SALT LAKE CITY–Whenever Alex Puccio glanced over a marvelously muscled shoulder to survey the competition last weekend in Salt Lake City, she spied not climbers like herself whose careers and bodies were sculpted from granite but the gym-rendered audacity and impatience of bouldering’s next generation.
To claim her record-continuing 11th national bouldering title at the USA Climbing open championships on Saturday night, Puccio for a second straight year paused a new guard so insistent upon change. As in 2017, she shared the podium with a pair of 16-year-olds, Ashima Shiraishi of New York and Brooke Raboutou of Boulder, Colorado.
To put things into perspective, Shiraishi and Raboutou still were in kindergarten when Puccio won her first title in 2007. Puccio, who recently moved to Boston, also coached Raboutou at ABC Climbing in Boulder.
At 28, Puccio is one of the “old ladies” of climbing and finds herself at a bit of a crossroads.
“Our sport is so young, people are breaking the mold of what can be done all the time,” she said. “I’m just fortunate enough that I’m one of those people who can help show the younger generation that it’s not like gymnastics where you peak at 18 and you’re done. “
“They’re so strong and the style of climbing has changed so much,” Puccio added of Shiraishi, Raboutou and the rest of the sport’s gang of teens. “The younger generation is so good at this new gymnastics-jumping style of climbing. And this, six years ago, wasn’t here in the U.S. It’s all new for me and it’s like teaching an old dog new tricks.”
On the men’s side, the transition already has taken place. Nathaniel Coleman, 21, used hometown advantage to win a third straight men’s open championship in dominant fashion. Coleman rode a perfect final round to victory, and hasn’t fallen in a final for three years.
Coleman’s ascendance in sport climbing reminds some of the early dominance of Daniel Woods, a nine-time national champion who, like Puccio, is 28 and carved his reputation on outdoor rock, but now is eyeing a decidedly changed competition landscape.
“There’s a lot more going on,” said Woods, who finished 16th in the semifinal round. “There’s a lot more pressure and a lot more craziness.”
Some of that craziness—the competitors more resembling superheroes than adventurers—places increased stress on joints. Puccio won the 2017 national championship not long after undergoing spinal fusion and reconstructive knee surgery for injuries suffered at consecutive World Cups in Vail, Colorado. She competed this year with four finger injuries, which may have cost her the ability to top the last problem of the final round, leaving the door open for Shiraishi to dethrone her.
(In competitive bouldering, climbers face rounds of routes called “problems” on walls up to 20 feet high, without equipment to prevent falls. Each problem has a set amount of time and points awarded for each zone achieved, with deductions for each fall).
But Shiraishi had issues of her own. Three days before the competition, she strained the rotator cuff in her right shoulder during a difficult crossover move in training. She weighed the risks of competing and almost didn’t go to Salt Lake City, but her right brain prevailed. She’d already booked the travel, so went, and since she was there, competed.
Shiraishi’s intuition initially seemed divine. Though she said she had to be reserved with some of her moves, she mostly was able to block out any pain. “When you’re climbing, you’re so in the zone,” Shiraishi said. “But probably not a good idea.” During the semifinals, she registered the only perfect round in the women’s competition. However, the route setters created diabolical gaps in the first and last problems of the championship round that would require using the power she lacked because of her injury to overcome absence of length (Shiraishi is 5 feet 1). Shiraishi said she also felt pressure from going last and that Puccio’s advantages in experience and strength were intimidation factors.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking,” Shiraishi said.
Puccio said, “I think once you’ve won, it’s easier to win again. You know you can win again. You know what it takes to win. You know the mindset to win and the determination. But it’s also more stress—everyone’s after you and there’s nowhere to go but down. Once you’ve reached that, it’s also easier to lose it. There’s more pressure you put on yourself (and) from other people.”
The latest pressure point is the debut of sport climbing at the 2020 Summer Games. In the context of a career during which Puccio focused not only on bouldering, but on the outdoor version of it, a shot at Olympic competition seems a bit tangential. Medals will be offered only in an overall competition comprised of bouldering, lead (ascending a taller fixed course within a specific time), and speed (essentially, a sprint on a fixed, 15-meter route).
Puccio says she’ll take aim at the Olympics, but isn’t yet sure what that means. She’s loathe to cut into her time outdoors for the indoor training many believe is necessary. The past two years, she’s spent about two weeks training in climbing gyms before nationals, and it’s obviously been a winning formula.
“It’s actually kind of freed my mind and helped me relax in competitions,” Puccio said. “No one thought that you could really do that before. They thought you had to climb inside to be good at competitions. Well, I guess I’m trying to break that mold, and I’m still winning, and I want to keep on doing that.
“I wish I was younger,” she added, “but you have what you have, and you can’t change it. You’re got to work with what you got.”