Colin Duffy: Rising to the challenge

Colin Duffy takes part in the IFSC Pan-American Championships
Colin Duffy takes part in the IFSC Pan-American Championships

In March this year, the USA’s Colin Duffy qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games by topping the men’s combined standings at the Pan American Sport Climbing Championships. In many ways his win that day was remarkable, not least because he was taken ill during the qualifying round and needed to fight through a cold to secure victory.

Another reason his triumph stunned the sporting world was that Duffy is only 16 years old.

Sport climbing is making its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020 and features three different disciplines: Speed, Bouldering and Lead. Climbers will compete in each of these at the Games, with final rankings determined by the athletes’ combined performance. Duffy, who has been competing in his first full year on the adult circuit, showed an impressive aptitude in all three disciplines to become the fourth and final member of the U.S. Olympic team. caught up with the climber to talk about the “shock” he felt after his historic Olympic qualification, his relief at the postponement and his hopes for the upcoming Games.

Tokyo 2020: How are your preparations for the Olympics going? Are you able to train at the moment?

Colin Duffy: I’m stuck indoors but thankfully I have a little climbing wall in my basement that I’ve been able to train on and just get some workouts in. I also do some virtual workouts with a personal trainer that’s been working with me. And then my climbing team at home, we’ve also been doing some virtual workouts. It’s not as much as I want, but it’s been enough to keep me busy. 

Tokyo 2020: You’re 16 and have already qualified for an Olympics. But how did you get your start in climbing?

Colin Duffy: I found climbing at a local recreational centre when I was about four or five. And then I just kind of worked my way up through the hierarchy of climbing gyms... and then from there found better facilities and my youth team is the best in the U.S. Lots of well-known climbing pros came out of there, lots of world-class climbers, and so I’ve been training with them ever since. Where I live in Denver there are really good facilities, which are super helpful for training. I really fell in love with climbing from a young age and just really found better facilities and have just gotten better.

Tokyo 2020: Who are the climbers you look up to? Do you have any sporting idols?

Colin Duffy: Definitely lots of people. When I started it was Chris Sharma, who’s one of the biggest names in the game. And then over the years getting to watch a lot of the athletes I’ll get to compete with at the Olympics, like Adam Ondra and Tomoa Narasaki, I’ve just admired their talent. They’re definitely some of the biggest names and it’s gonna be pretty cool to compete with some of the names I’ve idolised for a long time.

Tokyo 2020: Your Pan American Championships win sealed your Tokyo 2020 spot. How did it feel to qualify for the Olympics?

Colin Duffy: It’s hard to explain in words. It was just so exciting and super surprising, you know I’m just honoured to get this opportunity to represent my country, experience the whole Olympic shebang. It’s just really humbling and just exciting. My biggest emotion was probably shock.

Tokyo 2020: We heard that during the Pan American Championships you were taken ill before sealing qualification. Can you tell us about that?

Colin Duffy: I definitely caught some sort of cold and in the qualification round I wasn’t feeling too well. At that point I wasn’t really sure if I’d have a chance to give it my best shot. But thankfully it all worked out in the end.

2018© Daniel Gajda

Tokyo 2020: Obviously athletes have been reacting to the news about the postponement of the Olympics. How did the announcement make you feel?

Colin Duffy: Pretty much relieved. I’m really glad they put everyone’s health at the forefront. Just really relieved that I’ll have 12 months to grow and have a better training regimen, rather than cramming all my stuff into four months. I’m really relieved that I have more time to plan things out and ease into the training schedule. It’s a good thing for me, I’d say. Especially being young and still growing. 

Tokyo 2020: Talking about your age, what does it feel like to compete against people who are a lot older than you?

Colin Duffy: It’s definitely pretty weird as I’ve only been competing with adults for a year. My first competition with all ages was just over a year ago. I’ve gotten used to it now. I really don’t focus on the age, like I normally would in a youth competition. I just try to climb to my potential and don’t really let the other competitors get into my head or anything. So it’s not too big of a change to be competing with adults and people who are well into their thirties in the Olympics.

Tokyo 2020: What are you hoping for from the Olympic Games? 

Colin Duffy: I just want to climb to my potential. I really have no expectations regarding placement, especially as I have such limited experience. I’ve never competed with many of the athletes there, like in a World Cup or anything. Hopefully I’ll get that next year, but I’m really just hoping to climb to my potential and have a fun time and just enjoy the whole experience. I’m not gonna put the pressure of results on myself or anything, since it’s hopefully the first of several Olympics, being so new on the adult scene. 

Tokyo 2020: Do you look at the other climbers as competition?

Colin Duffy: I really just try to concentrate on myself. I mean, all the other competitors are always going to be there, but really the main thing you have to concentrate on is your performance. You definitely realise, I’m standing next to this guy and, oh, I’m competing with him but really I just try to focus on myself and living up to my potential, rather than worrying about what other people are doing. 

Tokyo 2020: Finally, what’s your favourite place that you’ve ever climbed?

Colin Duffy: My favourite place I’ve ever climbed is the Red River Gorge in Kentucky here in the U.S. Just like beautiful tall walls. It was really the biggest outdoor experience I’ve had. Just getting to get on some really hard sport routes and just enjoy a world-renowned area. That place really stuck out as one of the most memorable climbing trips I’ve ever been on.