Lost in Suzhou, four NYU Shanghai upperclassmen frantically search in the summer rain for a stadium. Nearby, a roar from an enthusiastic crowd explodes. The students gravitate toward the noise, splashing through puddles, eager to find the commotion.

The atmosphere in the enclosed arena is electric. As the students take their seats, broadcasters announce the upcoming event in the extreme sports contest.

It’s a Saturday night early in the Fall semester, and students Theodore Tolan, Hideko Miteni-Shen, Jarah Romero, and Sally Ai have embarked on a five-hour round trip journey to watch five-second competitive climbing heats.

Around 300 fanatics have gathered for the inaugural 2023 Lead and Speed Climbing World Cup in Fenhu Culture and Sports Center in the sleepy sub-district of Wujiang. It has been organized by the International Federation of Sports Climbing (IFSC) and is now happening in China after being canceled for three consecutive seasons due to Covid.

The final event of the evening, an indoor speed climbing discipline, blew the students away. It consisted of a vertical sprint involving one standardized route.

Two climbers race side by side up identical 15m walls, overhung by five degrees, on a path of 20 red hand-foot holds. The rules are simple: the first to reach the top and slam the buzzer, wins.

Among the crowd, Chinese and foreign competitors gather at the front of the stadium. The first two contestants are summoned to the wall, their sculpted backs and veiny forearms illuminated under the spotlight.

The athletes chalk up and await the three-second countdown. The students watch, spellbound, as the athletes swiftly scale up like spiders. Theodore recalls, “the way they moved up the wall looked inhuman.”

The buzzer is hit in a matter of seconds, concluding the first round. Beginner climber Hideko Miten-Shen was especially impressed by the athletes’ mental fortitude, astounded that “they’ve been preparing for years and months and it’s all going to come down to five seconds.”

Most unnerving is that victory will be determined by an unforgiving matter of milliseconds. 

Climbing devotee Jarah Romero reflects on how seeing the athletes in person felt “more real, more attainable” and really inspired him.

The event exposed the students to a new discipline of climbing, creating “two kinds of two sports out of one,” said Theodore Tolan. In fact, the sport is recognized by the International Olympic Committee, making its first appearance in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Speed climbing will officially be its own category starting in Paris, 2024.