Puccio on bionic, post-injury pace
Photo: Zach Mahone

Puccio on bionic, post-injury pace

Injury has shaded Puccio’s past two World Cups in Vail, but now America’s most successful female climber is fired up for the 2017 GoPro Mountain Games

By Shauna Farnell

At last year’s IFSC Climbing World Cup in Vail, Alex Puccio was hungry for a comeback. The previous year, she was warming up on the wall when she missed a handhold, dropped onto the floor and tore the ACL and MCL ligaments in her knee.

Barely six months after surgery, the Texas native was climbing again, scaling a series of super challenging, V13-rated rock faces, including Irreversible in Rocky Mountain National Park, where she became the first female to make the ascent. Eight months after her knee injury, she nearly missed her 10th national championship title, finishing a close second.

A year later in Vail, where Puccio had landed gold (2009) and was consistently the top American female, she was eager to once again wear a medal around her neck. All seemed well, but during the event she began to notice issues with her neck. Before coming to Vail, she had herniated a disc in her spine, but it hadn’t really slowed her down until she stood before the wall during the 2016 Mountain Games.

Photo by Logan Robertson

“When I looked up to the side, there was this nerve electrocution,” she recalls. “I was first going into the semis and all the medical professionals I talked to said, ‘if it was really serious you wouldn’t have climbed this far.’ I was second going into finals. In finals, the first climb, the first move, the first boulder … I felt my whole arm go numb. My hand wouldn’t close. I kept climbing.”

Puccio ended up sixth. Upon returning home to Salt Lake City, Puccio went in for an MRI. After taking one glance at it, her doctor admitted her for emergency spinal fusion surgery.

“My surgeon said, ‘you’re lucky you didn’t see a chiropractor. You wouldn’t have walked out.’ For spinal fusion, they take out the disc and you’re not supposed to use your neck muscles or lift your arms. You have to wear a neck brace for a whole month. But it was a lot faster turnaround than my knee surgery.”

In her typical fashion, Puccio ramped up the timeline of her recovery beyond medical expectations. Three months after surgery she was climbing big-consequence, outdoor rock faces again. Not long after she was winning competitions. In February, in spite of a stacked field, she notched her 10th national bouldering title, a feat almost as meaningful as her earliest victories as a teenage climbing prodigy.

“It’s weird. The titles meant a lot, but after the third or seventh or eighth, it didn’t mean as much. But this time, there were so many strong up-and-comers. I’m 12 years older than most of them. I was in a place where I wasn’t expecting to win, but I knew I could,” she says.

Now, coming into Vail, the site of two consecutive years of major setbacks, Puccio, who has relocated back to Boulder, can’t wait to turn her local luck around.

“I love Vail,” she says. “Besides being a really cool town, every athlete on the World Cup circuit says the same thing about the GoPro Mountain Games. It’s their favorite event. Being outside, walking around the vendors and seeing all the sports, it’s such a great scene. At some competitions it’s only the climbing and you’re swamped in it. You go to the GoPro Mountain Games and you’re distracted. You socialize, your family comes out … it’s a blast.”

Avoiding the ice cream

Puccio’s mom, Kim Puccio, introduced her children to climbing when Alex was 13. As a single mother waiting tables, she facilitated her daughter’s rapidly burgeoning career. Now she works as a full-time coach and will be in Vail with her own crew of up-and-coming climbers.

“She reserved the hotel eight months ago,” Alex says, laughing. “My mom is my No. 1 supporter, for sure.”

Alex turns 28 on June 15 and can’t help but view herself as a seasoned veteran these days.

“When I first started doing the competition in Vail before it was the World Cup, I’d walk all over and get the worst sunburn. I’d get really hot and make myself sick. When you’re young, you don’t care. You say, ‘I can eat whatever, do whatever.’ I could do that stuff and still win. Now, I’m weird about my relaxation time. I still like to see everything, but I need to relax and not eat as much ice cream.”

That said, Puccio will be the first to admit that she has “the biggest sweet tooth.”

“I have to have dessert every day,” she says.

The self-proclaimed “health nut” is, “95 percent gluten-free,” and has compiled a personal cookbook of handwritten baking recipes, most of which fall into the “paleo” category and incorporate honey or maple syrup rather than refined sugar. While many athletes, particularly climbers, focus on ample protein consumption, Puccio says that carbohydrates are her dietary staple.

“My body needs carbs,” she says. “I’ll eat sweet potatoes, sushi grade rice, or more fruit. My body feels like it has more energy when it has those things.”

Coming into the 2017 Mountain Games, she is more in tune with her body than ever before and is intimately familiar with the power of mind over matter.

“I don’t think any professional athlete, especially slightly older ones, ever feels perfect,” she says. “After dealing with major injuries, you realize you’re not invisible any more. I’m always dealing with aches and have to do more work to make them go away. Sometimes I get a little voice in my head saying, ‘what is this now?’ But those thoughts don’t surface during competition. In competition – I would say top athletes say the same thing – you don’t have fear. All you have is the adrenaline going. Every time I get injured I get more determined to push my limits. My personality – the adrenaline – pushes through.”

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