Growing in ALX: Featuring Sportrock Climbing Center

From retail and restaurants to tech and media, contractors to coworking spaces, large, small, and everything in between, a diverse array of businesses call Alexandria home. In our blog series, Growing in Alexandria, we sit down to talk with businesses around the City to learn more about who they are, what they do, and why they love it here. Have an idea for a business in Alexandria to talk to? Email us!


Happy New Year! Happy new decade, in fact. And what better way to start the new year than with a trailblazing business. We took a trip out to the Eisenhower Valley to sit down with Lillian Chao-Quinlan, President of Sportrock Climbing Centers, which is one of the founding climbing gyms in the country!


AEDP: So, let’s get started with a quick overview of what Sportrock is.

Lillian: Sportrock Climbing Centers is one of the first indoor rock climbing gyms in the country.  It started in 1994 in Rockville, MD. The Alexandria location was opened in 1996 and the Sterling location opened in 2001.  During my 15-year tenure as President, we have gone through three expansions and renovations.  Our gyms offer both route climbing and bouldering.  We tailor our gyms to a multifaceted audience – kids, adults, beginners to experienced level climbers.  We are open 17 hours/day and are full service, offering cardio and yoga in addition to climbing.  We offer membership and day passes.

AEDP: How did you get started?

Lillian: Prior to becoming President of Sportrock, I was a public school teacher.  During my 10 years as a teacher, I taught 4th and 5th grades as well as serving as a Consulting teacher for 3 years, working with new and underperforming teachers.  For many years, I was a runner and suffered a chronic injury. My husband suggested we try rock climbing.  We took a basic skills class at Sportrock in 1999.  Climbing really spoke to me in terms of a graceful aesthetic and athletic movement. We bought a membership that night, along with all of the climbing gear!


I was still teaching when my husband and I had an opportunity to invest in the company.  Soon after, I began teaching climbing at Sportrock.  I became President of Sportrock in 2005.


Today, we have over 200 employees.  We have thousands of members, some of whom have been with us since we first opened in 1994.  Ever since we completed our largest expansion in 2018, climbers from all over the country come to Sportrock to climb on the tallest walls in the Metro DC area.  We are also one of the few gyms in the country to have IFSC certified 15 meter speed climbing walls.  Sportrock has quickly become a destination and venue for the most accomplished climbers in the country.   We hosted Nationals in March 2019, with the top climbers in the country competing for a place on the Olympic team.  This event was televised on ESPN, with thousands of viewer and spectators.


AEDP: Running an enterprise like this must be a little different than other types of businesses- what would you say your biggest challenge is?

Lillian: The biggest challenge as a business is to keep up with the industry of rock climbing.  Sportrock started in 1994, one of the original indoor climbing gyms.  25 years later, we are faced with larger competitors building brand new, ground up, facilities.  For us to keep current and differentiate ourselves, we always come back to our commitment of being a gym that is built for climbers, by climbers.  My business decisions are grounded in making sure we have the best route setting and programs for all ages, that we have a supportive and inclusive community for everyone, and provide an exceptional experience for everyone who walks through our doors.


AEDP: We love it when people answer the flip side of that question- what’s the most rewarding part of running Sportrock?


Lillian: Getting testimonials from people about how much they love the gym and their life changing experience.  People come in for the fitness but they stay for the breakthroughs and transformations both physically and mentally that rock climbing offers.  Our community is a strong one, which keeps people connected. Much like a third place.  This year, we actually hosted a wedding in our gym!


AEDP: How would you describe the culture at Sportrock?

Lillian: All who work at Sportrock are passionate about climbing.  From the moment you walk in the door, you are greeted by climbers who are excited about providing an exceptional climbing experience for everyone.


Our company culture can be described by the acronym we use – ROCK.

  • R is for our commitment to route setting.  Sportrock has the most highly certified route setting team in the country, we offer climbing terrain and routes that are challenging and creative, at all levels.  We are proud to have the tallest climbing walls in the Metro DC area.
  • O is for being original.  We are one of the first indoor rock climbing gyms in the country and we have been around for over 25 years.  We want to create a space that is authentic to what the original owners of Sportrock wanted, which is a place to climb and a community of climbers.
  • C is for community, whether is it within the walls of Sportrock or on a larger scale – reaching out to various audiences.  We host a weekly Parkinsons climbing group, at-risk youths, fundraisers for different causes, climbing events for climbers with disabilities are just some examples.
  • K is for knowledge.  We are committed to being a teaching/learning gym.  Providing classes and clinics that teach climbers the hard and soft skills of climbing, whether they only climb indoors or want to venture outside.  We are committed to educating and preparing climbers to reach their goals.


AEDP: Hard to believe it’s already 2020- a whole new decade! That reminds us that the future is closer than we think. Looking forward, where do you see Sportrock in the next year? The next decade?


Lillian: We are expanding again, which will be our 4th expansion.  We are adding another 10,000 square feet of climbing and training terrain that will be dedicated to high-level climbing for youths.  We will have more bouldering walls that will be set for competition style climbing.  We will be using state of the art assessment tools, technology and video to provide feedback for our young competitive climbers.  We will also have an in house physical therapist and massage therapist.

AEDP: Finally, our favorite question: why Alexandria?


Lillian: Back in 1996, the former President found this location.  At that point, there were very few businesses around, so it was the right location for the right price.  We are fortunate that other interesting businesses have moved into the area and we have a unique and robust community here at the West End area of Alexandria.


To learn more about Sportrock, please visit their website or stop in to see the action at their Alexandria location- 5308 Eisenhower Avenue.