And Just Like That, Speed Climber Emma Hunt Is Headed To Paris
by Karen Price
Just before the start of the women’s speed climbing semifinal at the 2023 IFSC World Championships in Bern, Switzerland, Emma Hunt closed her eyes, took a deep breath and said a few words to herself.
Even though that was just a couple of weeks ago, she couldn’t tell you exactly what she said. It’s all a blur.
“There was so much going on,” said the 20-year-old from Woodstock, Georgia. “I was just trying to calm myself and run my lap no matter what happened.”
Just over seven seconds later, Hunt had qualified for the Olympic Games Paris 2024. As she sat back in the rope to be lowered the 50 feet down from the top of the wall, she began to process what just happened.
“It was just total disbelief,” she said. “The rope was kind of spinning me around, so I got a chance to see my coaches and see them celebrating, so that kind of confirmed it. I didn’t think it was real for a second.”
Sport climbing made its Olympic debut at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 with a combined format in which every athlete competed in bouldering, lead and speed. In Paris, bouldering and lead climbing will remain as combined, but speed climbing will be its own medal event, which makes Hunt the first U.S. athlete ever to qualify for speed climbing at the Olympic Games.
“It’s definitely still sinking in,” she said.
Hunt started climbing at age 5 when the sport became a favorite activity for her entire family, and she joined the team at Stone Summit Climbing & Fitness Center near her hometown at 13. That was when she started speed climbing, and it was also right around the same time that sport climbing was first announced as a 2020 Olympic sport.
Whereas bouldering and lead climbing are methodical and rely on endurance, strength and real time problem-solving, speed climbing requires raw power. Competitors look more like Spider-Man running up the side of a building than mortal humans as they race up the 15-meter wall trying to be fastest to the top.
Hunt was drawn to it before she ever tried it.
“It was like the forbidden wall (at the climbing gym),” she said. “You couldn’t try it unless you were on the team because it had this weird belay system that needed two people.”
Another unique thing about speed climbing is that, unlike bouldering and lead climbing, the route never changes. Site to site, year to year, climbers worldwide compete using the same handholds and the same footholds laid out in exactly the same way.
Just as in a sprint on the track or in the pool, the results come down to fractions of a second.
That makes muscle memory extremely important, and it also requires a great deal of fine-tuning.
“Like I need my foot on this exact tip or I need my hips to turn this position on this move before I get to this hold,” Hunt said. “The details are so microscopic it’s hard to do it all at once, so training is mostly just trying to learn how to do all the little details consistently.”
The path athletes take up the wall is called the beta, Hunt explained, and there can be both big differences and subtle differences in how climbers get from the bottom to the top.
“You can choose your beta based off so many different things, like your height or whether you’re more explosive or static, so really trying to play to your strengths,” she said. “For me, I’m at the taller end of the women’s field and I really kind of enjoy doing more of the jumping, explosive stuff, so my moves on the wall are definitely bigger than the other women, just because it works better for me.”
Hunt admits she’s been feeling the pressure over the last year. She finished second in the women’s speed rankings last year, behind only Olympian and current world record holder Aleksandra Miroslaw of Poland, but only 14 athletes per gender will qualify to compete in Paris.
“That’s less than we usually have in a final,” Hunt said.
Hunt earned her spot in Paris by being in the top two at the world championships. If she didn’t qualify there, she would have needed to win the continental qualifier or wait for the Olympic Qualifier Series, which will run March through June of next year. A couple of sixth- and seventh-place finishes at IFSC World Cups this year left her disheartened at times.
“Sixth and seventh felt really far from one and two,” she said. “I think just the idea of qualifying has been so big and so much pressure, it was just overwhelming a lot of times this year. It was hard to focus on the competitions at hand when I was always thinking about the future.”
Now, she feels like she can finally breathe.
The semifinal in Bern pitted her against Miroslaw for a spot in the final and the coveted Olympic slot. The competition took an unexpected turn when Miroslaw slipped and came off the wall within the first few moves and was out of the race.
Hunt heard something and knew Miroslaw wasn’t next to her, but that was it.
“I think the competitive drive really took over,” she said. “I knew something happened, but I didn’t know if she just slipped or fell, and I know how fast she is. She’s good at recovering, so I went full steam ahead because I knew she could come back at any second. Then at the top I realized she wasn’t coming back.”
In the final, Hunt lowered her own American record time with a 6.67 seconds but came in second to Desak Made Rita Kusuma Dewi of Indonesia, who finished in 6.49 seconds.
Hunt’s a big planner, she said, but for now she’ll take advantage of a little downtime.
“I said to my coach, ‘Can we plan?’ and he was like, ‘Emma, take a second,’” she said. “Enjoy it. Breathe. Rest.”