Eyes on Tokyo 2020 / Nonaka on full-scale climb toward summit

The Japan News

Miho Nonaka climbs at a gym in Tokyo on Sunday.

By Hiromu Namiki / Japan News Staff WriterMiho Nonaka can almost touch the summit of sport climbing.

With just one competition remaining on the calendar, the 21-year-old is atop the standings for women’s bouldering in the IFSC Climbing World Cup. She is determined to capture the elusive overall title and power her way toward the 2020 Games, when the sport will make its Olympic debut on home soil.

“Everything will be decided at the final competition,” Nonaka said in a recent interview with The Japan News about the final event of the series, which takes place in Munich in August. “A never-give-up spirit will be crucial.”

After joining the national team in 2013 at 16, Nonaka has made steady progress at the international level. She finished third overall in the World Cup series in 2015, second in 2016, and fourth last year. This year, she has finished no worse than second at World Cup events — after winning the opening meet in Switzerland, she was the runner-up at the following five competitions.

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    Miho Nonaka

Nonaka said she has managed to smooth out her peaks and valleys this season. “I can still do well even when I’m not in top form — I think I’ve made progress in that respect,” she said.

Climbers use hand, finger and foot holds to work their way up a near-vertical wall in sport climbing. Nonaka thinks it will be a golden opportunity in 2020 to convey the joy of the sport to people in Japan.

Her goal is to win the gold in Tokyo.

“I’ll be 23 then, and the Olympics will be held in Tokyo — the conditions couldn’t be better. It’ll depend on how much I can give it my all,” Nonaka said.

In Tokyo, the individual ranking will be decided on the combined results of three events: speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing. In speed, climbers vie to conquer a wall in the shortest time, while in bouldering, they compete over how many courses they can finish in a given time. Lead climbing pits the athletes against each other over the height they reach.

Nonaka is a bouldering expert and also has experience in lead, but speed is still an unexplored territory for her. “The skills needed for speed are very different than the other two — I need to work really hard on speed,” she admitted.

September’s World Championships in Austria will be a litmus test for her, and for other climbers, as the competition introduces the combined category from this year. Nonaka finished second in bouldering at the 2016 tournament and is seeking the gold this time.

According to the Japan Mountaineering and Sport Climbing Association, 20 climbers will take part in the Tokyo Olympics, with a cap of two for each country, for both men and women’s competitions. Nonaka first has to vie against domestic rivals, led by Akiyo Noguchi, the 29-year-old trailblazer of the sport in Japan and an inspiration for Nonaka.

Nonaka has just a slim five-point lead over Noguchi in the 2018 World Cup standings.

Nonaka also has to face challenges from up-and-coming athletes such as Futaba Ito, the 16-year-old women’s bouldering champion at the 2017 Youth World Championships. “I don’t have the wealth of experience of Akiyo, and I don’t have the momentum Futuba’s generation has — they’re riding a wave,” Nonaka said.

“However, I’ve learned many things over the years through competing under intense pressure,” Nonaka said.

Changing the sport’s image

Nonaka hails from Toshima Ward, Tokyo, and first came across the sport at 9 when her family visited a gym where her father did his training for mountain climbing. She was soon captivated by sport climbing, reveling in trial and error and challenging her friends to conquer the climbing wall.

Nonaka said every part of the body must be utilized in sport climbing, from the fingertips to the toes, to grasp the shape of the holds. “People first focus on the upper part of the body, but utilizing the legs and hips to carry the body upward is key,” Nonaka said. “You also fully use your brain when thinking about how to reach the goal.”

Nonaka’s strength lies in her powerful, dynamic moves, rare among Japanese climbers. Her competitive spirit has also helped her excel: “I hate losing at anything,” she said.

Nonaka has another ambition for sport climbing — to change the image of the sport in Japan to something more fashionable and enjoyable, to attract more young people.

That’s why she became a planner for the Red Bull Asura climbing event. Held for the second time in 2018, Red Bull Asura is an unusual event open to people from beginners to experts. Three climbers — at least one must be a woman — form a team and the rankings are decided by their combined results.

“I wanted participants to feel the joy of sharing ideas with friends to conquer the wall,” Nonaka said at the event on Sunday.

About 400 climbers took part in a two-day preliminary event held at a gym near JR Ogikubo Station in Tokyo. They enjoyed conquering the wall amid loud music.

“People in Japan still have an uptight image of sport climbing,” Nonaka said. “I want young people to feel, ‘Hey, isn’t this sport cool?’”Speech

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