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Born in Central Oregon, sport climbing’s Olympic debut shares many Bend connections

'The reason EP is in Bend in the U.S. is because of Smith Rock, and that's where sport climbing started in America.'

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- A sport invented in Central Oregon roughly 35 years ago, is now front and center on the world’s biggest stage.

Mike Rougeux, executive director of Bend Endurance Academy and climbing coach, said the Olympics is a whole new stage. 

"High-level comps have been happening for a long time so world cups, world championships. But this definitely feels different,” Rougeux said.

Sander Culliton, CEO of Entre Prises USA, agrees. 

"It's coming into everybody's living room -- competition climbing,” Culliton said. “So that's a big deal."

His Bend-based company designs and builds competitive climbing walls in Central Oregon that are used all over the country.

The latest big project is the competitive climbing walls being used in Tokyo.

"Our design and our product was selected to be the field of play for the Olympics, for the first time climbing has ever happened in the Olympics. It's a big deal,” Culliton said.

Entre Prises and the entire sport of climbing, were created in Central Oregon -- at Smith Rock, of course.

"The reason EP is in Bend in the U.S. is because of Smith Rock, and that's where sport climbing started in America,” Culliton said.

In the mid-80s, French climbers at Smith Rock were looking for ways to train and compete without overusing the crags, Culliton told NewsChannel 21.

Alan Watts, a long time Central Oregon climber, said local climbers at Smith Rock were also developing the sport for years before the French arrived.

Thus, sport climbing, and Entre Prises were created.

Now some of the best climbing athletes in the world are competing in a sport and on a wall, created in Central Oregon.

"And the Olympics is sort of a spectacle, but it can also be a spectacle on a local level, too,” Culliton said. “And that's what we do here in Bend is, we try to find exciting competitions with some of the same athletes you may see on TV in the Olympics."

Three of the four Team USA athletes -- Nathaniel Coleman, Brooke Raboutou and Kyra Condie -- all have competed at what used to be called the Bend Summer Comp.

Rouguex is the MC for what's now called the 10 Barrel Bouldering Brawl.

"The event that we started, Nathaniel Coleman came to our first one six years ago and came back every year,” Rouguex said. “He just likes the vibe here in Bend. There was one year he came for a week and was just hanging out -- mountain biking, floating the river."

The climbers are taking the expertise they've shown in Bend and using it to achieve Olympic glory.

"Getting to the point where one of them is on the podium, any step of the podium, would be huge for the sport, and kind of just a stamp of approval for the competition scene in the United States,” Rouguex said.

And indeed, Coleman made it to the podium, earning a silver medal, with his combined score of 30.00.

This year, the climbers are aiming for the best combined score in the speed climbing, lead climbing and bouldering disciplines.

"Athletes need to do very well in one of those disciplines, and above average in two others,” Rougeux said.

He hopes the individual disciplines will eventually get their own medals.

"(By) 2028, we're hopeful that we'll be awarded more medals per sport and we can do bouldering, sport, speed and then maybe an overall,” Rouguex said.

But that's not the only way he sees the sport changing.

"As an industry, climbing is anticipating that Olympic bump, for sure,” Rougeux said.

Culliton and Entre Prises know that a bump is coming, and that it can inspire the next generation of climbers.

"You've seen the theme so far in the Olympics.. They show a lot of kids getting inspiration from Olympic athletes, and they get that idea in their head that 'I could do that too' -- and sometimes, that's all it takes,” Culliton said. 

Rougeux hopes for the kids in Bend, that is all it takes.

"I like the idea that a kid can walk into a climbing gym like the one here at Bend Rock Gym, and maybe they've watched a highlight reel of climbing in the Olympics,” Rougeux said. “So if they could come here for the first time and kind of have that dream of, 'Ooh -- maybe someday I could be in the Olympics' -- and that wasn't there before." 

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Noah Chast

Noah Chast is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Noah here.

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