The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 run July 24-Aug. 9, 2020, and while they may be two years away there’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Each Tuesday leading up to the Games, TeamUSA.org will present a nugget you should read about – from athletes to watch to storylines to follow to Japanese culture and landmarks – as part of “Tokyo 2020 Tuesday.” Follow along on social media with the hashtag #Tokyo2020Tuesday.
Ask Alex Puccio how hard climbing is on the body and she’ll give you an answer that makes it clear very quickly.
“The easiest way to put it is if I didn’t have any sort of pain in my body somewhere I would probably think something is wrong,” said the 29-year-old who has long been the country’s top female boulderer. “Even if it’s a pulled muscle or tendonitis or a tweaked shoulder or a tweaked knee or something, you can still climb through but maybe you have to adapt or train differently. I don’t remember what it feels like to be 100-percent pain-free.”
Puccio is currently competing at the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, and isn’t climbing at 100 percent. She had knee surgery just a month ago, so this year’s competition is more about training and gaining experience for next year, she said, when a little more will be on the line.
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Sport climbing will make its debut at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and Puccio hopes to be one of the two women who could get a chance to represent Team USA.
Alex Puccio competes in bouldering at the IFSC Climbing World Cup on June 9, 2018 in Vail, Colo.
“I have a great shot at going and I’m going to try my hardest to make it,” said Puccio, who won her second-ever world cup gold medal earlier this year at a competition in Vail, Colorado. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
It won’t be easy, even for a veteran competitor such as Puccio.
Puccio started climbing when she was 13 years old growing up in Dallas, Texas. Her mom started climbing at the local gym and got the kids involved, too. Puccio remembers just wanting to go back again and again, drawn not only to the chance to use her natural strength and power but also the problem-solving component and mental focus required of climbing.
She started competing at 14 and at 16 won her first professional adult competition at the American Bouldering Series Open National Championships in 2006.
Since then, Puccio has dominated the bouldering scene in the United States.
After high school she only wanted to keep climbing so she moved to Boulder, Colorado, where the climbing is plentiful and the competition strong, just shy of her 18th birthday. After several years there she spent a couple years in Europe then came back to the Western U.S. and has been moving between Boulder and Salt Lake City, the latter being her current home.
She won the U.S. Bouldering Championships in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 in addition to several world cup medals and a silver in bouldering at the world championships in 2014.
When she was 24 years old, Puccio decided to take a break from competition.
“I was really strong and I was always making the finals at every world cup but then I’d just bomb it in finals,” she said. “I would always mess it up. I remember so many coaches from different countries saying, ‘You need to learn to free your mind.’ I thought, ‘What does that mean? It sounds great, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.’”
She found her answer in the sport she loved but in a much different environment, turning from the gym to the immense beauty of climbing outdoors in some of the most prime bouldering locations in the country, including Rocky Mountain National Park, Hueco Tanks, Texas, and Bishop, California.
In between becoming the first female climber to successfully finish some of the hardest outdoor bouldering problems in the U.S., she started competing again and won a silver medal at the 2014 world championships.
“I found climbing outside gives me a very good mental balance. It’s still training, and it’s training my mind to be more open and free and less stressed. I was just putting too much pressure on myself and maybe just wanting to win too badly. I found climbing outside was a secret tool for myself and my own success.”
Even as one of the nation’s top boulderers, becoming one of the 40 total athletes — 20 men and 20 women with no more than two women and two men from one country — who will compete in 2020 will be an immense challenge.
The format for Olympic sport climbing requires athletes to compete in three different disciplines: lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing. There will only be one set of medals awarded per gender.
In lead climbing, climbers try to get as high as they can on a wall that’s generally 50 to 70 feet high. They use a harness and rope and clip the rope in as they progress up the wall. It’s a very endurance-based discipline.
Bouldering is more about power and dynamic moves. Climbers don’t use ropes or harnesses and climb routes on walls that are 12 to 18 feet high.
Then there’s speed climbing, where athletes race one another up a 15-meter wall on a standardized route. It’s a much less popular and practiced form of climbing in the U.S. compared to lead and bouldering, and the fact that climbers will have to compete in all three has forced many climbers to alter their training since the Olympic announcement.
“You can’t win in just one discipline; it’s going to be an overall winner and we’ve never had that before in any of our competitions,” Puccio said. “Usually we don’t have that many bouldering and lead climbers crossing over into speed. Speed is something very different, and speed climbers usually just practice speed. You don’t really see speed climbers crossing over into bouldering or lead either. At first we were like, ‘That kind of sucks that you can’t win your individual discipline,’ but this is the first time it’s going to be in the Olympics. It’s a starting point. I’d love it to stay in the Olympics and get to the point where you can win your individual event and also the overall, like you can in gymnastics.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.