Story by Kellie Gunderman
Photography by Scott Hailstone
Lillian Chao-Quinlan, President of Sportrock Climbing Centers, has been an avid climber for over two decades. She is a firm believer in the power of climbing, and not just for our physical well-being. It has been her experience that this sport can also have a powerful effect on emotional, mental, social and spiritual wellness. Simply put, climbing changes lives, which is why Lillian has dedicated her professional career to rock climbing and creating a space that all people can explore their own potential in a supportive community.
"The fun of climbing is not that it's easy, it's that it's hard." - Lillian Chao-Quinlan
After teaching elementary school for ten years, Lillian sustained a running injury that lifted her off of the pavement and into a harness at Sportrock. "My husband recommended climbing to me so that I could remain active while I was recovering and unable to run," Lillian explained. "As soon as I got off of the ground, everything about it spoke to me. The movement. The experience. It was unlike anything I'd ever known."
It did not take long for Lillian to realize that Sportrock was so much more than a climbing gym; it was a family. The instructors and members all come from various walks of life and enjoy sharing their passion for climbing with one another and the members. Lillian was not only falling in love with this new sport but also the community she had come to know and care for.
In 2005, Lillian became the President of Sportrock and did not waste any time in creating new programs to benefit the community. Over the next several years, Lillian began to lead Sportock to offer dedicated climbing nights for women, wounded warriors, the LGBTQ+ community, and at-risk youth, to name a few.
"When these kids finish their climb, they return to the ground with confidence, joy and excitement, and that is something they can walk out the door with and incorporate into other aspects of their lives."
Lillian and the Sportrock team are doing some amazing things for their members, but the most inspiring and innovative program they have come to offer is adaptive climbing for those suffering from Parkinson's Disease, led by Director of Programs and Events, Molly Donelan. "We partnered with George Washington University to become one of the first climbing gyms in the country to study the impacts of climbing for Parkinson's patients. Walking into the gym can be difficult for these climbers, but they are like ballerinas once they get off the ground." This group meets every Friday morning and is proof that consistent climbing helps Parkinson's patients improve balance, strength, and most importantly, confidence.
On March 17, 2021, like so many other business owners across the country, Lillian was forced to close Sportrock's doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The gym, which so many depended on for so many reasons was about to "go dark" for 90 straight days. "After we closed, the day-to-day discussions were difficult because we are such a unique business. We didn't have a model to follow so we leaned on our community for support, began collaborating with other businesses, worked to stay connected with our members and diligently mapped out a safe re-opening plan. We began offering virtual classes and launched an online apparel shop. I am amazed at what my team was able to accomplish despite the challenges we faced."
Though Lillian decided to discontinue charging Sportrock clients for their memberships during its closure, many loyal climbers refused the kind gesture. "They wanted to stand by us and ensure that we would still be around when this was over. The community was the fuel that allowed us to keep going and their financial support allowed me to continue to pay all of our employees throughout."
Another factor that contributed to Sportrock's recovery was The Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, which Lillian joined last November. "The opportunity to join The Chamber came at a pivotal time. It was such an isolating experience as a business owner, being the only climbing gym in the area. Being able to feel more connected to other business owners has been so comforting. The connections I have made through The Chamber have allowed me to collaborate with other small business owners on finances, people and processes throughout the pandemic. It was great to finally not feel like I was alone."
Sportrock has reopened for business and is currently offering top-roping, bouldering, lead climbing, classes, camps, and private instruction as well as virtual fitness classes. Members have access to a two-story cardio and fitness area, complete with cardio equipment, weights, yoga studio and plenty of space for functional exercise. There is even a public workspace to check emails or take a Zoom call in between workouts. With amenities such as these, it's a wonder why anyone ever goes home. "Our members spend an average of 2-3 hours per visit. Sportrock is not just a business. It's a place to grow and be part of a community."
Sportrock is always researching and implementing risk mitigation measures, in collaboration with medical professionals, public health experts, and their colleagues in the climbing industry. The safety of all employees, members and guests is an absolute priority.
5308 Eisenhower Ave, Alexandria, VA 22304 (703) 212-7625 • www.sportrock.com