Alex Puccio competes in the 2017 USA Bouldering Open Nationals

My Favorite Moment in Sports — Alex Puccio’s 2018 Bouldering Nationals

I’ve wanted to write about the things that helped me get through four years of Trump ruining this country, but where do I start? How do you take something you watch for entertainment or self-care and measure what it helps you do in activism or simple endurance? Which do I choose first? Half Waif? Chess on Twitch? “One Day at a Time”? Yogscast, despite its litany of problems? Anne Waldman?

Some are pieces of art that made me feel human, even as politicians insisted the Latino blood that runs in my veins makes me somehow less so. Some just kept me laughing on days when that was the only emotion that wasn’t a lurking dread – 20 minutes here or there where the world seemed light again in between collating the death threats writers had received.

Where do sports fit into that? Sports are downright strange. We take so much of the hope we feel about the world, both the surviving and broken pieces of it, and we place it onto athletes we will never know. Why? Some part of how they do things, how they compete, some element of their story helps us identify and openly feel our own.

What about one of the greatest years in American sport that really hasn’t been talked about? What about a moment in a sport not even covered by major networks? That was Alex Puccio’s 2018 run, not just because of her wins in climbing events, but because of her resilience and a narrative that said, “I’m not done yet, and you don’t get to decide when I am”.

I watch a decent amount of ESPN, despite its collapse into a series of talking heads that mainly gossip about what athletes say on Twitter. Occasionally, someone mentions their favorite moment in sports. It’s usually a landmark: a World Series win or a Super Bowl that legitimizes a player. It could be a torch-passing moment from one generation to the next.

Venus Williams vs. Lindsay Davenport, 2005

For a long time, mine was the Venus Williams-Lindsay Davenport 2005 Wimbledon final. Davenport was a ball placement player. She tended to stay back on the baseline. Her precision meant she could force opponents to overcommit, allowing them only one angle to return. Knowing that angle meant she could put herself in position moves ahead. Her game was built around moving her opponent at will, and knowing exactly where to be ahead of time to close with a powerful hit.

By contrast, Williams played across the whole court. She didn’t need to be in the ideal position to hit a winner. She had the athleticism to negate Davenport moving her from one end of the court to the other, paired with fundamentals from any position on the court. Davenport might dictate where the ball went, but Williams didn’t have to sell out in order to return. She could get there and recover quickly. She could also adapt her strategy in a way Davenport couldn’t.

They played two very different styles, and they played them to perfection. Davenport would win the first set 6-4, but Williams was starting to move her across the court with her shot choices. Williams saved Davenport’s match point in the second set to barely win it 7-6 and force a third. That third set went to 16 games, where Williams would finally win 9-7. It was the longest women’s final match in Wimbledon history.

The 2013 Broncos-Patriots Game

The next moment would come in 2013. It was the regular season. The 9-1 Denver Broncos were visiting the 7-3 New England Patriots. The Patriots had to win in order to keep a shot at the first seed and home field advantage in the playoffs, but the Broncos jumped out to a 24-0 lead midway through the second quarter. The Patriots wouldn’t score until the third, but standout play from QB Tom Brady and WR Julian Edelman would see them rally back and win 34-31.

It was an extraordinarily rough point in my life, and that game just reminded me I could be happy about something that wasn’t especially consequential. The Broncos would later beat the Patriots in the playoffs for the opportunity to get trounced by Seattle in the Super Bowl.

I later grew to hate the Patriots when GM, coach, and star QB all ended up fawning over Trump, so this memory’s been soiled, but none of that had come to pass in 2013.

Alex Puccio competes at the 2018 Bouldering Open Nationals

The 2018 Bouldering Open Nationals

My favorite moment of all happened in 2018. I was sick of the NFL for blackballing Colin Kaepernick, for its wildly inconsistent policy on domestic violence and sexual assault, and for many teams giving way to whatever Donald Trump wanted. I was looking for a new sport to watch.

I’ve gone climbing and bouldering, but it’s an expensive pastime. I’ve moved around a bit and I’ve never taken it up very consistently. Watching it is free, though. USA Climbing had been both live-streaming and posting its bouldering competitions on YouTube. They still do, and there’s something appealing about the no-frills, lo-fi approach to a sport that has yet to really hit the mainstream. There’s an informality to it, though the accomplishments of its athletes are no less impressive.

I’d been watching climbing for about a year. That’s when the 2018 Bouldering Open National Championships rolled around. Bouldering is a form of free climbing (i.e. no ropes or harnesses) on problems that are 20 feet high or less. Competitions happen on artificial walls using plastic holds that are bolted on. Each problem is designed according to a grade of difficulty. Climbers have only five minutes to attempt the problem (four minutes in international competitions), with points given for reaching midpoints and the top, and points deducted for each additional attempt needed.

Alex Puccio is a boulderer who’s made entirely of muscle, who can keep that 90-degree bend in her arms all the way through climbs others can’t even finish. She dynos big movements, leaping from hold to hold on the strength of her arms, sometimes even letting her legs hang free under her and passing up toe-holds. She’s elite at technical climbing, but that sheer strength allows her to take shortcuts and swing from hold to hold where others would have to take their time and move slowly.

Sometimes, that works against her. She can try to solve a problem too quickly. Because she can brute force her way through difficult sections, she’ll occasionally approach a hold at a bad angle or end up hanging precariously as she works out the route. That she can even do this where many climbers would fall and have to re-work the problem from the ground is already a big advantage.

Puccio had won Gold at the Bouldering Open Nationals nine of the last 12 years, with two Silvers, and only one year when she didn’t place (I don’t believe she competed in 2009).

In Salt Lake City at the Nationals in February 2018, she was a year-and-a-half off recovering from spinal fusion surgery for a herniated disc. She was two-and-a-half years coming off a torn ACL/MCL and meniscus. She’d still won Gold the year before (the picture up top is from 2017), but she’d looked shaky at points in her recoveries. Those two silvers had come in the last four years. At 28, Puccio was a veteran in an incredibly physically taxing sport. She could be beat, if just barely.

Ashima Shiraishi competes in 2017 USA Bouldering Nationals

Ashima Shiraishi is a nearly opposite sort of climber. She doesn’t do big dynos where she sails through the air. She seems to gradually slide her way up the wall, at times inching up in ways that don’t make complete physical sense. She rarely tries to force a solution and her holds often arise from muscle pliability. She’s known for solving problems in ways that other climbers just don’t see or can’t do.

At 16, Shiraishi was considered a phenom, having won her youth categories in both bouldering and lead climbing for three years running. The year before, in 2017, she’d already placed second to Puccio in the Bouldering Open Nationals while winning the Combined Sport & Speed event later in the year.

Shiraishi was competing with a torn labrum. That’s the cartilage that cushions the ball-and-socket joint in her shoulder. There was something really incredible about watching two such different climbers push each other through some of the toughest recoveries a climber can have, solving complicated routes with completely different styles.

They were hardly alone. Brooke Raboutou is an all-around climber who had finished third the year before. She comes from a family of climbers and boasts an extraordinary technical proficiency. She doesn’t have Puccio’s sheer strength or Shiraishi’s out-of-the-box approach, but she makes the right by-the-book decision every single attempt. Her fundamentals are unquestionable.

This contrasts to Margo Hayes, who wouldn’t even spend the first minute or two attempting the climb. She simply stood on the mat, calmly looking up at the problem, doing it in her head, and miming the hand and foot sequences over and over again until they were muscle memory. Only then would she start climbing, and she’d often only need one attempt.

Claire Buhrfeind also made the finals. In contrast to the 5’2” Puccio and 5’1” Shiraishi, Buhrfeind is 6-feet tall. This can be a major advantage on lead and speed climbing, where height can help minimize gaps between holds. It can help on bouldering at times, but this specialty also requires climbers to contract and wedge themselves between surfaces more than the others. They regularly have to flatten themselves to the wall in a specific amount of space, pushing against slopes rather than pulling against holds. That extra foot means Buhrfeind often has to position her core awkwardly or away from the wall during these compression movements. Where Buhrfeind’s height helps her on some problems, it can work directly against her on others.

Meagan Martin would also make the finals. A great all-around bouldering veteran, she can still compete at high levels. At the same time, she was already transitioning into life after competition, with appearances on “American Ninja Warrior” and becoming the premier American commentator for climbing events.

That’s one of my favorite things about any sport – seeing different people with different strengths, experiences, and strategies all try to solve a problem in varying ways. In bouldering, there are obviously safety and climbing fundamentals everyone follows. After that, there is no right way to solve the problem in front of you; there’s just what works best for that person solving it then and there.

Every one of these climbers had the fundamentals drilled into them for years, and then they started creating their own style on top of that: Puccio relies on strength, burst, willpower; Shiraishi is patient and endlessly creative; Raboutou knows the right book move every time; Hayes will map it out in her head before even touching the wall, Buhrfeind fights with and against her reach and height; and Martin is deeply experienced and unflappable.

It was incredible to see so many completely different ways of approaching a problem in sport, and it sealed climbing as my favorite sport to watch. But who won?

Three problems in, Puccio was up by five points over Shiraishi. This can be made up on a single problem, and there was one left. The fourth one stumped every climber – none topped it. Puccio made the 15-point hold, while Shiraishi made the 10-point hold, solidifying Puccio’s second consecutive Gold.

The Year That Followed

With climbing combining three disciplines as an Olympic sport in 2020 – back when we thought we’d see a 2020 Olympics – Puccio was aiming to excel in all fields. The next month, she’d get her very first placement in Combined Sport & Speed, finishing third behind Buhrfeind and Michaela Kiersch. It was a surprise to see Puccio do so well in fields that hadn’t really been her focus up to that point, and it seemed to announce that she could vie for a spot at the Olympics.

U.S. climbers very rarely compete in the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s World Cup series. There’s no real national support to send climbers around the world the way there is in Japan, Russia, or many European countries. Puccio herself has competed internationally when she can, usually having to crowdfund on top of her full time job and climbing endorsements. Because of this, many U.S. climbers only compete in the annual event that takes place in Vail, Colorado. That means while they couldn’t chase the point lead across all seven events that year, they could still win the single event in Vail.

The Vail World Cup event was where Puccio had ripped apart her knee on a fall in June 2015. She had only won it in 2009, nearly a decade earlier. And yet her 2018 continued with a victory many hoped for, but couldn’t be sure would happen. Puccio muscled her way through problems that seemed impossible for the top competitors in the world, coming out as the only women’s boulderer with 3 tops out of the four finals problems. She won it, finishing directly ahead of the three worldwide points leaders that year in Miho Nonaka, Akiyo Noguchi, and Fanny Gibert.

The victory would prove bittersweet to fans. At the very top levels, climbing can be a sport that hones a specific type of athleticism even as it wears it down. Puccio continues to compete and continues to send new outdoor bouldering problems, but the following year’s Bouldering Open Nationals would see her fail to advance to the finals for the first time in a decade.

She’d also choose in January 2019 not to try out for the USA Climbing Overall National Team. It would be set later that year to represent the U.S. in international events like the Olympics. She posted that she just didn’t love lead and speed climbing enough to sacrifice bouldering and climbing outdoors. It’s an understandable decision given the IOC’s choice to combine all three climbing disciplines instead of making them each a separate competition.

It’s ridiculous to have four separate events with four separate podiums for four different distances of speed skating, yet to think that such wildly different disciplines as bouldering, lead, and speed climbing should all be combined as a single event.

One would have to think that if bouldering was its own event, the most accomplished competition boulderer in U.S. history would have as strong a chance to make it as anyone.

The combined choice means that younger climbers who have had more incentive to train across the three disciplines have made the team instead: Ashima Shiraishi, Brooke Raboutou, Margo Hayes, and Kyra Condie were all named to the team. Of course, with the pandemic, it’s hard to tell if the 2020 Olympics will even happen in 2021.

2018 felt like an announcement that Alex Puccio would keep on winning and improving across disciplines, and might even lead our international team. It was hardly a send-off to a legend either – Puccio is still extremely active in bouldering, with a renewed focus on outdoor. She’s also said that if bouldering becomes its own event in 2024, she’ll compete for an Olympic spot. She’ll be 34 then – still young by any standard outside of one of the toughest professional sports there is. Even so, you have to think she’d stand a very good chance.

Why Does It Mean So Much?

Why did 2018 speak to me, though? I don’t think I can ever completely put into words why. I’d spent much of the two years prior working with writers and activists who had received death threats, helping them research stalkers and aggressors, and de-escalating situations where realistic. Every volunteer I’d worked with on that work burned out inside of two years, including myself – and as much of that work as I’d done, it didn’t prepare me to receive a death threat that I had to take seriously. It wasn’t my first, but it was by far the most legitimate I’d gotten, and it was on the heels of two stalkers who refused to leave me alone and kept contacting me through every medium possible.

I felt boxed in. I felt helpless and isolated. I had walked dozens of others through these emotional dangers before, but I discovered it didn’t really prepare me to manage my own way through it. All those emotional dangers I had trained and coached others through were still waiting there for me.

To see someone whose narrative embodied, “I’m not done yet, and you don’t get to decide when I am”…I needed to see that. To see Puccio coming off spinal fusion and a torn ACL/MCL, competing against Shiraishi with a torn labrum – when the sport requires taxing each and every one of those pieces of yourself to its utmost….

What sport is in its best moments is an art that allows us to write our own metaphor for what we’re struggling with onto someone we admire. It helps us believe we can endure and overcome in a way that isn’t the same as theirs, that doesn’t replace theirs, but that can learn from and be inspired by theirs. When we root for them, we root for something in ourselves, we legitimize that it’s OK for that part of us to struggle and it’s possible for that part of ourselves to endure.

My favorite moment in sports were those 2018 Bouldering Open National finals because they helped me endure, they helped me see people finding different ways to endure. What’s beautiful about the sport is that the winner is rarely the one who solves everything, it’s the one who solves enough of it, who fell and got back up again. Bouldering isn’t a sport about mastery; it’s a sport about saying, “I’m not done yet”. It’s not even about pushing harder – oftentimes, after that first attempt you physically can’t. It’s about admitting an oversight or assumption you made about your own capabilities entering into the problem, and solving it by expanding how you’re seeing it.

We get through for countless reasons. Sometimes it’s the part of us that muscles through it. Sometimes it’s the part of us that’s patient and creative. Sometimes it’s the part of us that knows the book answer. Sometimes it’s the part of us that takes a step back and gives ourselves enough time to work out a new one. Sometimes we have to fight against a strength for it to help us. Sometimes we just don’t know and we have to be calm enough for experience to guide us through.

There was so much to admire, and so much strength to be reminded of in ourselves, so much endurance through parts that weren’t healed, in just those few hours of competition on a live feed with sound problems that only a few thousand watched. And yet it kept me going more than almost anything else. That’s what sports can do, in different rare moments for each of us, that makes it transcend into art. It resolves you. It can help you see yourself. It can be therapeutic. It can provide relief from trauma. It can create magical realism for a moment in our lives. It can ease the pressure. In witnessing resilience, we remember what it feels like even after someone has alienated us from our own. Find the sport, the art, the moment that does that for you.

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