Team USA

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.”