Located in the heart of Soulsville, Memphis Rox Climbing + Community features a 30,000-square-foot gym, with 15-, 25- and 45-foot-high climbing walls, yoga and meditation rooms, fitness areas, a juice bar and space for mentoring and youth programs. (Photo: Lee R. Watkins)

The International Olympic Committee has approved rock climbing as an Olympic sport starting with the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Imagine a Memphian making his or her way to  the top of the leader board.

For Chris Dean, director of outreach for Memphis Rox Climbing + Community, helping to create such a picture is part of going to work.

“I want an African-American male or woman competing in the Olympics from Memphis,” Dean said. “I know we got the natural talent and there are opportunities and sponsorships in rock climbing. That’s why we are in Soulsville to make this available for all the kids in the community. We could have built it in Bartlett or Germantown, but we want to make it easier for the kids in this community.”

The venture reflects movie director and philanthropist Tom Shadyac switching gears to provide kids an outlet to a rock climbing gym built around a “pay-what-you-can-afford” model.

Although Memphis Rox had a “soft” opening on March 21, the gym officially opened on April 3, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been To the Mountaintop” speech.

“We wanted to respect the neighborhood and respect people that had things going on that day,” Dean said. “We wanted to make sure we proceeded with love in our hearts.”

Located in the heart of Soulsville across from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Memphis Rox Climbing + Community makes up part of the Memphis Mountaintop Media campus. The 30,000-square-foot gym includes 15-, 25- and 45-foot-high climbing walls, yoga and meditation rooms, fitness areas, a juice bar and space for mentoring and youth programs.

Monthly membership to Memphis Rox is $55, but residents can pay what they can afford. Non-paying members will be asked to volunteer five hours per month to either a program specified by Shadyac or in the gym.

At Memphis Rox Climbing + Community, respecting the surrounding neighborhood and its people is built into the business model, said Chris Dean, director of outreach. (Photo: Lee R. Watkins)

Dean said Memphis Rox’s monthly fee is low compared to traditional rock climbing gyms that charge an average monthly fee of $90. Memphis Rox employs about 30 staffers with hourly wages starting at $12.

Memphis Rox is just phase one of Memphis Mountaintop Media. Shadyac purchased two vacant buildings in Soulsville in 2015, using one for Memphis Rox and the other building, part of phase two, will house a film studio and art school.

In 2017, Shadyac hosted production for his latest film “Brian Banks” at the location of Memphis Rox. Thirty students from The LeMoyne-Owen College and the University of Memphis apprenticed under industry professionals for the movie that is now in postproduction.

Shadyac, who has directed films such as “The Nutty Professor,” “Liar Liar,” “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Evan Almighty,” has a deep connection to Memphis. His late father, Richard Shadyac, was the chief executive of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness arm of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, from 1992 to 2005. His brother, Rick Shadyac Jr., is ALSAC’s current chief executive.

“Having grown up watching my family help to found St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which seeks to cure the physical cancer that has plagued humanity, has long inspired me to try and build a campus that treats the spiritual, psychological and emotional cancer that has infected society,” Shadyac said in a prepared statement.

Dean, a native South Memphian and graduate of Booker T. Washington High School, introduced then President Barack Obama at BTW’s 2011 graduation. He believes the rock climbing gym addresses some of the complaints residents have voiced about the community.

“We sat in the back of meetings and we watched them complain about how it was a nutrition shortage in the neighborhood, and how they didn’t feel safe in this neighborhood,” Dean said. “They complained about the lack of recreation. We listened and took notes.”

Shadyac met Dean two years ago and the two became fast friends immediately. Shadyac introduced Dean to rock climbing on a trip to Colorado and since then the two have taken 80 students (from the ages of 10-25) on free rock climbing trips to Denver, Telluride and Nashville.