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Alex Puccio: The Next Stage

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Alex Puccio set herself a deadline. By the start of the January USA Climbing Combined Invitational in Salt Lake City, Utah, she would decide whether or not she would vie for a spot in the 2020 Olympics. 

She was vexed by the combined format, requiring training to compete in bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing. In early January, as her deadline approached, she struggled with the decision. 

“I just kept on prolonging it, prolonging it. I was becoming really stressed and anxious—I remember always feeling overwhelmed. I hated speed climbing.”

Just before the competition, she wrote an Instagram post declaring that she was ditching her Olympic push: “I’m just about 30 years old and I don’t feel like taking up another discipline, speed, and giving up my LOVE for climbing outside for such a long time.”

Our best boulderer might have slacked in the wake of a disappointing process; but in fact, as Jackie Hueftle, a Front Range route setter, told Rock and Ice in June: “Puccio is in crazy shape right now. She’s still just blowing everyone else out of the water on outdoor problems and for pure ability. Her understanding of movement and her strength are both just incredible.”

Puccio has made news for years, with World Cup gold medals in 2009 and 2018, and 11 Bouldering Open National Championship titles. In 2014 she became the fourth woman to climb V14 with Jade in Rocky Mountain National Park, and she has since sent four more V14s—most recently Heritage, in Valle Bavona, Switzerland, in April. Her latest step, though, was learning how to settle into life at home without constant travel for competitions.

“Yesterday, for example, I had a lot of admin stuff to do,” she said, “because I just moved to Boulder, and I have to register my car and do all that. So if I’m not climbing in the mornings, I’ll do all my admin stuff, then I’ll always go on a hike with my dog, somewhere.”

On July 20, following this interview, Puccio injured her right knee at the finals of the Woman Up competition, at Dogpatch Boulders in San Francisco. The competition had ended, and none of the competitors had topped the last boulder. Some of the competitors asked if they could give it a few more tries, just for fun and for the audience’s enjoyment. Puccio finished it—she was the only person to do so—and then turned to wave at the crowd. As she jumped down, her body twisted and she landed wrong. A few days later she was diagnosed with a fully ruptured ACL, torn meniscus, and partial MCL and LCL tears in her right leg. The injury necessitated knee surgery, and she has been in recovery since.

She dealt with a similar injury and surgery on her left leg in 2015; having gone through it once before has helped with her perspective this time around.  “The first time, I was really nervous. I was like, ‘Oh my god, my career is going to end, how am I going to do this?’” she said. “But I slowly got really motivated and I did everything early. I climbed V13 outside three months after surgery last time.”

She has been slowly pushing herself, focusing on core work and campus boarding, and has even started sport climbing indoors with one leg. She says that her focus for the fall and winter has shifted a bit towards sport climbing, since it allows her to climb with less risk of falling and re-injuring her knee during recovery. “I’ve always wanted to climb 9a+,” she said. “I’ve never said I wanted to be primarily a sport climber, but I have goals in sport climbing. This has just shifted my mindset a little bit, especially temporarily, to be like, ‘You can take advantage of this situation; maybe you can focus more of your energy on that goal right now.’”

But she doesn’t plan to stop bouldering. And she may still compete in bouldering Nationals in February, pending pace of recovery and the advice of her surgeon. “That’s a possibility on the horizon,” she said. “You’re kind of just going along for the ride and you adapt as life goes on.”

As for the injury itself, Puccio said, “I’m not a person that usually dwells on the past, because you can’t change it, you just have to move forward.” She doesn’t regret getting back on the boulder after the competition ended: “Being a competitor for so long, I’m a showwoman. I wanted to give the crowd something to cheer about. No one did the last climb. If the situation presented itself again to get on the boulder after it’s not been done, I’ve done that so many times in the past, I would do the same thing all over.” 

What drew you to Heritage?

The last year has been a bit crazy for me. I won the World Cup in Vail 2018 in June, and then life got a little chaotic. I went through a massive breakup: I was with someone for five years. And then I was 29, approaching 30. I went through what I would say was a quarter-life crisis. I got out of shape for myself. I put on, let’s say, 15 pounds, which is a lot when you’re 5-foot-2. I was just kind of lost. So I stopped training as much, and started trying to get back on track and figure out what I really want to be doing in life besides climbing. 

When I was 15 to 20, I thought that at 30 I would have my shit together. I was like, “I’ll have a house, maybe I’ll be married.” I think everyone goes through this, or most people do: you get closer to that age, and then you become 30 and you’re like, “Well, I don’t have any of my shit together. I feel the same. What’s going on?” And then I went through knee surgery as well—on my meniscus, so it was pretty minor, but it was a lot, all rolled into one. 

What happened then?

So, a month and a half later, I went to the World Championships in Innsbruck. I wasn’t fit, and I didn’t have a very good performance whatsoever, for myself. But it was a chance to get out and escape. I stayed in Europe for about two months. Then in Innsbruck, towards the end of the trip, I met [my boyfriend] Robin O’Leary, and ever since then, I’ve been slowly getting my mind and life and my goals and everything back on track. But I think it was really important to take that downtime. I kind of let loose and just lived life a little bit more freely. 

So then fast-forward to around December. I really focused on trying to get back in shape, and I started with a trip to Red Rocks. I had some elbow tendonitis before that; I’m still trying to overcome this elbow tendonitis that I’ve had for over a year. I started training again. I went to Nationals, had a horrible bouldering Nationals for myself, and kept on training. 

When I say training, I don’t really mean that I’m in the gym all the time; training, for me, just means climbing more frequently, and being a little more strict with certain things—my diet, and making sure I climb a little bit more, do more core workouts, do more physical therapy, all of that. 

Where did you go next?

So I was slowly ramping it up, and I traveled to Switzerland was in April. I still wasn’t my fittest, but I knew Heritage was something that looked really cool, after I saw a video of Carlo Traversi doing it—he put it up years ago. And that was one of the main areas that we were going to go to. Daniel [Woods] was really psyched on Valle Bavona. 

I didn’t really have a strict goal. I wasn’t like, “Yeah, I’m fit, I know I can do this.” I was like, “I have no idea where I’m at. I know I’m not anywhere near my fittest.” So I kind of just went in with an open mind. 

I actually didn’t try that climb until the last week or so, and then I surprised myself by doing it fairly quickly. The holds are all pretty big, which was nice. If you’re a little bit heavier than normal, then the smaller the holds are, it’s not going to feel as nice. Luckily this didn’t have any small holds: it was more powerful, with bigger holds and some compression.

How did it feel to finish it?

Pretty cool. At the beginning of the trip, I did do a V13 pretty quickly as well, that was kind of the same style, in Brione. Sending Amber in the beginning of the trip helped motivate me. It was kind of cool knowing that, even though I gained a bunch of weight, and I wasn’t at my fittest, I could still climb at a pretty hard level. It didn’t feel nice climbing it; I felt like I was redlining it all the time, trying harder than I normally had to. At the same time, you have to put it in perspective, and instead of just letting that get you down, not being near your top shape, look at what you can still achieve. 

And a month later, or a few weeks later, I decided to try Heritage, which I almost did like second day on, and then it got super hot. I wasn’t getting on it until 5 or 6 p.m.; we would just chill in our apartment until like 4 p.m. and then we’d drive out to the boulders. It was crazy because there were no warmups there; I would literally go straight to the boulder and pull on it. I’d never go straight to a V14 and pull on it.

Oh, my god, that sounds rough!

I know, it was kind of crazy! I think the older I get, the more I need to warm up, so that was a little bit hard in itself. And then I surprised myself on the second or third day. I was getting to the top, and I kept on falling at the very last hold, which was frustrating. It became a mental battle. Then literally the last day was the day I sent it. I kind of gave up on it. I went there with a mindset of, Well, I don’t think it’s gonna go, but I still want to try it, and I came to this realization that it’s O.K. if it doesn’t happen: the boulder is not going anywhere. And then I did it first try the last day.

You’ve had some injuries, and are still dealing with a couple of them. How is everything at the moment?

I mean, I’m climbing hard and it’s all going pretty well. The elbow tendonitis has been the most annoying thing just because it’s been lingering, but I have to admit, I am probably the worst at my physical therapy. I have it written down on two whiteboards in my room, and three journals, like, Do your PT, do your PT, do your PT. It takes like 10-15 minutes, just do it every day. It’s pretty bad most of the time: my elbow is tender to the touch. But if you’re still able to climb hard, you kind of just neglect your PT. That’s one of the things that I need to be a lot more diligent on.

I think the older we get, we can definitely keep getting stronger—I feel like I’m getting stronger—but we definitely need to take care of our bodies better. So it’s really important to be diligent on that. Take that 30 minutes a day, so that you can keep on doing what you love.

You announced in January that you weren’t going to go for the Olympics. How have you felt about that decision?

I definitely miss it. It would have been fun to do a few of the bouldering World Cups, but I made that decision right before that first invitational. It doesn’t mean I’m done with competitions, it doesn’t mean I’m retired or anything; I’d still love to do some bouldering World Cups. I just don’t enjoy speed. Lead, I do enjoy sometimes, but I’m primarily a boulderer. 

The reason I have this longevity in competition climbing is because I mostly climb outside, and I only train inside a very little bit before a competition, or if the weather’s bad. Before Vail last year, I was climbing outside a lot, and then about the month before the World Cup, I started going inside more, and then I won. That’s my key to success for myself: not putting all my eggs in one basket, and only training inside, because I did that in the beginning and it didn’t work for me. 

In Vail, I kind of just went with knowing that I was strong, I was confident, but I didn’t really care too much if I won or not, because I was happy. I was climbing outside, I was doing what I loved, and I just went and climbed my best, and whatever happened happened. 

Do you have a send snack? 

Ooh—so back when I was climbing in the Park a lot and I lived here, probably about three or four years ago, I remember I had this thing with my ex-partner. We had this reward. There’s a Dairy Queen in Estes Park on the way back down, so we would set a goal in the beginning of the season—a grade. So for me, if I climbed like V13 or above, then we could both get Blizzards on the way down. 

That’s so fun!

It was like that guilty treat that you don’t get all the time. Because I don’t eat fast food, unless you’re traveling somewhere and it’s 11:00 at night and nothing’s open and you’re on the road. 

Anything else?

So at Whole Foods—I’m not vegan, but there’s this vegan chocolate chip cookie that’s literally better than the normal chocolate chip cookie. Years ago, I found this out. I think they put more sugar in it or something. It’s like the texture, the taste, everything. It’s way better, and it’s—it’s amazing. 

When you’re not climbing, what are you doing?

I like shopping. I just like being a girly girl; last night I did my nails. I play with my dog a lot. Yesterday, for example, I had a lot of admin stuff to do, because I just moved to Boulder, and I have to register my car and do all that. So if I’m not climbing in the mornings, I’ll do all my admin stuff, then I’ll always go on a hike with my dog, somewhere, sometime in the day. 

I also love coaching. For the past 10 years, I’ve been coaching a lot. I’ve coached for Team ABC, I’ve coached for Team Momentum. And then at one point it was kind of hard being around and coaching a team when I needed to travel for my career. I stepped back from the team, because you have to be there three or four days a week. But I’ve still always done private lessons when I’m in town. And then I’ve been doing clinics, the last three or four years, because I found I can still coach, but I can travel and do it.

I like working. I guess because it makes me feel more accomplished. It’s great being a professional athlete, but I just want something more, and I’m passionate about coaching as well. So I feel pretty lucky to be able to be an athlete but still coach at the same time.

Do you have any other hobbies?

I do color in adult coloring books. It’s fairies and stuff, but I guess it’s slightly more complex than your 5-year-old coloring book. I like to journal. And then just being active. We bought a basketball the other day and we’ll go and play basketball down at this court by our house, and then play Frisbee with my dog. And yeah, kind of just have a normal life. 

I think that’s a balance. Climbing is a part of my life, and it’s one of the biggest parts, but I still have other sides to me. I’m still a person, a normal person, outside of being this professional athlete. 

So what’s next—both in life in general and in climbing? 

Right now it’s still just getting settled into Boulder. That was the thing that I was looking forward to the most, so I’m super excited I’m here. Still, getting settled takes time and takes it out of you a bit, like building furniture and doing all of this—the stuff that you don’t want to do. Getting insurance and all of that boring stuff.

But I’m excited to get in shape, so I’ve been going out, the last couple of weeks now, every other day, climbing. Just slowly ramping it up and pushing myself and then seeing what I can do outside and hopefully getting strong so that this winter I can push myself. I want to get back to being where I was, but then also go past that. 

Feature Image by Daniel Gajda

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