Texas Teen Speeds to Ticket to Paris

SANTIAGO, Chile (Oct. 22, 2023) – Sam Watson (Southlake, TX) sped to a stunning victory to take gold in speed climbing at the Pan American Games, winning a close finals battle with teammate Noah Batschi (Potomac, MD) Sunday night in Santiago. The 17-year-old climber set a strong pace at 5.37 seconds to also clinch a spot on Team USA at Paris 2024.

It was a virtual repeat of the scenario from 24 hours earlier when Piper Kelly (Indianapolis, IN) defeated teammate Emma Hunt (Woodstock, GA). Kelly clinched a Paris 2024 spot with the win, while Hunt had claimed her ticket in August at World Championships.

Watson had an emotional reunion with his family backstage following the medals ceremony, with tears of joy for the young Texan climbing star who came out of the Dallas Team Texas climbing program.

“I feel great – I feel like this is the culmination of my entire process that I’ve been working on,” Watson said. “It’s been a huge, huge deal for the past three years now.”

Speed climbing made its debut at Tokyo 2020, with a single event that combined bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing all in one. When the Paris 2024 program was announced, speed was separated out allowing specialists like Watson an opportunity at a medal event.

Friends and teammates meeting in a final heat is always emotional. Despite falling to Watson in the finale, Bratschi commended his teammate. “It was a good race – I was pushing my hardest,” he said. “I know Sam was trying his hardest, too, and so he just came down to who had the best race.”

The difference came down to small things in a sport that has become, literally, one of the very fastest across all sports – faster than the 100 meter dash. “You know, all the pieces were in place,” said Bratschi. “Just a small mistake – and that’s just what happens in speed. You can be prepared and you can just make one tiny mistake and then you don’t win. But that being said, I tried my hardest. So I don’t regret that mistake. “I did my best.”

Head Speed Manager Matt Madisson was beaming after seeing four medals and two new tickets to Paris 2024. But he was especially proud of Watson. “Sam has something inside of him, and it burns brightly,” said Madisson. “So he is on top of. I think he’s been on the top of everyone’s list, not least of all his parents. With the huge support that they give him, he can really attack his training as much as he possibly can. He can dedicate himself to the sport. And that’s what really matters. And the professionalism that we see from him is going to get him a long way in life, and not just in speed climbing.”

Watson became the fourth USA Climbing athlete to qualify for Paris. Colin Duffy (Broomfield, CO) grabbed a spot from World Championships in boulder-lead, and now with Watson, Kelly and Hunt all qualifying in speed. USA Climbing is expected to contend for spots in both men’s and women’s boulder-lead on Monday and Tuesday. The final qualifying opportunity will be in the IOC’s Olympic Qualifier Series in Budapest and Shanghai next spring.

“I’m extraordinarily proud of all of my teammates, especially Noah,” Watson said. “I know he’s worked very, very hard and I would rather not race anyone else in the end. “He’s worked so hard and he has overcome a lot of obstacles.”

Watson and Bratschi are among a group of speed climbers who have been training with Madisson at USA Climbing’s home in Salt Lake City, Utah. Kelly, Hunt, Sophia Curcio and John Brosler are also among the group spending time training in Utah. While the women’s Olympic quota is now full for USA Climbing, Bratschi and Brosler will now set their sights on preparation for the Olympic Qualifying Series next spring. Brosler slipped in his ⅛-finals match, and was knocked out.

“We’re going to be taking a very solid team to OQS,” said Madison. “We’re already putting their plans together. They will really show what’s possible. “We have a really good chance of getting another athlete in and filling our quota.”

Action continues in the Pan American Games with the men’s boulder-lead final Monday evening at Parque Cerrillos. Only one Olympic spot remains for USA Climbing’s men, with any of the three entrants in the finals capable of grabbing it – Sean Bailey (Shoreline, WA), Zach Galla (Atlanta, GA) and Jesse Grupper (Atlanta, GA). Finals begin at 6:00 pm Santiago time (5:00 pm EDT).

Oct. 22, 2023

1. Sam Watson (Southlake, TX) 5.37 seconds
2. Noah Bratschi (Potomac, MD) 5.96
3. Carlos Granja, Ecuador 5,52
4. Ethan Flynn-Pitcher, Canada 5.59

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