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Abby Dione is the Only Queer Black Woman To Own A Climbing Gym in the U.S.—And She’s Kicking Ass

"What makes Coral Cliffs unique or different is that the prism through which we share climbing is a bit more soulful," says Abby Dione, owner of the Florida-based gym.

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Abby Dione of Coral Cliffs
Abby Dione, owner of Coral Cliffs. Photo: Courtesy of Abby Dione.

Back in March, Coral Cliffs—the only climbing gym in the U.S. owned by a queer Black woman—was nearly forced to close permanently due to Coronavirus-related financial challenges. Then Vancouver-based climber Anaheed Saatchi created a GoFundMe to help Coral Cliffs, and everything changed. The campaign ultimately raised over $120,000 to support the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based gym.

“I just was astounded. And humbled, like it was a mixture of humility and gratitude and a big sigh of relief, all in one moment,” said Coral Cliffs owner Abby Dione of the GoFundMe support.

The GoFundMe campaign quickly surpassed the original $25,000 goal, earmarked to cover the cost of the building lease and support the gym until it was safe to reopen. The Fundraiser goal was updated to $100,000—that, too, was exceeded.

“We beat the threat of immediate closure, we helped with the extreme costs of navigating the COVID-19 crisis responsibly, we have helped with debt and now let’s push for Coral Cliffs to thrive. Let’s let the climbing industry know the kinds of gyms and individuals we want to see moving forward,” stated the Fundraiser update on GoFundMe.

Thousands of people donated, and the average donation amount was $20. Many supporters had a personal connection to Abby Dione, Coral Cliff’s owner, and others were simply passionate about the cause. Donors spanned the U.S., with some even coming from as far away as Sydney, Australia.

[Also Read “Pretty Strong” is Pretty Darn Strong]

Dione herself learned to climb at Coral Cliffs. She bought the gym in 2011 from its prior owners, and has run it since. When she purchased Coral Cliffs, it was a small gym frequented by mostly hardcore climbers without padding on the floor. Now, the gym has training tools, improved walls, and crash pads.

Abby Dione with a couple young climbers at Coral Cliffs. Photo: Courtesy of Abby Dione.

“I had a conversation with the previous owner, and based on that conversation, I figured, you know, at worst it floats along the way it has with a small hardcore group of climbers, or at best I can make a difference. And I’m happy to say that it has been the latter and that was nine years ago,” said Dione.

Dione describes herself as a teacher, and climbing as her preferred medium. She has been a USA Climbing coach for five years, and also has been teaching and giving workshops across the country at different festivals.

Get to know more about the engine behind Coral Cliffs below!

Q&A with Abby Dione

Tell me a bit about yourself—how you found climbing, how you evolved as a climber over time.

I actually get teased a lot for this, cause I’m actually Canadian but I learned how to climb in Florida [laughs]. So when I go back home they make fun of me, considering we have the Rockies and beautiful mountains in our backyard. But climbing never came across my radar when I was growing up. It actually took a visit from friends from Europe that were coming to Florida for the beach and the sun, and had a trip coming up and they didn’t want to lose any fitness. So they did some research and they found this little gym in Fort Lauderdale. And they invited me to come along. And I did, and I basically proceeded to lose my mind. I took my class, I got my membership, I got all the gear, and I usually tell the story that I climbed everything I could climb to the point where when I drove us home I couldn’t close my hands. I was doing the crab on the steering wheel. And that was that, I was hooked. …

My first outdoor trip probably happened within a year, and then I understood what the gym was for besides obviously community and connection and a good time. I was like, ‘I need to train.’ And that’s what I did. I climbed a bunch. And climbing was about me and for me. Fast forward a year or two later, my climbing partner at the time essentially says, ‘Hey, do you know the owner is selling? I think you should buy it.’

Abby Dione on the Moonboard at Coral Cliffs. Photo: Courtesy of Abby Dione.
Abby Dione on the Kilter Board at Coral Cliffs. Photo: Courtesy of Abby Dione.

What was your vision when you bought the gym?

It was the first thing I had to ask myself. The summary of my answer is, generally if I’m having a good time, you’re gonna have a good time. That’s always been my philosophy. So when it came to the gym I brought that attitude. …

My vision was, if you come to my space and you don’t know anything about climbing, kind of like on a conveyor belt, you can progress along, get strong, get smart, and then off you go. Whether it’s outside, whether it’s competitions, whatever your heart desires the idea is that you are in a place that you can learn and fail comfortably. Because that’s how you get better.

What makes Coral Cliffs unique among other climbing gyms?

I’d be doing this regardless if I was getting attention for it or not, but I am one of the few woman owners in this country. I am definitely the only black woman owner in this country. And I think that that informs how I interact with not only my staff but my members. So what makes Coral Cliffs unique or different is that the prism through which we share climbing is a bit more soulful.

I know how hard it was for me to get as good as I am now, so if someone is willing to do the work I don’t want to add to that struggle, because it’s a lot of work. You should be able to just focus on the work, and not, you know, on the gatekeeping of the information or the access to a certain kind of experience. That should be available to all who are doing the work and are being respectful. That’s the difference I think.

How has Coral Cliffs evolved as a space over time?

Dione with a group of climbers at Coral Cliffs. Photo: Courtesy of Abby Dione.
Dione with a group of climbers at Coral Cliffs. Photo: Courtesy of Abby Dione.

It was really pretty basic. There was no padding on the floor…from the basics of safety, like padding and stuff, to revamping the walls, to adding more training tools so that people can really optimize their time in the space. And just having a really welcoming staff, like a very formal informal kind of program in the space…like we coach you while you’re on the wall. But we’re doing it for encouragement. I’m not beta spraying you but—and this is something I’ve been told quite a lot over the years— people are like, “Dude, you guys are so positive here.” If someone’s kinda cruxing and trying to get through something, people around them will just stop and tell them that they got it. And that happens quite a lot in my space. I don’t think you learn well when you are in a negative space.

I also make it less about the ego—there’s what we call commercial setting, which is what I call feel-good setting, you know, I climb 5.10 in the gym and then you go outside and you eat crap on a 5.7 or 5.8. I make it a point to have our grades reflect what someone would face outside, so we’re known for being a bit stiff. But at the end of the day my favorite thing to hear is someone saying I went to this other gym and I jumped on a 5.11 and crushed it, or I went outside and I felt confident and safe with what I was attempting. So that’s a pretty dope and important thing for me.

How did the fundraiser come about?

[The fundraiser came about as a result of] covid and what not, and the numbers in Florida being the way they were, and having a pretty strained relationship with the landlord because they weren’t going to offer any help. Nana [Anaheed] could see that I was getting tired. …

I cringed a little bit, my initial reaction [at the GoFundMe], because I rarely ask for help. I’ve always found a way to make things work….it was a real act of love and concern. Basically once I got over myself I realized what this person was trying to do. …

And I just was astounded. And humbled, like it was a mixture of humility and gratitude and a big sigh of relief, all in one moment…I kind of kept a side eye on it, I didn’t look at it much throughout the day. But when I would check I would see the numbers, like it just kept growing and growing, and that was tripping me out a lot to say the least. …

Obviously the number’s impressive, but what made the whole thing meaningful for me, like truly meaningful, wasn’t the dollar amount. It was that the average gift was 20 dollars. That means thousands of people showed up for me. It wasn’t like some big baller rolled up and was like, “Here you go, sis.” It really was just the climbing community and beyond, and it reaffirmed for me that what I was doing and what I’m putting out in the world is a good thing, and that it does have value. …

It gave me even more courage and heartens me more to move forward with what it is I really wanna do, vision-wise, for the gym, and what I really see climbing gyms should be and could be.

Tell me about that.

A group of happy climbers at Coral Cliffs. Photo: Courtesy of Abby Dione.

The gym should be a place of learning… it would be a place where you could come and if you wanna hang and just hang, then 100 percent do that. You don’t need to be looking for some deep meaning. But in the gym, beyond the physical training, there’ll be physical therapy, mental work, meditation, mobility. Beyond the usual yoga fitness and stuff. Like real classes. Like when you sign up for your membership you get access to three of these types of classes, or two of these types of classes. If you wanna be a routsetter, we’ll help you do that. If you wanna be a guide, we’ll help you do that too. You wanna be a competitive climber, we’ll help you do that as well. And there’ll be a structure in place for you to follow whatever inclinations you might have, and you can do it in a space that’s dope and friendly. …

At the end of every one of my workshops, people are really emotional and really thankful. Like overly thankful. I mean sure, I’m a good teacher, but what I realized is that there’s such a need. They basically tell me, “Abby I don’t get this in my gym. I don’t get the time, the patience, the learning, the real explaining of how this could work for me.”

What are your hopes for the climbing community in general?

Abby Dione and climbers at Coral Cliffs. Photo: Courtesy of Abby Dione.
Abby Dione and climbers at Coral Cliffs. Photo: Courtesy of Abby Dione.

I would love for folks to realize how we are all connected to a system that is pretty unfair. And we see that unfairness unfortunately more times than I would like to see it. So sometimes pointing out what is unfair and how it doesn’t benefit the greater community can seem confrontational or even accusatory or difficult, because we’re taught not to disturb the system, like let’s just keep it clunking along. My hope is that folks gain a certain level of self awareness as to where they are in the system—how they’ve benefited from it, how they’ve not benefited from it. Just a self awareness of who and what you are and how you affect. That can be how you greet someone that doesn’t look like you that walks in through the gym, it can also be having care and respect for public lands. This principle applies to all things, it’s not just to other humans. But ultimately I’d love to not be that interesting and that unique in the climbing community.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

To speak to that last question, I think a lot of times people forget to talk about that it’s gonna be hard, and that you’re gonna be uncomfortable, by the way. And I tell this to people all the time when they’re climbing—if you’re uncomfortable that’s a good sign, you’re on the outer edges of your limits. That’s a good thing, that means you’re gonna progress. And so the same way you’re comfortable with that discomfort in your climbing, I hope that you are that way and hold strong and be patient and be okay with that discomfort in these social settings.

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