A CRACK IN THE GROUND BROUGHT THE GAINESVILLE ROCK GYM TO A CLOSE. THE ROCK CLIMBING COMMUNITY WON’T LET THAT STOP THEM.
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Isaac Knudson climbs a homemade rock wall at Jordan Robitaille’s parents’ house. Photo by Gabrielle Calise.

Past a stretch of grass and a sprawling canopy of trees, through the mesh entrance of the Robitaille family’s patio, is a climber’s oasis.

The room is chaotic, packed with climbing gear and smelling strongly of sweaty feet and chalk. A patchwork of old mattresses and chunks of padding cover the floor, all sandwiched together to create a surface soft enough to break a fall.

Towering above, a homemade rock wall stretches 10 feet up to meet the ceiling of the screen-enclosed patio.

Eighteen-year-old climber Jordan Robitaille, a forest resources and conservation freshman at the University of Florida, dips his fingers into a sack of chalk before approaching the wall. He grips two of its colored rocks, gracefully hoisting himself up. The muscles along his back coil as he focuses on ascending the wall he and his friends constructed on the patio of his parents’ house in one weekend.

The wall has existed in different forms for about six years, but Robitaille is happy that it exists now more than ever: It’s one of the last places left in Gainesville to climb.

Gainesville may be flat, but it teems with people gripped with the urge to climb things. And for a while, the center of it all was the Gainesville Rock Gym.

The gym was central to the city’s climbing community since it opened in 2000, said former employee Isaac Knudson, with people streaming through its doors to climb up and down its rock-studded walls. The gym was even known as a bucket-list item for college students — something you had to do at least once before you graduated, he said. As the only full-service rock gym in the city — the next closest, Sun Country Sports located in Jonesville, about 11 miles from Downtown — it was immensely popular.

But in December, a crack in the floor stopped it all.

After peeling back layers of padding in the process of constructing a new wall, gym employees discovered a crack in the concrete underneath, Knudson said, big enough to put the project on hold. After the building was inspected, the owners realized the problem was worse than anyone could have expected: Concrete slab damage ran throughout the gym. The faults in the floor made climbing at the gym a safety hazard — and repairing them would be costly.

The owners launched a GoFundMe campaign that December, setting a goal of $100,000. Climbers donated over $10,000 by January. The donors had been under the impression that with their help, the gym would reopen at some point. For months, updates slowed, then came to a halt by the end of April.

“Unfortunately we have been left in the dark from our insurance company since our closing,”  said the update on the gym’s GoFundMe page.

The post said another group of engineers would be visiting the gym to further assess the damage.

“We hope that their report will help push the process along,” the update read. “We are doing everything in our power to get our community climbing again.”

In the meantime, no one is sure what’s going to happen next, Knudson said.

“It would be great to see some progress, and I would love to have the gym back,” Knudson said. “But it seems like there are some major obstacles.”

The owners didn’t respond to interview requests from The Fine Print.

Once a chalky oasis for climbers, the Gainesville Rock Gym remains closed, and until something changes, it leaves a community of climbers without a home.

But climbers, Robitaille said, will always find a way to climb.

Some have headed to the walls at Sun Country Sports. It has a climbing team and a few walls, making it the next best choice. But it’s not quite the same, Robitaille said. The climbers share the space with gymnasts and martial arts classes. It’s not the climbing-centric space of the old gym, packed with people who just wanted to climb.

After the Gainesville Rock Gym shut down, gyms in Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando — the climbing community stretches far across our mountainless state — offered to honor Gainesville memberships, either with discounted rates or free access. Some Gainesville climbers have taken them up on their offers. Others travel to parts of the country where you don’t need a gym: Tennessee, Alabama or Georgia — states riddled with jagged cliff faces and towering, rocky heights.

But having walls in town has allowed climbers to practice the sport close to home.

“The wall itself, in many ways, is a symbol of the resilience of the climbing community and the teamwork ingrained in it,” Robitaille said.

Robitaille’s wall is made of pine plywood and is speckled with climbing holds, colored slabs of material to grasp during a climb. The first version of the wall was built about five years ago. The second version was assembled about a year and a half ago. Each time, the project was completed over a weekend.

Robitaille grew up in Gainesville, climbing with the Gainesville Rock Gym youth team until he aged out. Before the gym closed, he was coaching the team that he had grown up climbing with.

“I kind of went full circle,” he said.

Though he said he practically lived at the rock gym, Robitaille convinced his parents to let him build a rock wall in their home about six years ago.

The wall itself, in many ways, is a symbol of the resilience of the climbing community and the teamwork ingrained in it, Robitaille said. Most of the material was donated from old climbing coaches and gyms from around the state, including the slabs of padding that line the floor and the holds of different shapes and colors.

And like the community, the wall is constantly shifting. Robitaille and his friends can switch the position of the holds, challenging themselves to conquer new routes.

Robitaille said he comes home to climb as much as he can now that the gym has closed, something that delights his parents. Friends like Knudson drop by to climb for a few hours when they can.

With just one room and one wall, Robitaille’s setup is clearly smaller than the rock gym, but it still breeds that supportive, familial atmosphere.

“That’s it dude, nice!” Robitaille calls out to Knudson as he heaves his body to the top of the wall. “Solid. Bring it. Sick!”

As Knudson makes his way down, Robitaille waits for him at the bottom, his arm already outstretched to give his friend a celebratory fist bump

For Katie Meyer, the Gainesville Rock Gym was her safe place.

Meyer used to come to the gym to escape from a bad roommate situation at home. And as the president of the UF Climbing Team and a GRG employee, she would climb several times a week. But she also went there to do homework, see friends and enjoy the atmosphere.

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The Gainesville Rock Gym was more than just a place to climb: It was the beating heart at the center of the community, Meyer said. Youth teams, coaches and college students seeking to melt away stress all gathered under the same roof. It hosted member nights and community potlucks; it was where a culture of support and friendship blossomed.

Meyer had been a competitive swimmer for 13 years — and a good one, sharing the pool with Olympics-bound teammates. But when it came time to choose a college, she decided to look beyond Division One schools.

“Swimming became very much of a job for me,” she said. “There was a lot of pressure to perform well.” 

Hoping to escape that pressure, Meyer began climbing. She liked the mental stimulation that came with climbing, the way conquering a route felt like solving a puzzle. But more than that, Meyer was drawn to the people.

“I was really astounded by how friendly people were,” Meyer said, especially coming from swimming’s cutthroat culture.

Even at competitions, climbers are welcoming and supportive, Robitaille said.

“Everyone there is spotting each other and helping them work through routes,” Robitaille said.

There is a competitive edge, but it’s mostly internal, he said. The pressure comes from wanting to improve your own technique. Other climbers want to see you succeed — they’ll even cheer you on.

“It’s not like a sport where they won’t pass you a ball if you aren’t good,” he said. “If you’re bad, you’re the first one picked.”

Though he’s been climbing for less than a year, Derek Ward has already learned one of the most important aspects of the sport: perseverance.

“You will fall 99 times and get it on the 100th time,” Ward said.

Without a gym, he said, finding a place for a less experienced climber to get involved has been difficult. So Ward uses Robitaille’s home wall, which he helped his childhood best friend build even before he started climbing.

The sport is difficult, he said, but the community’s philosophy pushes new climbers to try again.

“There’s a lot of heartbreak,” Ward said. “Every time someone comes out here, Jacob says, ‘Don’t worry, 90 percent of it is falling.’”

Even when a route is frustrating to climb or his forearms burn with pain, Ward knows how to keep going. It’s a quality he has learned from the rock climbing community, the same one that always keeps them finding the next thing to climb. But establishing new headquarters for the city’s climbers is a much harder task.

“It’s still a transition for people,” Meyer said. “It was just this core place.”

Robitaille and Knudson both said something will happen soon. The Gainesville Rock Gym could still reopen; another company could swoop in to take it over or build something from scratch. There will be another place where people will come to climb until their bodies ache and their hands bleed.

“There’s too much of a love of climbing for it to go away,” Robitaille said.

In the meantime, the members of the community are doing the best they can — gym or no gym.

“I’ll make do,” Robitaille said. “There will be no shortage of climbing in my life.”