Monday, June 18, 2012

Speed timers!

A few days ago my friend Chauncey ( contacted me with exciting news- America's first commercially available speed climbing timers. As a show of thanks to her and the people that made this happen, I want to talk a little about what this technology has done for the sport of speed climbing. At my first rope climbing nationals in 2005, few people took speed climbing seriously. Though electronic timing systems were starting to be used, they were notoriously unreliable and lacked critical functions such as an on-the-ground reset, false start switches, and screens displaying the climbers' times. Coaches advised the kids to "double-tap" the buttons to make sure the time stopped on their run. Appeals were rampant, blaming technical failures -often for good reason, but the classic "missed the button" cases got through too- and bogging down the competition. It was no wonder that many kids never tried speed, and fewer watched it. Speed climbing lacked its primary attractive factor- it simply wasn't entertaining to watch. The speed event has come a long way in the past seven years, but there have been bumps in the road. At one adult nationals, the timing system broke down for speed finals so they used the old standard- cowbells and stopwatches. In the final heat, two guys raced for a National Champion title, and the stopwatches reported a winner that had clearly lost both head-to-head races. USAC, with few other options, called it a tie. A year or two later at the world championships, it seemed like the IFSC had found a solution: adapted swimming timers. As those competitors whose slaps did not stop the clock realized, however, those sensor pads should probably be left underwater. With those days behind us, however, I feel great optimism for the future of speed climbing. The amazingly accurate, impressively reliable laser timers now used have launched the speed event to levels of popularity and competitiveness not thought possible in the stopwatch era. National and international records are now set and broken before roaring crowds. Large screens help spectators follow tight races from across the packed gym. Olympic dreams and standardized routes push competitors to train tirelessly to chip away at their times. And finally, when the race is up and the climbers hang breathlessly, we can be sure of who is our victor.

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