Akiyo Noguchi: Will the Bouldering Legend Come Back? (2023)
Published on: 12/06/2022
Akiyo Noguchi’s climbing career was a spectacular one. And her bronze medal-winning performance at the Tokyo Olympics in July of 2021 was her final competition. Akiyo Noguchi earned four overall Bouldering World Cups, three Combined wins, and twenty-one Boulder World gold medals in her sixteen-year run. And when she didn’t win, she often came in second place. Noguchi was a peerless competitor, a strong climber, and known internationally for her positive, kind attitude at competitions and events. It was fitting that her competitive swan song coincided with climbing’s new, Olympic sport status. In this article, we take a look over the career of one of the best boulderers in modern times.
Noguchi Akiyo (as her name appears in her native language) was born in 1989 in Ryugasaki Shi in the Ibaraki prefecture of Japan. The young Akiyo was a natural climber. On her parent’s cattle farm, she climbed trees, machinery, buildings, and even livestock:
“I always liked climbing trees as a child and climbing high places was fun. I think that even then I had strong fingertips—I remember being happy about being able to take the small holds that grown-ups were unable to handle and climbing routes that my father couldn’t.”
First “real” climbing experience
When on vacation in Guam at age eleven, Akiyo experienced a climbing wall at an amusement arcade for the first time. She was immediately hooked. Her parents signed her and her sister up for a local climbing gym when they returned home. Here, she progressed quickly but had to travel to the nearest climbing gym in Tsukuba for training sessions. Her father later built a climbing wall in an unused cattle barn on the farm. Training at home, Akiyo developed quickly.
“I think my father couldn’t bear to see me have to commute to do what I loved and built the gym so that I could climb at home. He claims he built it for himself, but I’ve never seen him climb [laughs].”
Now, with time to practice, Akiyo Noguchi began to turn into a sport-climbing powerhouse. She developed an explosive technique that would dominate bouldering at the World Championships for the next sixteen years.
In her first year of high school, 2005, Noguchi won first place at the Japan Bouldering Cup. She’d been climbing little more than a year at this point. She would go on to win this tournament a record nine times. In 2005, Akiyo also took her first steps onto the international stage. At the UIAA Youth World Championships in Munich, she became the first representative from Japan to compete in the Lead and Bouldering events. Noguchi felt the difference as she gained more experience on this new stage:
“I had been participating in the Youth Games since my second year in junior high, so I had experienced tournaments overseas, but there was pressure to wear the Japanese team uniform and carry the flag. I felt that I couldn’t fail and became desperate. Before that time, I’d only trained once or twice a week, but from then on I trained every day on the wall at home after school. After dinner I went back to the wall, and in the evening, I went running with my father.”
Climbing Style and Speciality
As we alluded to in the intro, Akiyo Noguchi was a bouldering phenomenon. Yes, she often secured podium positions in Lead climbing, took home several Combined gold medals, and was a respectable Speed climber. But Noguchi’s natural power and explosiveness made her an extraordinary competitive boulderer for sixteen years. Competition climbing also suited her temperament. Her relatively early start and many years of experience meant she had simply spent more time sport climbing than the competition. She had both physical and mental endurance. Noguchi Akiyo showed few signs of anxiety at competitions, smiling and laughing while competing at the highest level.
Calm and Smiling
Part of this might be down to how well-prepared Noguchi was before the actual climbing began. She took time over the beta. When you watch Akiyo climb, it’s easy to forget the difficulty of the bouldering problems she faced. She made the complex look effortless, using her strength, flexibility, and experience to find the most efficient way upward. Climbing carefully doesn’t often yield the kind of competition results we see with Noguchi. She has what David Bowie called animal grace – the kind of effortless movement only seen in the highest level of athletes and musicians (but common to an average house cat).
Akiyo joined the elite group of women to complete a 5.14c (8c+) boulder problem with her ascent of Mind Control in 2013 in Oliana, Spain. Liquid Finger 5.13d (8b) in Joyama, Japan, is another standout route from her free climbing career. She has completed three V12 (8A+) boulder problems, Aguni, A Maze of Death, and Euro Trash.
Japan and Asia
From 2005 to 2014, Akiyo Noguchi won the Bouldering section of the Japan Climbing Cup every year. That’s a nine-year run at the top of the pile in a country with a large population and a strong boulder-climbing scene. It wasn’t until 2015 that she was defeated by Aika Tajima and came in second place. However, Noguchi would return to secure the title again in 2016. Such dogged determination seems almost at odds with Noguchi’s carefree, positive attitude.
Akiyo’s first medal in the IFSC Asian Championships came in 2006 when she won gold in Bouldering and silver in Lead Climbing. Over the next sixteen years, Noguchi was a regular fixture on the podium at these events. Among those medal-winning performances were a single combined gold, five gold medals in Bouldering, and even a single gold medal in Lead in 2016. Her name dominates the results section for women’s events at the Asian Championships.
Climbing World Championships and World Cups
Starting out on the Boulder World Cup circuit in 2007, Akiyo reached the podium three times before taking the gold for the first time in 2009. The next year, she retained her position as World Cup champion. In 2011, 2012, and 2013, Noguchi failed to secure the gold at the Bouldering World Cup but did come in second place all three times. In 2014 and 2015, Akiyo took home World Cup gold. In doing so, she avenged the defeats of the previous years.
Despite being mainly known for her boulder climbing, Akiyo also took home combined wins at the World Cup three times in 2008, 2009, and 2014. In 2010, she was also awarded the La Sportiva Competition Award “for her victories and the positive spirit she exudes during competitions.”
In 2019, Akiyo won a Combined silver medal at the Climbing World Championships. She then secured her place at the Tokyo Olympics (which had been postponed to July 2021) with her performance at the 2019 World Championships in Hachioji. Here, she came in second place behind Janja Garnbret in Bouldering. Akiyo had spoken about retiring from climbing competition as early as 2016. However, climbing, gaining the status of an Olympic sport, and the games taking place in her home country, inspired Noguchi to remain active for four more years. She had already decided the Tokyo Olympic games were part of her plan when the pandemic hit:
“I’ll give everything for the Tokyo 2020 Games and end my career there. It will be the first time sport climbing is held at an Olympic [Games]. Moreover, it will be held in Japan, my home country. If it was held in another country, or if it were not the first-ever Olympic sport climbing event, I think my motivation would have been different.”
Delays and a Positive attitude
The delays resulting from Covid 19 allowed Akiyo more time for training before her final appearance at the July 2021 Tokyo games. The always humble athlete reflected on the issue in the following statement:
“Not having any of these competitions allowed me to reflect on my climbing carefully, and that was a huge plus for me. I’m still not satisfied with my climbing; I feel there is so much room to improve. There is a huge gap between the way I want to climb and my actual climbing. My endurance during lead climbing, my power in bouldering, my explosiveness in speed… It was great that I had a year to work on these elements I needed to improve.”
The 2021 Season
By Noguchi’s high standards, her 2021 climbing season coming up to the July Tokyo Olympics hadn’t been spectacular. At the April Boulder World Cup in Meiringen, Switzerland, she placed fourth (in an event won by Janja Garnbret). At the year’s second World Cup event in May in Salt Lake City, Noguchi failed to make the final, coming in 18th place in the Boulder event and 13th in Speed. At the June 2021 Climbing World Cup event in Innsbruck, Noguchi placed fifth in Bouldering and third in Lead. Still a perennial podium threat, Akiyo had begun to see stiff competition in recent years from the likes of compatriot Miho Nonoka and Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret (who are standouts among a pack of tough competitors).
Tokyo Olympics – July 2021
The debut of climbing at the Olympic games was a significant event for the sport and fascinating to watch. Ultimately Janja Garnbret would take first place, having scored well in her weaker discipline, Speed – the Slovenian performed predictably well for the rest of the competition. And despite not taking home the gold, it was also a moderate success for the Japanese women’s climbing team. Miho Nonaka and Akiyo Noguchi did manage to secure second place and third place, respectively. Noguchi was pleased with her bronze medal and said the following about the result:
“Only two Japanese athletes could enter this competition, and we have both won a medal. I’m very proud of that.”
Akiyo Noguchi walked away from competing in 2021, aged 32. Though she was often among the older climbers on the list towards the end of her career, she remained a legitimate threat. She hasn’t specifically stated why she decided to stop competing. But we can probably extrapolate a few reasons.
Firstly, Akiyo had competed at the highest level for half her life, fulfilling many ambitions along the way. Her climbing experience and strive to be the best reached a natural peak. Simply – she competed at the highest level and won. Secondly, in December 2021, Akiyo Noguchi and fellow elite climber Tomoa Narasaki announced their engagement. Having dedicated more than half her life to climbing, it may be that Akiyo simply wants to focus on other things.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
She was born on May 30th, 1989, and is currently 33 years old.
She decided to retire from competitive climbing after the 2020 Olympics.
She’d been at the top of professional climbing for half of her life, achieved incredible things in the sport she loved, and had recently decided to marry her long-term partner.
IFSC Climbing Asian Championships
Wikipedia (retrieved on 12/06/2022)
The Story of Akiyo Noguchi
Goldwin/The North Face (retrieved on 12/06/2022)