Alex Puccio: pure bouldering power and passion
Interview with American climber Alex Puccio, one of the most accomplished female boulderers in the world.
Alex Puccio is without a shadow of doubt one of the most accomplished female boulderers in the world. Introduced to climbing by her mother as a 13-year-old, the Texas-based athlete quickly started to make a name for herself thanks to her powerful, hallmark climbing style that resulted in ridiculously hard repeats at a ridiculously fast pace. By 2014 she had amassed over twenty 8A+ boulder problems - a staggering result for anyone, let alone women - and in July that year she upped the ante to send her first 8B. A fortnight later she entered the diamond league of female bouldering by sending her first 8B+, Jade in the Rocky Mountains National Park; at the time this grade represented the absolute apex of female bouldering and Puccio had needed just 4 days to join the ranks of Tomoko Ogawa, Ashima Shiraishi and Shauna Coxsey.
Famed for her raw power, Puccio has always juggled her time between climbing outdoors and indoor competitions, dominating the US bouldering Championships for 11 seasons and, internationally, winning the Vail stage of the Bouldering World Cup in 2018 and the Rock Master bouldering event in 2014. A few weeks earlier she had earned silver at the Munich Bouldering World Championships, missing out on the title on the narrowest of margins: a mere one attempt separated her from home-favourite Juliane Wurm.
Although competitions have always been a big part of Puccio’s life, it would be fair to say that her heart lies outdoors and this explains her shift in 2018. "My brain, body and emotions were so depleted of psych and energy I made the decision to skip the last 2 World Cups this year and just go outside climbing" she explained, while in early 219 she took the difficult decision not to attempt to qualify for climbing’s historic first-ever Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020.
The flip side to Puccio’s success is a string of injuries that have plagued her career, likely due to her intense climbing regime that demands nothing but the absolute maximum of her body, and despite being currently injured she sent her fifth 8B+ boulder problem, Heritage in Switzerland’s Val Bavona a few months ago. Having just celebrated her 30th birthday, the time has now come to talk to one of strongest boulderers of all times.
Alex, let's start with your latest big ascent, Heritage! You mentioned you had a special feeling immediately before the send. Tell us more…
This is a feeling I get sometimes where all the external noise goes away or just doesn't matter and I'm at complete peace inside. When I say "peace" that doesn't mean I'm feeling too relaxed in my body or not psyche or not ready to fight hard. It's more like I'm in the moment and living each move. Time doesn't really matter and I don't over or under think each move, but just feel and execute each move without thinking how to. My body relaxes on the moves that are easier and my breathing picks up to psych myself up for the hard moves when I need to. There is no unneeded hesitation. I don't have to tell my body to do these things, it just feels it and so it happens. It’s that "Special Feeling"!
Does this happen often?
This doesn't happen on every hard boulder I have done. When I'm more fit I can afford to mess things up and still pull through or climb things in a more sloppy way. Not that I'm aiming for that, but I can afford to. I remember this special feeling happening on my first 8B+ Jade. I remember I was sooo psyched to get on Jade the day I sent it. I had been sooo close the first session and then I could barley do a single move for the next 2 sessions because of the weather, and then the day I sent I had that feeling again. I waited impatiently for the sun to get off the holds while I put my tick marks where I needed them and made sure all the holds were brushed perfectly. The sun tipped away from the boulder and I took my sweater off. My partner at the time recommended maybe I should wait slightly longer for the holds to cool down. But I couldn't. I was ready! I had that feeling where I knew I just needed to go. I still get surprised when I top, of course, and sometimes when I think I have a similar feeling I don’t always make the send. Sometimes I’ve even tried to make myself have the Special Feeling, but its never the same as when it comes completely naturally.
Alex, you’ve now sent five 8B+. This is hugely impressive, regardless of gender.
I guess I don't think too much on this topic. I do like to know when another female has done a climb because it gives me motivation and inspiration, but a lot of it comes from the fact that we might be similar heights. For example, if a really tall female does a climb and there is also a pretty short male that does the same climb I will then think "Oh, well he did it and we are similar in height so maybe I can." In that scenario, I wouldn't think of the female doing it would necessarily mean that I could.
So what abut an 8C? Is this achievable?
It definitely feels very achievable! I posted a while back when I was trying and getting painfully close to Terremere, in Hueco Tanks - Texas, a bit over a year ago now. I hurt a finger on it and had to leave 2 weeks early. Over the last year I have had a lot of ups and big downs physically and mentally. These downs have caused me to get pretty far from my peak performance shape, but this is life and I'm on the ups now!
This is great news. Yes, in the past you’ve had your fair share of injuries. So how difficult is it to get back in to shape? Physically and mentally?
Some injuries are much easier to bounce back from. My first knee surgery back in 2015 was petty hard at first, but it made me absolutely more psyched then I have ever been to train! I got stronger in 4 months after the surgery than I was before it happened, and I was climbing 1 legged for a good while. My spinal fusion, C5/C6, exactly one year later was really scary. But again the recovery was not so bad and three months later I took part in a big Pro USA bouldering comp, PBR, in Portland and ended up winning and then went on to winning about 15 Pro comps in a row.
I have also had the normal finger pulley tears here and there and have had to take a month off every now and then. I have also sprained and fractured my ankles. I tore my TFCC in my right wrist years ago and have had 2 cortisone shots in it over the past years and I just hurt it again last month, so currently I’m dealing with that pain again. ( lol ) Also, a couple weeks ago I hurt my right pinky finger pretty badly spotting a friend and I'm pretty sure its either broken or tore some things in the first palm knuckle, I get it checked out Monday by a specialist here in the UK so fingers crossed!
That’s quite a list Alex!
Set backs are hard and my hardest was last summer. Last summer I went through a really tough breakup ending a 5 year relationship, and a week later I went though knee surgery again, this time on my meniscus. The surgery was the easiest part really! The thing is I just ended something I thought was maybe going to be forever and on top of that I was approaching 30. I know that isn't "old", but I really did feel like I went through a, hopefully, quarter life crisis!
Looking back, is there anything you feel you would have done differently?
Honestly, not really. I normally don't regret anything, but instead turn something negative in to a learning experience. I believe we learn best from our own experiences. But if I was to tell my younger self something it probably wouldn't be climbing related.
What is your biggest asset and also your biggest weakness?
My best attributes in climbing would have to be my power and strength I guess. Having said that, I have worked hard to be a more well rounded climber and I do love a good slab and to climb on boulders that are less power pulling. When it comes to "weaknesses" I don't tell myself I have them, instead I say I'm better at one thing than the other, but still can do or not bad at the other. :)
We're sure people would like to know what you do for training.
Wow, big question. My training is all over the place for the past year or so. lol. I don't have a training program for myself over the past 4ish years. I have just been climbing outside a lot and in the past when there was a World Cup I would climb a bit more in the gym the month beforehand, to work on my jumps and tricks that you don't get normally on rock. When the weather is bad or I’m injured I'll also climb inside a bit more. I find that climbing outside gets my fingers really strong and trains my footwork really well. Climbing outside also makes me a more thoughtful climber; there are usually many options and you have to find the way that works for you.
You mentioned competitions. Out of interest, why did you decide not to try for the Olympics?
Deciding not to make a push for the Olympics wasn't an easy decision. At first my decision was all in for the big push, but as time went on I felt something making me unhappy inside. I came to realize I was only trying to make the push for the Olympics because competitions were a huge part of my life for so many years and now a new level has opened up. I have a massive love for bouldering and bouldering competitions, but I don't have a love for Speed climbing. I do sport climbing so that wasn't an issue, but putting all 3 disciplines together and making it into 1 combined result for the Olympics was not what I loved. I eventually realised that the format of the Olympics this time around was the problem for me. I just didn’t want to train that way. In addition, I realised how much I love climbing outside, and that if I trained for the games I would have to give up climbing outside for some time.
How do you feel now that you’ve taken this decision?
Realising this gave me peace inside, and once I made my decision I felt so much happier! Now that I'm living my decision and have watched all the World Cups while climbing outside all the time, I don't regret my decision at all. The competitions look fun for sure, and I would probably have fun climbing in some of the bouldering World Cups, but I'm happy with my decision!
That sounds good. Making big decisions, consciously, is never easy.
Maybe something happens to people, perhaps more so even to women as they approach 30. I have always had a vision since I was really young of what being 30 would look or feel like and IT'S NOTHING LIKE THAT! I don't have all my shit together… I don't have a 10 year plan. I'm not married with a house and 3 dogs or for that matter kids! I definitely want a kid someday and women have a ticking clock. I really think all these things rolled up into one made me lose it mentally a bit and I needed to become reinspired and find my happiness again. And, for that matter, my new direction and be happy with being 30 with it not all figured out yet. There is no set rules of how you need to live. The way I want to live though is to be as happy as I can, as often as possible! And climbing outside is a big part of my happiness.