Climbing takes stamina and strength, from fingers to toes and everything in between.
The physical side is only half of the equation.
Solving a rock wall also requires mental acuity, an ability to identify the best route not only to the top, but prevent getting stuck.
Colin Duffy’s mind is a perfect fit.
Mathematically inclined and an avid puzzle solver, the 17-year-old Duffy has scaled his way into the elite level of sport climbing, becoming one of the youngest athletes to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
“A lot of climbers are really smart, love math and science, and analytical thinking, enjoying the problem solving has really helped,” Duffy said. “That’s a big part of climbing. It’s not just a physical sport. It’s also being able to handle the mental pressure and being able to solve the climbs, mentally processing everything before physically getting on it.”
Duffy was like a lot of elite climbers when he was growing up, scaling anything and everything in front of him. Look away for a second and his parents might find him climbing the railing of the neighbors’ stairs or hanging from the balcony.
Duffy was drawn to the climbing wall at the local recreation center at a young age, the massive wall — at least to a 5-year-old — and colorful holds prodding him to scale. He proved to be good at it at a young age and began climbing at ABC Kids Climbing in Boulder, Colorado, where he learned from other elite youth climbers.
Now one of his fellow climbers at ABC is an American teammate for sport climbing’s Olympic debut later this month.
Brooke Raboutou was raised by two world cup champion climbers, Didier Raboutou and Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, and became one of the world’s best climbers. She and Duffy grew up climbing walls together, pushing each other all the way to the Olympic rings.
“At a young age, being around so many strong kids and elite athletes really helped form my climbing,” he said. “Climbing around strong people really motivates you. It’s really cool to go to the Olympics with Brooke.”
Duffy is built more like a lightweight wrestler at a muscular 5-foot-6, so some moves that climbers make are not possible for him.
That’s where the problem solving comes in.
Duffy excels at math and science in school — he’s eyeing an engineering degree in college — and loves the challenge of solving puzzles. He uses his mind to figure out the rubric of rock walls that suits him best, even if it’s not the route other climbers might take.
“He’s just always had an intuition for movement, he’s always had a confidence in his ability,” fellow American Olympian Nathaniel Coleman said “So he’s grown up unafraid of doing big dynamic moves, which is super important for his size. He’s never been held back by the way you’re supposed to climb. He’s always prioritized his own style.”
Duffy’s strength and analytical mind have taken him to heights not even he expected so quickly.
He has been an elite climber on the youth climbing circuit, twice winning International Federation of Sport Climbing youth world championships and finishing second in another.
Duffy has tackled outdoor problems far more experienced climbers might not even attempt, including two 5.14c routes at the Red River Gorge in the same day.
Duffy’s goal had been to make the U.S. Olympic team for the 2024 Paris Games. He pushed the timetable forward in 2020, winning the IFSC Pan American Championships to clinch an Olympic spot as a high school sophomore.
Duffy’s high school held an assembly to celebrate his accomplishment. The attention at such a young age has been a little strange, but it hasn’t altered his determination heading into the Tokyo Games.
“I don’t really care about the results. I just want to climb well,” he said. “Being so young, I don’t really have any pressure on me. I’m less experienced than everyone else, so just go in and give it my best shot, see where that gets me.”
If there’s a problem in front of Duffy, he’ll likely find a way to solve it. No reason to think it won’t happen when climbing goes under the Olympic spotlight.