Competing without a Safety Net

Does the name Alex Puccio make your heart race? Have you been wondering if Daniel Woods lost his mojo? If you’ve never heard of these two climbing superstars, you’re in the same position that I was two weeks ago.

Last weekend wrapped up the ABS Nationals Bouldering Competition here in Madison. The semi-finals was my first time attending a climbing competition, and, let me tell you, it was as adrenaline-pumped as any other sporting event. Imagine walking into a darkened room at a convention center at 10am on a bright Saturday morning. You grab a seat as close to the front as you can and watch the lit stage, eager for movement, your heart thumping with the remixed hip hop, funk, and soul songs.

Then the M.C. announces the first competitor and climbers from Wisconsin to Montana to Iran begin scaling the walls, the crowd clapping and yelling their names as they complete a difficult move — or sighing audibly when they fall off the wall. The competition has begun: Only one man and one woman can win the championship.

If you’re not familiar with “bouldering,” it means climbing without ropes or a harness attached, which also means you can fall. Of course there are crash pads, but that doesn’t mean no one gets hurt. For the semi-finals there were eight climbing routes on stage, alternating between men’s and women’s. Whether or not the competitor completes a “problem” or route in the allotted time, he/she sits out one climb, then moves on to the next, harder route until he’s/she’s completed all four walls. The lower ranking climbers climb first, the top-ranked ones last.

Between climbs, I noticed the climbers facing the audience, usually talking to their coach or teammates. It turns out this isn’t by chance: a climber isn’t allowed to observe (and therefore mentally map out) the next climbing problem. Since they were standing ten feet in front of me, I saw that these competitors came in all shapes and sizes, some all sinew and skin, others who looked like they could have just graduated from Army boot camp. As soon as you think you’ve pegged a body type that is better suited to scaling a wall, another climber does it better and blows that image out of your head.

Though women do well in climbing, it’s a male-dominated sport, and the ABS Nationals, as well as the climbing gym, have the same testosterone-charged vibe that a boxing or weight lifting gym might. So, naturally, I was cheering for the women. There were less of them in the semi-finals than men, and, while most of the men made it through their first problem, the women struggled to complete theirs.

That was until Alex Puccio took the stage, and the female climber performance gap became obvious. Alex made routes that had thrown every other climber look as easy as swinging across the monkey bars at the playground. While Daniel Woods (who ended up ranking second behind Mohammad Jafari Mahmodab) garnered some audience enthusiasm, Alex actively sought it out, waving her arms to raise our noise level. Then she completed every problem. Yes, every single one. It was fantastic.

I walked away from the semi-finals on a high. I couldn’t wait to climb, though I knew I could never compete with the climbers I’d just watched. They were the best bouldering competitors in the U.S. — at least for 2015.

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