Next US Olympic teen sensation? Maybe Ashima Shiraishi

RIO DE JANEIRO — Simone Biles and Mallory Pugh are the fresh U.S. faces of the Rio Games.

Up next: Ashima Shiraishi.

The 15-year-old rock climber's sport debuts at the Tokyo Games in four years, and the daughter of Japanese immigrants is an early favorite to serve as the next American teen Olympic sensation.

"She's a prodigy," said filmmaker Peter Mortimer, co-founder of the International REEL ROCK film tour, which this year features Shiraishi and fellow teen climber Kai Lightner, of Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Already one of the world's best rock climbers, male or female, Shiraishi (pronounced ASH-ih-mah shee-RAY-shee) isn't from a Colorado mountain town like you might expect. She's a Brooklynite and the vanguard of a new generation of climbers coming out of urban rock wall gyms.

Rock climbing is exactly what the International Olympic Committee had in mind when it passed new regulations allowing hosts cites to propose additional sports for their own games on what is essentially a trial basis.

Tokyo added the traditional: baseball-softball — hugely popular in Japan and absent since being dumped after the 2008 Beijing Games — along with rock climbing and skateboarding, surfing and karate, all magnets for millennials .

While the Olympic stamp will provide enormous boosts to these sports, it's a two-way street: Olympic organizers and broadcasters need the new blood, too.

"The more classic Olympic disciplines are somewhat irrelevant to the younger generation," said Mortimer. "These new sports are so popular with the kids."

Or, as Shiraishi says: "Like, young people are the next generation."

And Shiraishi is just the kind of star the new sports need.

At such a young age, she's already impressed fellow climbers and competition judges worldwide with her remarkable abilities more befitting seasoned climbers.

"She's really climbing at the level now as the best men in the sport," Mortimer said. "Many people think she will be the best climber, male or female, within a few years. She's just incredibly strong, climbing since she was a kid, focused and disciplined with a strength-to-weight ratio that's just off the charts. Four years is a long time but she's definitely the gold medal favorite."

The highest established grade in competitive climbing is known as V-15, something only a handful of men have ever accomplished. Shiraishi is the only female and the youngest climber ever to reach that score, and she just did it for the second time earlier this month in Melbourne, Australia.

Shiraishi's rise coincided with the sport's exploding popularity as climbing spread from mountain towns to urban centers with the proliferation of rock climbing walls and gyms in the 1990s and 2000s.

"There are so many good gyms now that even if you're not from the mountains you can still be a good climber and have fun with it," Shiraishi said. "And I'm one of those people."

In climbing, 40 competitors will take part in the disciplines of speed, bouldering (without a rope) and lead (also known as sport).

Shiraishi counts as her inspiration 18-year-old Pugh in U.S. women's soccer and Biles, the 19-year-old American who soared to the all-around women's gymnastics title on Thursday, cementing her reputation as the best of her generation and perhaps ever.

She wonders whether she'll serve as an inspiration in Tokyo.

"The Olympics are something that inspires young people," Shiraishi said. "When you add sports that attract younger people, more people watch and get inspired by them. So, I think it's awesome."


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