With nine Bouldering National Champion titles apiece, veteran competition climbers Alex Puccio and Daniel Woods went to Wisconsin the last weekend in January with one goal: bring home a 10th championship. Nursing a knee injury, Puccio would be competing in her first major comp since tearing her ACL and MCL eight months earlier, and although Woods had proven his strength with a send of The Process, a V16 in Bishop, California, in early 2015, fans wondered if that dominating outdoor strength would translate to plastic. Add in the fact that several younger climbers have risen among the ranks in recent years to give the longtime champions a run for their money, and the 2016 Bouldering Nationals promised to be a good show for the more than 6,000 spectators who watched in the arena and via the live stream.
2016 USA Climbing Bouldering Nationals results:
1. Megan Mascarenas
2. Alex Puccio
3. Claire Buhrfeind
4. Michaela Kiersch
5. Meagan Martin
6. Sierra Blair-Coyle
7. Krya Condie
1. Nathaniel Coleman
2. Jimmy Webb
3. Carlo Traversi
4. Daniel Woods
5. Ty Landman
6. Kai Lightner
7. Mohammad Jafari Mahmodabadi
The women's comp was wide open going into finals thanks to a post-surgery Puccio and a few missing names on the roster: Angie Payne and Alex Johnson, who both finished on the podium in 2015, decided not to compete. Without these household names in finals, it opened up spots for some of the up-and-comers, including Megan Mascarenas (placed 4th in 2015), Claire Buhrfeind (placed 13th in 2015), Sierra Blair-Coyle (placed 10th in 2015), and Michaela Kiersch (didn't compete in 2015).
Mascarenas and Puccio finished semi-finals in a dead tie, and both topped out the first finals problem easily, but Puccio struggled with the second, a techy, crimpfest that required an extreme high-step with the left leg—the site of Puccio's injury—where the climber was forced to get the left foot up to chest height and step all the way up, essentially putting all their weight onto the knee in a fully bent position. On her last attempt, Puccio started to pull up looking calm and collected, then all of a sudden she was off the wall and on the ground, clutching her right hip. "Was she injured? Would she be able to continue with the competition?" commentators and spectators wondered. A few moments later, Mascarenas walked right by a potentially re-injured Puccio, who was lying on the mats and still nursing her right side, and flashed problem #2 with ease.
Puccio came out for problem #3 looking like nothing had happened. She brushed the wall, pulled on, made a few moves, and then flipped upside down with her feet over her head in a frog-like position, making it farther than any other competitor on the problem and going on to flash the problem that finished with a kneebar on the left leg. "Puccio doing Alex Puccio things on #3," commentator Brian Runnells said. Mascarenas came out next, managing to get through the crux with a sequence that the other competitors had tried and failed, and flashed women's #3 as well.
It would come down to the last problem: Puccio would have to top it, and Mascarenas would have to get shut down completely. None of the first four climbers were able to top #4, and while Puccio gave it a valiant effort, falling close to the finish a few times, she was not able to complete it. It was over; Puccio had lost the title, and walking out for her final problem of the day, Mascarenas didn't know she was already the national champion. Thirty minutes after the competition had ended, Puccio went back and sent women's #4. Meanwhile, in a post-comp interview, Mascarenas said, "I really respect Alex. She's a great climber and is really consistent, but I worked really hard too."
Winning nine times out of the past 12 competitions, Daniel Woods went into this year in a similar position to Alex Puccio. Last year he took second overall to Mohammad Jafari Mahmodabadi, but because Jafari is not an American citizen, Woods still held the national champion title. The men's field was packed with talent this year. Teenagers Nathaniel Coleman and Kai Lightner, the current Sport Climbing National Champion, stepped up to challenge the more veteran climbers, which included Carlo Traversi, Ty Landman, and Jimmy Webb. Although Webb and Landman are some of the best climbers in the country, they're mostly known for their outdoor ascents, and it was unknown how they would fare in this high-pressure setting.
The top five men—Coleman, Woods, Webb, Landman, and Traversi—performed quite well, each topping three problems in the finals, so the results came down to number of attempts. Men's #3 proved to be a really polarizing climb, with competitors either flashing it with ease (Landman, Woods, Webb), or struggling to do the first few moves (Coleman, Lightner, Jafari, Traversi). The competition was so close that had Woods been able to match both hands on the finish hold of problem #1, he would have taken first place instead of finishing off the podium in fourth. Coleman was able to flash problems #2 and #4 and sent problem #1 in just two attempts, making him the reigning national champion at age 19. "After I was done climbing, I was sure I hadn't won; I didn't even think I was on the podium..." Coleman said in an interview. "My friends ran up and were cheering me on... they had to show me the live scoring. It feels incredible."
After years of consistent domination by Alex Puccio and Daniel Woods, it seems a new generation is challenging their place as the leading force in U.S. competition bouldering. It will be interesting to see in the coming years if the older masters can defend their spot on top, or if these young crushers have established themselves as the new leaders.