The following is a guest post* by reader, Pete Horstmann. Thanks for sharing your perspective with Chalk Dust!
A “Dark Horse” Generation Comes of Age at CCS Nationals
By Pete Horstmann
As Metrorock’s Dark Horse Series enters its 10th season, its historical significance as the pre-eminent US bouldering competition has never been more certain. Dark Horse is known for its cutting edge setting, scoring, cash prizes, huge crowds, video highlights, and, of course, the high level competition it attracts. Every year Dark Horse draws the best professional boulderers from all over the country, and sometimes Canada, to compete in its three preliminary events and Dark Horse finals. Dark Horse is an annual celebration of the bouldering community at large from climbers who just joined a gym to the grizzled veterans that often show up in the Masters category.
Quietly lurking beneath the surface of all this success is a tidal wave of North East youth competitors who have grown to consider the Dark Horse as their personal training ground for competition bouldering. For them, Dark Horse initiated a spirit of competition and camaraderie that pushed them to new heights. In fact, the winner of the Dark Horse Junior or Youth category in December is seldom the same person winning the corresponding USA Climbing bracket at Divisionals in January. Dark Horse was, and still is, the only major private bouldering competition that features a youth finals allowing a generation of youth climbers to gain valuable on-sight experience not available in the USAC format until the Championship rounds. To make it even more challenging, and in order to take advantage of this on-sight experience, youth climbers have to finish in the top 3 in their category. This limited number makes it more challenging for the youth climbers to make finals than the professionals competing for six spaces in the open category. It comes as no surprise that this format is helping to produce some of the best youth boulderers in the country who have now aged into the college ranks and are killing it.
The Dark Horse format has produced a regional contingent of college age climbers who have the battle scars of 8-9 years of grueling redpoints followed the same day by an on-sight finals. To fully understand the impact that Dark Horse has had on a generation youth boulderers, you need look no further than Collegiate Nationals this past season in Houston where six, (YES 6), of the top ten places in female Bouldering were held by Dark Horse veterans with Meagan Lynch, Bimini Horstmann (Davidson ‘22), and Lily Canavan (University of Vermont ‘21) finishing 2nd, 4th and 5th. On the men’s side, Dark Horse veterans were even more dominant taking four of the top five places. Dark Horse Champion Jesse Grupper (Tufts ‘20) won everything a male collegiate could win at Collegiate Nationals 2018 except for speed. Dark Horse veterans Solomon Barth (Stanford ‘19) took 2nd, Eric Jerome took 4th and Ray Hansen took 5th. Dark Horse veteran Raffael Leo (University of Utah ‘20) placed 5th in Speed.
Dark Horse veterans also held seven out of the top ten places in lead climbing including winner Katie Lamb (Stanford ‘21). Barth grabbed a 3rd place finish while Canavan & Horstmann grabbed 4th & 5th. Dark Horse veteran Tori Perkins finished second in lead. Grupper, Barth, Lamb, and Horstmann would have controlled most of the podium for the “overall” category had the category not vanished mysteriously without a trace.
Other Dark Horse veterans who cracked the top ten included last year’s CCS Bouldering National Champion Zoe Steinberg (Temple)(Bouldering & Sport); Kayla Lieu (Dartmouth ‘19)(Bouldering & Speed); Kerry Scott (UNC ‘20)(Bouldering and Sport); former CCS National Sport Champion Mikayla Tougas (SUNY Adirondack ‘19)(Sport), and Harry Ainsworth (University of Colorado ‘22)(Sport). Dark Horse regulars Sam Enright (Utah ‘20), Julia Talbot (Champlain ‘21), and Sage DeChiara (Brandeis ‘21) also competed at Collegiate Nationals and will be regulars for years to come.
Talbot deserves a special award for sportsmanship for sacrificing her performance when DeChiara suffered a serious injury while competing at Collegiate Nationals. Talbot had won the Northeast Division and would likely have been a major factor in Collegiate finals.
When all was said and done, Dark Horse veterans occupied 11/30 of the places on the US College Team competing in Bratislava at the 2018 University Climbing Championships where Lynch went on to be crowned World Champion in bouldering.
For these athletes, Dark Horse was created at the right time and place to allow them to excel. In 2009, there were significantly less climbing gyms, private competitions, and USA Climbing events for youth climbers. What all of these climbers had in common though was USAC Old Division 5. I am not talking about our friends in the Great Lakes & Midwest that currently occupy NEW Division 5. I am talking about the ”Old” Division 5 which until 2015 consisted of the 6 New England states, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. Nine of the thirteen original colonies plus two that were not original. (Which 2 were not original colonies is a great trivia question that will not be answered here). OLD Division 5 was, and is still, home to longstanding climbing competitions like Dark Horse, the Burn Series, Ring of Fire, and JIBS. It was not uncommon for youth climbers to spend one weekend in Boston for Dark Horse & the next weekend on the New Jersey Turnpike heading to JIBS. OLD Division 5 also hosted Open Nationals in 2014 and 2015 and is now home to Boston Boulder Brawl and the Tri-State Bouldering Series. Supply has caught up with the demand of this competitive climbing generation.
Despite the rapid growth and evolution of the sport, Dark Horse is still the gold standard by which all other bouldering competitions will be measured. Over the last ten years Dark Horse has consistently set the standard for bouldering competitions and none of these competitions have eclipsed Dark Horse as the major climbing event on the bouldering competition calendar and certainly none caters to the youth climbers and the pros alike.
Dark Horse veterans having success at Collegiate Nationals is nothing new. In fact, it is the norm, not just the sheer volume of this year’s class. Dark Horse veterans have won the CCS National Bouldering championship for men 4 out of the last 5 years and for women 4 out of the last 6 years. For sport, the CCS National Champion has hailed from the Dark Horse incubator 2 out of the last 3 years in both men’s and women’s categories. Even in an off year for Sport in 2017, Dark Horse still controlled half of the podiums. Speed has been somewhat more elusive for Dark Horse veterans at CCS Nationals where they have not won a National Championship since 2012 and a drought of podium finishes until Leo secured 2nd place in 2017.
What forces have conspired to make Dark Horse the incubator of today’s Collegiate Nationals and granted them the ability to claim so many spots on the US Team? It starts and ends with multiple Dark Horse competitions per year. Because Dark Horse has always featured a red point round followed by a pro finals onsight competition it mirrors the CCS format very closely. Also, many of these veterans were competing in pro finals by their 16th birthday. Canavan, Lamb, Horstmann, Enright, and Leo can each count on one hand the number of Dark Horse events that they have missed over the last 9 years. Others have competed in multiple Dark Horse events for several years. It is a geographical advantage, but one that they have capitalized on.
Yes, the gyms, the teams, coaches, and competitors themselves deserve significant credit. Indeed, PRG was a national force in youth climbing with Steinberg on the same team with Grupper and Barth who were part of a large contingent that went to Youth Nationals twice a year. Lynch and Lieu were part of a similar youth team at Earthtreks. Canavan, Horstmann, Enright, and Leo were part of a core group of climbers on the Metrorock Team that racked up frequent flyer miles attending Youth Nationals. More recently, Horstmann, Lamb, and Ainsworth were also part of the foundation of a new CRG Watertown Team in their high school years. Team Rock out of New Rochelle has also evolved in recent years to dominate the New Division 8 with several national champions already in their stable and Matthew Rube (Dartmouth ‘21) helping Lieu raise their college team to national prominence. Francesca Metcalf (Metrorock) and Andy Lamb (Waimia) were both multi-time CCS champions and Dark Horse champions. It cannot be denied that gyms, coaches, teams, and teammates are a significant factor in OLD Division 5’s success. However, other noteworthy teams from Seattle, Boulder, Atlanta, and Texas possess all of these ingredients in abundance and did not dominate Collegiate Nationals in the same manner as their Dark Horse friends.
Here is a flashback to just 5 short years ago when Old Division 5 had the 2013- 2014 bouldering Divisionals at Gravity Vault in NJ. On a cold January day in Saddle River, Steinberg was wrapping up a 2nd place finish in the FJR category, against Nieshalla and Scott. Lynch grabbed 1st place against Lamb, Lieuw, Canavan, Tougas, and DeChiara in FYA. Horstmann and Talbot grabbed 1st and 2nd in FYB. In MYA, Barth and Grupper grabbed 2nd and 3rd in a field that also featured Enright, Rube, and Leo. Jerome also competed in MYB. Incidently, Metrorock, PRG, and Earthtreks would all finish in the top 10 teams at Nationals that year with Metrorock grabbing 4th place.
Within the same season, Steinberg, Lamb, Scott, Grupper, and Barth all competed as Dark Horse open finals with Steinberg and Lamb finishing 3rd and 4th to Angie Payne and Megan Mascarenas in a field that also included future stars Brooke Raboutou and Margo Hayes. Horstmann and Canavan slugged it out for 1st and 2nd in the Youth Female category with Talbot. Canavan and Grupper would go on to win Dark Horse championships while Barth, Horstmann, Lieu, Lamb, Steinberg, and Lynch would visit the Dark Horse pro podium multiple times often in the same season. Indeed, Canavan and Lynch would have break-out performances in Dark Horse in the years that followed that have propelled them forward. All of these Dark Horse accomplishments occurred while this group of athletes were still in high school. Now they are all in college, competing at Collegiate Nationals and killing it.
More impressive still is a younger generation of climbers who are just starting high school who also have 8-9 years of Dark Horse experience under their belts and who burst on the Dark Horse stage this past season by competing in the open category with a trio of 15 year olds securing podium positions. (Helen Gillet, Ethan Freudenhiem, and Mia Bawandi). Gillet took home first place in the open category in the Essex Junction Dark Horse. This trio will be joined in open this year by Elliot Weicek, Nora Chi, Marielle Horstmann, and an impressive list of North American youth climbers dying to come to Boston for a Dark Horse. That will occur after Gillet, Freudenhiem, Bawandi, Horstmann, and Chi return home from Moscow where they are all part of the US Team competing at the Youth World Championships (Where they will be coached by Kerry Scott). Do you see the trend?
There is one common denominator….Dark Horse.
* “Guest Posts” are articles written by readers of Chalk Dust, fellow bloggers, or those with industry insight. Financial compensation is neither given nor received for guest posts. The views reflected in guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Sue Brumm or Chalk Dust. Factual accuracy is the responsibility of the guest author. Guest posts may be lightly edited for language, spelling, punctuation, length, and/or grammar. Readers are welcome to submit their own articles of interest for consideration for publication on Chalk Dust.