Now an Olympian, Alec Yoder silencing critics.

IndyStar

During a bumpy, painful and costly trek to the Tokyo Olympics, Alec Yoder heard many voices. He listened to one.

It was his coach, Gene Watson. Not critics who hate Yoder’s celebratory outbursts, skeptics who call him a choker or USA Gymnastics leaders who omit him from national teams.

Instead, he said, Watson’s voice is “in my head.”

The longtime Indianapolis coach died April 2, 2020, in Missouri City, Texas. He was 69. His influence survives.  

As long as 10 years ago, Watson spoke to Yoder about not only making it to an Olympics, but winning a medal. On June 26, the same day Watson was inducted posthumously into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, Yoder made the Olympic team.

Watson even narrowed it to the date of Yoder’s Olympic debut: July 24, 2020. The coach was a year off because of the pandemic but correct on all else. Follow this plan, Watson told the Indianapolis gymnast, and this is what happens.

“I followed his plan, and here is the possibility I have,” Yoder said. “It speaks a lot to his genius.”

The pathway was more gravel and potholes than paved and smooth. But Yoder stayed on the road despite all the detours.

Indeed, if circumstances had been otherwise, the 24-year-old might not be going to Tokyo.

Yoder, 5-10 and 145 pounds, can no longer be an all-around gymnast — that is, do all six events — because of chronic knee pain. He had surgery on his left shoulder after the 2019 national championships, but the pandemic delay allowed him to grow stronger for 2021. He was never going to make the four-man team, but a rules change allowed for specialists. The United States had room for one, and that became Yoder.

“It just feels like everything was lining up for me,” he said.

There were times the Olympics seemed inevitable.

At 17, Yoder won a bronze medal in the all-around in the 2014 Youth Olympics at Nanjing, China. He was second on pommel horse in the 2016 NCAAs as an Ohio State freshman. He was third in the NCAA all-round in 2018, a year in which he made the U.S. team for the World Championships.

There were times when the response was despair:

>> At the 2015 nationals in Indianapolis, Yoder was leading when he fell off the horse. At 18, he would have been the youngest U.S. champion in the event in 40 years.

>> In 2016, he had surgery on his right shoulder and was out of the Olympic Trials.

>> In the 2018 worlds at Doha, Qatar, he fell off the horse in qualifications. “After that, it was, ‘Yoder’s a choke artist. He can’t come through. He’s exactly what we said he was.’ I heard a lot of stuff like that,” he said.

>> During the 2019 nationals, he injured his left shoulder and had another surgery. “A lot of gymnastics is pushing through injuries,” he said. “The things that we do, it’s almost guaranteed for you to get hurt at some point.”

>> After winning pommel horse at 2020 and 2021 Winter Cups, he was left off the national team. So for a year and a half, he was ineligible for a stipend of nearly $2,000 a month.

Yoder scrambled to pay rent for his Columbus apartment. He made deliveries for DoorDash, did photography for a few clients and made withdrawals from savings.

“In my mind, the end goal was, I was going to make the Olympic team,” he said. “If I’m at a job for seven or eight hours a day, it’s not going to work out. I bunkered down and tried to do everything I could to salvage as much as I could.

“I never joined this sport to get rich. If I go broke trying to make the Olympic Games, it’s all good with me.”

It has been an expensive quest. Yoder’s father, Mike, once estimated his son’s gymnastics career had cost the family $100,000 before he left for college.

Yoder once participated in football and basketball at Heritage Christian School but eventually concentrated on gymnastics. He was home-schooled to allow more time to train. For motivation, he kept an Olympic flag by his bed.

Yoder has been transparent about his journey because he said it is important to do so. He has that in common with Simone Biles, who is also 24. It has been meaningful for both to make the Olympic team together.

He said they became friends in 2013, “when I wasn’t great at gymnastics,” and before anyone realized the greatness that awaited Biles. They have endured different pressures, but always pressures.

“When you put in the work, from the very, very bad to the very, very good, that makes a moment like me making the Olympic Games so much sweeter,” Yoder said. “Because I know what it’s like to be all the way at the bottom. Now I know what it’s like to be at the top.”

That is how he felt after high scores in last month’s nationals at Fort Worth, Texas, and Olympic Trials at St. Louis. He did his dismount, raised his hands, then flexed and screamed in exultation.

The routine itself lasts just 40 seconds. But pommel horse “just comes at you,” Watson once said. There are no interludes as the gymnast swings both legs and moves along the leather-covered frame featuring plastic handles (pommels).

Yoder’s reaction reflected release of frustrations, anxieties, insecurities and setbacks.

“In that moment, all your hard work has paid off,” he said. “People always complain about how loud I am, and it’s obnoxious. But if you were in my shoes, you worked like this, going against the grain, giving up opportunities, giving up friendships, staying home and waking up early and eating right . . .

“If you did all of that and had a moment like that, you wouldn’t just sit there and clap. It’s what I always want people to get through their head.”

Making the team has seemingly relieved him of burdens. He acknowledged feeling under-appreciated and forced to prove to others what he knew himself: He was good enough. Now that others agree, he said, his confidence has grown.

In a mock meet at Colorado Springs, Colo., he said he was better than he was at the trials.

“As soon as you make the Olympic team, the pressure goes down,” said Casimiro Suarez, an Ohio State assistant coach and 1980 Cuban Olympian.

Yoder needs one of the top eight scores during qualifications to make the Aug. 1 final on pommel horse. He speculated he will score higher from international judges than from those in the United States.

The favorite is Great Britain’s Max Whitlock, 28, defending gold medalist and world champion in 2015, 2017 and 2019. He has the highest start value, 17.0, compared with Yoder’s 16.5. Yoder called Whitlock his idol.

Yet no one is invulnerable. Whitlock fell off the horse at April’s European Championships. For years, it has been a weak event for American gymnasts.

“My mentality has always been, pommel horse should be easy,” Yoder said. “I do it so much. I’m tall, I have good lines. I love swinging pommel horse.

“Over the past year, I’ve really figured out rhythm and exactly what I have to do to get in that rhythm in competitions.”

Pommel horse is Yoder’s sole shot at a medal. Even if the United States wins a team medal, he is excluded. He said the four other U.S. gymnasts have made him feel part of this team, and he would be as excited by a medal as if he were awarded one himself.

He dreamed of performing in front of a large Olympic crowd, and there won’t be one. The silence in Tokyo will be no different from that of Ohio State’s Steelwood Athletic Training Facility, a 1.4-mile walk from Ohio Stadium.

Yoder never required the cheers of 100,000. There will be a TV audience of billions.

“If I make an Olympic final, I’m not swinging to get fourth. I’m going to swing, and I’m going to swing to be perfect,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to win an Olympic medal. I’m looking for a great routine, not a good one.

“I know I’m on a good trajectory. I feel the best I’ve ever been.”

It was a trajectory laid out by his late coach. The flight path remains true.

Analytical mind pushes Colin Duffy to Olympic heights

AP

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.

Brooke Raboutou Born to make Climbing History At Olympic Games

Article Courtesy of Team USA

Brooke Raboutou recently posted a highlight reel to her Instagram account of some of her favorite moves from two recent world cup climbing competitions in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The average person looking at the walls Raboutou climbs would see just a few odd shapes with no discernible way for a human being to possibly get from the bottom to the top. 

A world-class, soon-to-be Olympic sport climber such as Raboutou, however, sees a route. Instead of a triangle, a weird blob, half a circle and a sloping block, Raboutou sees a bodyweight shift to her right big toe, stretching as far as she can to get fingertips on the next handhold, putting her left toe where her right is and then a jump up. A few moves later and voila, the top. 

Climbing, which will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo, is a sport like few others. Athletes have to be strong and not just in the biggest muscles but also in the smallest ones in their fingers and feet. They have to have endurance, flexibility, balance and the mental strength to go for a risky move high up off the ground with a crowd of people watching and the clock ticking down. 

And Raboutou, 20, was pretty much born for it. 

Her mother is four-time overall climbing world cup title winner Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou and her father is Didier Raboutou, a French national climbing champion. Born and raised in the climbing hotspot of Boulder, Colorado, Raboutou started climbing when she was still in diapers. By nine she was setting records. At 11, she became the youngest person ever to climb a route with a difficulty rating of 5.14b, something that usually takes years of training and hard work. 

She was the first U.S. climber to qualify for the Olympic Games. 

“I think it’s taken a while to even realize what it means to be an Olympian let alone the first one in climbing for the U.S. and what that means history-wise,” she told TeamUSA.org last summer. “I think it’s really cool because my parents were at the top of their sport back when they were competing and if climbing was in the Olympics back then they likely would have been part of it. It’s cool that I can carry that on since they didn’t get a chance to.”

Sport climbing at the Games will be a combined event, meaning that climbers will be tested in three different disciplines and the medals will go to the athletes who do best over the entire competition. 

In speed climbing, which is more popular in Europe than in North America, climbers race side-by-side up a wall on identical routes. Bouldering and lead climbing are much different. The dramatically more difficult and technical routes change at every competition, and the climbers only get a few minutes before the events begin to look at the routes and try to come up with a plan to get to the finish. Most of the time they’re figuring it out as they go along, but there is a time limit and muscle fatigue to consider so they have to keep moving. 

The routes in bouldering are lower to the ground so they don’t use ropes. If they fall off, climbers can start over as many times as they like until the clock ticks down. In lead climbing, they tackle tall, often overhanging walls and must clip their ropes in as they go, adding another element of difficulty. Fall, and the climb is over. 

“(Bouldering and lead climbing) are always changing, and I don’t think people realize we haven’t climbed those climbs before,” Raboutou said. “At the Olympics, the audience is going to be seeing those climbs before we do. So much comes with climbing, especially in the combined format. There are so many things you have to think about because it’s problem-solving, obviously strength, technique, and the mental game is a huge part of any sport but especially climbing. Especially when it’s not going well, and you have to try to think of a different way to get up the wall.”

There have only been a handful of international competitions this year, but Raboutou has finished in the top three in three of them. In the two back-to-back bouldering competitions in Salt Lake City, she finished third both times. The only lead climbing competition of the year so far was held in Innsbruck, Austria, at the end of June and Raboutou ended up making her first-ever final and finished second only to multiple-time world champion Janja Garnbret of Slovenia. 

Next stop: Tokyo.