First speed climber to qualify for the Olympics, Emma Hunt is excited for Paris

Speed rock climber Emma Hunt smiles with ticket after qualifying for 2024 Paris Olympics at the world championships in Bern, Switzerland.

Credit: Dan Gajda

Credit: Dan Gajda

Speed rock climber Emma Hunt smiles with ticket after qualifying for 2024 Paris Olympics at the world championships in Bern, Switzerland.

Intensity was at an all-time high for rock climber Emma Hunt on Aug. 10.

The speed climber readied to face Poland’s Aleksandra Miroslaw, the speed-climbing world record holder, to earn a spot in the 2024 Paris Olympics in the first qualifying event of the season. It was a goal for Hunt and her challenger, who had the Olympics logo tattooed below her left wrist. The silence at Switzerland’s PostFinance Arena encapsulated the magnitude of what was at stake.

However, 7.17 seconds later Hunt sent the venue into a frenzy, beating Miroslaw and taking advantage of the climber’s early miscue. Hunt’s chalk-filled hands covered her face to reflect her shock and excitement.

The win etched the 20-year-old’s name as the first speed climber to qualify for the Olympic Games.

“I just feel lighter, like I can breathe,” said Hunt, a native of Woodstock. “There’s only 14 girls that will go, and then you start adding in all these other factors like there’s only three chances to qualify and only two people from each country can go. Once that’s full, your shot’s gone.”

Having started to climb at 5 years old, Hunt began to compete in bouldering at 8 and speed climbing around 12, when she joined Stone Summit. Her coach Olexiy Shulga, who specialized in coaching speed climbing for the National Climbing Team of Ukraine, came over soon after. He helped refine her skills and taught her beta – techniques and moves used to complete a climb.

Hunt’s mother, Jennifer Hunt, praised Shulga for pushing the climbers to be the best that they could be. Although Hunt’s youth coach Meg Coyne nicknamed her noodle arms because of her length and lack of defined muscles, Shulga noticed Hunt’s potential early.

“With 10 years of (coaching) experience, you can tell who’s going to be in five years,” Shulga said. “At that time, I realized … Emma is not that strong, but she’s fast, and then she doesn’t care that she wasn’t strong.”

Shulga kept this to himself, but wasn’t the only coach who felt this way. When she was 15, Stone Summit team owner Claudia Vidulescu told Jennifer that Hunt and her brother Ethan could make the Olympics after it was reported that climbing would be in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Jennifer chuckled at the statement, never wanting them to pursue this unless they wanted to. But after Hunt won the Salt Lake World Cup in 2021, reality set in.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is kind of cool, I want to keep being on the podium and eventually on the top,’” Hunt said. “That’s kind of when I went full focus. Everything revolves around speed climbing.”

This pursuit increased when the Olympics announced climbing’s new format for Paris. It would be split into two medal events per gender: one speed event and another for bouldering and lead – all three disciplines were one event in 2020.

Hunt’s Olympic hopes hit its climax against the 30-year-old Miroslaw. Old enough to call Hunt “kiddo” and knowing the difficulty to beat her, Hunt’s team partially planned to qualify at the next qualifier.

This changed when Miroslaw slipped moments into the race, falling and not recovering. Hunt, feet away from Miroslaw, was in shock and slipped a little bit herself, while Jennifer screamed “Oh, my God” continuously. Shulga, who multitasked between coaching watching the livestream, raced over to another coach to celebrate.

“(Parents) stood up and jumped up, and we’re cheering, and then I just sank to my seat,” Jennifer said. “I was with her the whole season and knew how hard it was not just for her but for all the athletes because they all were gearing up for this one event.”

The rock climber hasn’t put together a specific list of goals yet for the Olympics, but she’s already locked in. She set a new American women’s speed record with 6.54 at the USA Climbing National Team Trials on March 5.

With it being her family’s first trip to Paris, she’s ready to soak in “the Holy Grail of all competitions” and remind herself that it’s her and the wall.

“It’s not me against any of the other girls or even me against me, I am in control,” Hunt said. “I’m genuinely having a good time when I compete. ... I’m listening to music and dancing around ... and just staying as present as I can ... and even if I didn’t win or get a record, I still learned something and have amazing stories to tell.”