter dash (speed), the 400-meter hurdles (bouldering), and the marathon (lead). The disciplines are wildly different. For Garnbret to dominate the field as she did, placing first in bouldering, first in lead, and fifth in speed is like making Voltron out of the top climbing specialists.

Garnbret also enjoys hitting the rock walls in the wild. She has completed a slew of extraordinarily difficult problems all over the world.

Garnbret at 15 on a wall in Croatia - photo by Luka Fonda
Janja in Slovenia - photo by Luka Fonda
A technical wall in Spain - image by Luka Fonda
Garnbret in Spain - image from her Instagram page by Tobias Lonzanasto
Another Spanish ascent - image by Tobias Lonzanasto

Janja applies her skills to non-natural objects, too.

Check out this video of her and Domen Škofic scaling Europe’s tallest smokestack!

The plaudits and titles garnered by Garnbret place her in rare territory. Most athletes who can boast similar achievements within their sports do so at a much older age. At 22, Janja could theoretically dominate sport climbing for another decade or more.

Does she have the drive to continue to pile up her mountain of glory? Even if she stopped today, Janja Garnbret is well worthy of a slot in the annals of Woman Crush Wednesday!

Keep your eye out for an upcoming film, titled The Wall: Climb for Gold. The film documents women climbing at the Tokyo Olympics, including today’s honoree, Janja Garnbret. You can view the trailer below:

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