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As a slender 14-year-old girl, Ai Mori can probably walk down the street without anyone thinking she is a top athlete.

But the thing is, she is already one of the best female climbers in Japan.

At Sunday’s lead climbing national championship in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, Mori captured her first national title in the discipline, outperforming six-time champion Akiyo Noguchi in the women’s final.

Mori, who finished third last year, was the only woman to complete the route in the final, becoming the second-youngest woman to win the gold medal (Aya Onoue won it when she was 11 in 2007).

In the men’s competition, Keiichiro Korenaga racked up his first title as well. Tomoa Narasaki took second place.

“I was a little worried before I took the wall, but when I grabbed the final hold, I was so relieved,” said Mori, for whom the tournament was her first senior lead climbing event.

It wasn’t necessarily so astonishing that Mori and Korenaga came out on top, because lead climbing is their field of expertise. Climbing consists of many different disciplines. In sport climbing, which will feature at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, athletes have to perform in lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing, and accumulate points from the three.

The majority of Japanese climbers are best at bouldering. Japan has been ranked No. 1 in the world in that discipline for the past four years, while it is No. 3 in lead climbing and No. 21 in speed climbing.

For those who are unfamiliar with the sport, bouldering and lead climbing look similar. But there are more differences between the two than most might think.

Since the athletes have to hang on the wall for longer, most climbers say that they need endurance to keep grabbing the holds for lead climbing (you can attempt to climb no matter how many times you fall from the wall within the regulated time for bouldering, while you have only one attempt for lead climbing).

“She’s good in bouldering as well,” the 28-year-old Noguchi said of Mori. “But she emphasizes more on lead climbing. She trains lead climbing more than anyone else in Japan now.”

Another girl phenom, Futaba Ito, who triumphed at the age of 14 last year at the Bouldering Japan Cup, the national championship for the discipline, said that climbers do not really have other ways to build endurance away from the wall.

Ito finished runner-up at the Bouldering Japan Cup early last month, and she said it was not possible to develop her staying power in just a month ahead of the lead climbing event. She added that she would have to work on that part more with the Tokyo Games in sight, but that there is no shortcut to strengthening it.

“In order to train your staying power, you have to keep climbing the wall (for lead climbing),” said Ito, who stated that she was happy to win a bronze medal on Sunday.

Kokoro Fujii, who won the Bouldering Japan Cup for the third consecutive year last month, finished last among the nine finalists on Sunday. The 25-year-old said with a bitter smile that lead climbing is “a different animal.”

Korenaga flattered himself that he has had more training for lead climbing than anyone else.

But when asked if he wants to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the 22-year-old toned down his rhetoric.

“I specialize in lead climbing at the moment,” said Korenaga, who won in lead climbing at a World Cup circuit event in China last October and finished third overall in the 2017 season.

Korenaga, who will graduate from Nippon Sport Science University this month, said that he had previously focused on training on lead climbing almost exclusively, but he has reduced the volume to allocate more time for bouldering recently.

Mori is determined to compete at the 2020 Olympics on home soil.

“That’s my goal,” the junior high school student said. “But I have to do all three disciplines and want to actively compete at combined events toward the Olympics.”

The inaugural Combined Japan Cup is set to be held in Morioka in late June.

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