Mountain Games: Alex Puccio wins her second climbing gold in Vail

Melanie Wong
Special to the Vail Daily
The IFSC Climbing World Cup always draws a large crowd with the port making its debut in the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
Max Phannenstiel | Special to the Daily

VAIL — Vail seems to agree with Alex Puccio, who climbed to her second International Federation of Sport Climbing World Cup gold medal on Saturday at the GoPro Mountain Games. She also won her first and only other World Cup gold in Vail in 2009.

“I knew going into the final problem that I was on the podium, so I was just psyched for that,” she said. “To win was just going to be icing on the cake.”

Earlier in the afternoon, American Sean Bailey shone bright in his first World Cup finals, snagging silver. Home crowds also seemed to help the 22 year old as he climbed to his best World Cup bouldering finish yet.

“I had a kind of brutal season. I didn’t make a single semifinal in the last four events, so I was just happy to make the final,” he said. “It’s just fun out there once you’re in the finals, so it’s hard to be upset no matter what.”

Final problem showdown

The Land of the Rising Sun shone bright in Vail on Saturday, making up six of the 12 spots between the men’s and women’s fields. In the women’s field, the petite Japanese powerhouse Miho Nonaka took second, while No. 1-ranked Akiyo Noguchi, also of Japan, took third.

Puccio secured her win on the final of four problems, which stumped every other competitor within the first three moves. Puccio carefully navigated past the problematic holds to the sound of cheering crowds to flash (complete in one attempt) the problem. She and Nonaka had been leading the field until that problem, which Nonaka did not complete.

“I think I climbed really well, but I was really aiming for the gold, so I’m a little disappointed. The last problem was the hardest, but it was a perfect fit for Alex Puccio,” Nonaka said.

To win in Vail was a standout moment for Puccio. She credited the success to a more balanced training and competition schedule that also includes outdoor climbing.

“I’ve come second and third so many times (in World Cup competitions), a lot of times I even came into the finals in first place. I knew I wasn’t not winning because I wasn’t strong enough. I knew it was something mental,” she said. “So I took a break. I have a more fun and free relationship with climbing and competition now. As I get older, I’m learning that it’s just climbing, and it’s fun, and that’s what life’s all about. Go out there, have fun and try your hardest.”

Surprise podium for Bailey

In the men’s competition, Bailey and Japan’s Rei Sugimoto stayed neck to neck until the third problem, a stretchy, off-balance route that required climbers to snake along the wall, traversing the pieces like stealthy cat burglars.

Bailey came close but did not top the route. Sugimoto, meanwhile, fell from the top just a second too soon. He tried again, this time bringing a chalk bag with him on the wall and succeeded on his next attempt, swinging in victory from the hold, shouting and pumping his fist. The win was meaningful for Sugimoto, who like Puccio, is celebrating his second World Cup gold.

“It’s amazing for me. It’s my first time since 2013 winning gold (at a World Cup), so I am very happy with the result,” he said. “The Japanese team had a very big voice here today, shouting and cheering, so it was a good atmosphere.”

Bailey, known as a lead climber, did not cinch that third problem, but had the crowds cheering “Let’s go Sean,” throughout his last two problems.

“That’s the most love I’ve ever gotten. I was enjoying it,” he said. “I was tired, and I knew it. At that point I didn’t really care anymore — I was just having fun.”

Looking to Tokyo 2020

Many of the climbers on the podiums in Vail have their eye on a different competition — the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020. The Olympics will include three disciplines, including bouldering, speed climbing and lead climbing. Many climbers are specialists, meaning that to make the team, many athletes will need to expand their repertoire of skills.

“There are so many amazing women climbers in the U.S., and I’m definitely not the best at speed climbing, but I’m going to try my hardest to go to the Olympics,” said Puccio. “It’d be so cool to experience that.”

Bailey, who is better known as a lead climber, said he also plans to incorporate speed competitions into his training over the next two years. Other climbers, such as Nonaka, are keeping Olympic goals in perspective.

“It will be the biggest goal, but it is not my only goal,” said Nonaka. “My objective is to become the strongest female climber in the world. That is just one point along the way.”