Sometimes, you need more than an idea, more than a goal or a business plan. Sometimes, you need a reason. That motivation will be your reason to keep going, even when all odds are against you. When Steve Lulek invested all his hope and pennies in buying a struggling climbing gym in the equally hurting town of Rutland VT, he knew it wouldn’t be an easy. In fact, business advisers, friends, lawyer and accountant all advised his against it, but him and his wife were committed, still are, to bring to this town the benefits of climbing.
Steve grew up in the Rutland area. Like most people from there he didn’t have much exposure to climbing. While in the Army, he is selected to be part of the development of a mountaineer school for regular soldiers and special operations. That’s where he is exposed to, and hooked on climbing and also a while later gets to use and appreciate climbing gyms.
“Because of this mountain school, what happened is that as instructors, we couldn’t keep our strength and our flow because we were always teaching and traveling. Our climbing skills would go down. I heard about this climbing wall that was built and nobody wanted to use it. Two of us started to use it and all of a sudden we saw that when we were on the cliffs, our skills were so good. That resonated with me. I also started seeing what climbing could do for others, outside of this military regime that I was in.”
What climbing indoors can do for you is a revelation to him. It’s no surprise that when he walks into a climbing gym in Rutland he immediately knows that’s what he wants for his future, to retire from the military and buy that gym.
“I started seeing what climbing could do and that this was in my community. I came in and saw this was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Through a series of small miracles, and with my wife’s amazingness and some people’s guidance, I walked in and told the guy we would buy it. In two years, we did.”
That’s Steve’s mission; making this business viable and getting as much people as possible into climbing. His first major accomplishment, starting a varsity type high school climbing league with the hope to give these kids skills they can have for life. Starting with two schools and 11 kids in 1999, he has over 300 in it today and added a junior high and elementary school division.
“The elementary school league is really phenomenal because obviously those kids can’t belay, so the parents have to come and be part of it and so we have this wonderful relationship. Now parents are understanding what climbing is.”
Just like Steve, the parents also see the physical and emotional changes in their child. From better posture and physical abilities to demonstrating increased confidence they can unveil their full potential.
“The reason that I stayed with it even after the military is because I love what it does for people. It develops confidence, develops trust. It develops the process of dealing with failure, develops short and long-term goals. It forces communication. It has so many subtle things that you really have to do versus fake when you’re working together with somebody.”
That’s the reason he stayed with it, and also in part the reason why he wants the gym to be Rutland. In fact, he could have opened one where the clientele would be waiting at the door for the gym to open. Instead, twenty years later, he still works side jobs to meet ends and has bought another place in the Woodstock community.
“This is a very hard business in a very hard community. The next climbing gym was in the same financial disastrous state when we took that one over and suffered until we’re finally hanging in there. I’m also a phys ed teacher for the school across the street, an adjoint professor for Castleton University and I’m a retired military. We try to use that money here in a strategic way. If you’re relying on people coming in and climbing, it doesn’t work this way. The dream is it will be a job and a business that makes money and we can live off it properly.”
Then why do it, why stick with it after all the struggles, frustration, pressure? What would be the motivation, the reason?
“Here is where it’s needed. Anybody can go out there, where climbing is already popular and be successful. How hard is that? Here is where the challenge is, here is where the need is and here is where I grew up. My wife and I are committed, fail or make it to expose people here to climbing. Have I wanted to quit and say it can’t happen? Those thoughts come around, but then I come and do a climb myself and remember I’m here for a reason. Plus, my wife won’t let me quit.”
Steve has built an amazing community of climbers in and around Rutland, exposed a number of kids to physical activity and has given them tools and skills they will be able to use their entire life. He’s also making a point to promote outdoor climbing in the area. All that for the love of a sport and the desire to support a community. While no one might have supported Steve’s business plan, I’m sure everyone can stand behind and support his life plan, and that’s the important story.