2016 Golden Pitons: The Comeback Award

Alex Puccio, Salt Lake City, Utah
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In June 2016, Alex Puccio woke from spinal fusion surgery wondering if she could still move her fingers and toes. On January 21 of this year, she stood on the podium at the annual Dark Horse Bouldering Series and received her eighth first-place title since the operation. A few weeks later, she went on to win U.S. Bouldering Nationals.

2016 was Puccio's second straight year with a major surgery. In 2015, she tore both her ACL and MCL in her knee at the Vail Bouldering World Cup in a short, awkward fall during warmups. Her 2016 injury began earlier in the year while coaching, but came to a head again at the Vail event. The result was a herniated disc putting pressure on her spine.

“I thought: Oh wow, I’m cursed, Vail is not for me,” said Puccio.

The recovery left Puccio unable to climb for just over three months. Following surgery, she had to work up to using an elliptical machine, then to light core exercises, and eventually hangboarding. She dutifully worked through the progression. Then, only two and a half months after she'd been unable to walk, Puccio sent her hardest sport route to date—Atomic Cow, a powerful 5.13d at  Wild Iris, Wyoming. Just like that, the invincible Alex Puccio was back, sending V13s in Hueco Tanks and dominating the competition scene.

“I’m just a very determined, stubborn, competitive person,” said Puccio, who documented her recovery on social media. “You have the ability to make yourself better or not. It relies on you.”

Four months after going under the knife for the second time, Puccio entered the Portland Boulder Rally, her first competition of the season.

“I didn’t climb like my fluid, kind of jumpy, powerful, playful self," she said. "It was more controlled, calculating every movement, being as static and safe as I could.”

To Puccio's surprise, she took first place. She credits the win for a streak of positive thinking that stayed with her through the following competitions. Seven first-place finishes later, it's not the gold medals that she's most proud of.

“I’m getting older, but I’m getting stronger,”  she said. “It doesn’t sound like it’s much, but I guess what I would take away from the last couple of years is that I've become more of an adult. I'm wiser about my decisions that I make in climbing, in my life, and in my career.”

See the rest of the 2016 Golden Piton winners:

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