Eight-time American Boulder Series (ABS) National Champion, Alex Puccio, is undoubtedly the strongest female competition boulderer in the US. In talking with her we learned that becoming the best took clear goals, a strong sense of competition, and a surprisingly laid-back attitude about climbing. We had the pleasure of chatting with Alex on a pretty average day; she had just come back from a practice session and was about to sit down to a hearty dinner of brisket. It was a just a few days before the 15th Annual ABS National Championship, where she clinched her 8th national title in a row. Here’s how our conversation went:
CXC: During competition season what does a typical week of training look like?
AP: The week before [a comp] I try to practice flashing boulders or making up new climbs and doing them in as few tries as possible. Some days I’ll do a bit more power, and I’ll try to eat better. Maybe eat one day of brisket instead of a few days of brisket. Maybe a few cookies instead of a whole pack [laughs]. I try to be a little bit more scheduled. It’s really hard for me to be on a schedule. I’m not very good at it. Months out I have a rough plan, but it’s a very flexible plan.
CXC: Do you design that plan or do you consult with someone to design it?
AP: I design it. I’ve learned over the years what is best for me, and I think when you design your own plan you have to really realize how your body operates. It’s something that I’m still learning. I’m not coached now and I haven’t been for the past few years, so it’s trial and error. Through the World Cups I’ve realized what my weaknesses are and what my strengths are. I don’t really lack in being powerful, so I work more on the technical side. I’ve really had to practice that over the last few years, especially for the World Cups, which are really technical. It’s really hard in America because none of the gyms really have slabs. I try to make up really funky, weird climbs. I was in the gym yesterday just making up a ton of boulders with weird jumps and awkward moves that you wouldn’t normally see. I do a lot of that and then the week before [a comp] I taper off a bit. But everybody’s different.
CXC: What are your plans leading up to the World Cup season this year?
AP: March 5th a bunch of us will go to Switzerland for 3 weeks and we’ll climb there only outside. Then I go to Sweden for a competition the last weekend of March [The Tierra Boulder Battle]. Then starting April 1st we’ll go to England for a few weeks and we’ll train indoors there. That’s where I lived for 3 years, in Sheffield, England, and it’s amazing for slabs. The gym is 80% slab and vertical. It’s just really cool to go over there and be able to climb on that style for a few weeks before the first World Cup in China, which is the last weekend of April. It’ll be fun to go back and play on the gritstone too. The gritstone is really technical itself. I’m not very good on the gritstone.
CXC: From the videos we’ve seen, the gritstone looks super scary.
AP: It is scary. I’m not very good with the highballs. I like my life, and I like my limbs. I don’t want to break.
CXC: Do you have boulders picked out in Switzerland that you really want to climb? Do you train differently for a trip like that?
AP: I don’t know that many people who train indoors for outdoor climbing. Some people do, but to me they’re two different sports. To get better outside you have to climb outside more and to be better inside you have to climb inside. I’ve been to Switzerland before so I have some projects, and I feel like I’m in good shape right now so hopefully I’ll go there and see what happens. I have so much stress in competition that when I go outside I finally don’t have to feel like I’m training for something. When I go outside I’m like, ‘I don’t just have 5 minutes to do a boulder.’ It’s quite nice. It’s refreshing. Before the competition season starts I’m so psyched and want to prove to myself that I can do better, and then by the middle of the season all I think about is outdoor climbing. I just want to be able to take a couple of days on a climb if I want to, instead of 5 minutes.
CXC: You’ve won countless comps and have placed top 5 overall in the past three World Cups. So, we were wondering what drives you to keep pushing and always wanting to be the best at what you do?
AP: I set goals all the time and I haven’t completed all my goals. I know I want to win the bouldering World Cup circuit and I’m pretty dang close, so I feel like it’s not too far fetched. Then maybe if I do it once I’ll want to prove that I can do it again. You never know until you keep on doing it. That’s one of the things that I’ve never over-thought in climbing. And I love seeing new countries and new places. I love traveling. I can get really bored of things and with climbing you have so many different disciplines and it’s always different and I think that’s why I was really drawn to it. I never over-think it. I like doing it, so I keep doing it.
CXC: It sounds like you always have goals, like you’re always striving to do something more.
AP: If I didn’t have a goal I feel like then that’s when I’d get burnt out. I did so many sports and burnt out of all of them, and climbing is the only one that I never got bored of.
CXC: What else did you do for sports?
AP: I did gymnastics for a few years when I was younger. I did basketball, figure skating, tee ball when I was really little. I did acting school. That didn’t go so well. Two of my biggest fears are flying and public speaking. I used to be really bad at interviews. It’s weird because I could always climb in front of people. You’re not talking to them, your back’s to them, and you’re just doing your thing. I think if you know you’re confident doing something then it feels better but with speaking in public… I hate it.
CXC: It’s really interesting that you have trouble speaking in front crowds because at climbing competitions you seem so calm and collected. What goes through your head during a competition when you’re surrounded by a screaming crowd?
AP: I really zone everything out, and I kind of forget about everyone who’s watching. I mean, you see them but it’s like a big blur. I have a little system where I do certain things around certain times so I’m not rushed or pressured. I look at the clock and at 3:30 I start putting on my shoes slowly. Then when there’s 2 minutes left I drink some water and put on my chalk bag. I like to get amped before I go out, but more so, I like to calm myself. It’s a good balance. I’m always really excited and I’m always nervous. The more competitions I do the more nervous I get, so I do these little things to help with the nerves. You want to be calm when you read the sequence. You don’t want your head to be thinking a million miles an hour. My first season I climbed too fast, and I realized that sometimes you need to let your body slowly fall into the right body position or that your foot being flagged an inch deeper might be the key to it feeling better. So you really have to be slower sometimes and then you have to learn to turn it on and get your muscles firing again.
CXC: It seems like competition comes very naturally to you. Were you always really competitive and goal oriented?
AP: Yes, but it’s important to be competitive in a good way. There are some people who are competitive in a bad way and are not friendly to other people. People can be snotty about it. If I have a project and there’s never been a first ascent on it I’ll invite Angie [Payne], Meagan [Martin], and people out and be like, “Come try this with me!” It’s motivating to see other girls on it who are strong as well. You always want to be the person who does it first. It’s a feeling of satisfaction, but I wouldn’t get bummed about it if someone did it before me. I wouldn’t wish some else to fall. I’ll go to the gym with the guys and have a little fun competition. We’ll joke around if I do it before one of the guys and I’ll be like, “A girl did it before you. Come on now.” But I’d never be sneaky about a project. I like having other strong girls come try it with me.
CXC: Whose climbing do you really admire?
AP: In my opinion one of the best climbers is Tommy Caldwell. I don’t want to go do big wall all the time, but it’s inspiring to see that mental capacity and ability to go climb one of the hardest big walls in the world, then go do one of the hardest trad climbs, and then he can probably do a V13 boulder all in the same day. And missing a finger. And he has a kid and a wife. It’s really impressive. There’s a French woman named Cecile [Avezou], who two years ago made finals in two bouldering World Cups and she’s in her early 40s and has 3 kids. She’s really inspirational, having kids, being in her early 40s, crushing it.
CXC: Is that where you see yourself at age 40? Having babies, still crushing it?
AP: I’m a very family oriented person. I’d love to have kids, I said by the time I’m 30. We’ll see if that happens or not. There are a few other women out there who do really well in competitions who are a little bit older and have kids and still crush it. I think it’s really inspiring to see that.
CXC: Do you have other climbing goals outside of the comp circuit?
AP: I want to push myself outside. I haven’t tried many V13s so maybe I’ll try to do my first V13, but I don’t like chasing a grade. I like to find a climb, and it’d be great if I found a climb that’s hard for me, but I have to be inspired by it. Everyone’s like, “You can climb V13, probably V14. Why haven’t you gone and found one?” But that’s the thing, I don’t want to go search for one. I like climbing outside because it’s fun and I want to try hard things, but I want it to come organically. I’ve never tried anything longer than 3 or 4 days. I’ve done 14 V12s and some of them have been in a few tries and some took me a few days. I could step it up a bit. I have tried a few V13s, but I just wasn’t really inspired and I got attracted to a different climb and did that instead. I guess all in time.
CXC: What about goals outside of climbing?
AP: I’d like to go to university. I don’t know if I want to be a professional climber for the rest of my life so we’ll see where that takes me. I just enjoy what I’m doing now. You just have to live and love what you do.
Indeed! Alex, thank you so much for chatting with us. It was a pleasure to meet you and to gain insight from such an amazing climber. Good luck at your upcoming comps and especially in this year’s World Cup series. We’re rooting for you!