Ronnie Dickson stares up at the obstacles in front of him and knows for certain where there is a will, there is a way.
He is an advanced rock climber despite a congenital bone-development disorder called Trevor's disease that led to the amputation of his left leg above the knee 14 years ago. The 31-year-old Florida native who recently moved to Chattanooga has been a star in his sport and was one of the first adaptive climbers to represent the United States in international competition.
"Climbing is a place where I rekindled my passion for having something I could wake up and be excited about," Dickson said. "The first time I stepped into the climbing gym, it didn't matter if I had one leg. I found a challenge that was suitable for me at that moment.
"It was key for me to find out how my body moved and to find a way I could get better through that challenge."
Dickson has ascended to remarkable heights despite the effects of the disease known in medical terms as dysplasia epiphysealis hemimelica. In the 2014 International Federation of Sport Climbing Paraclimbing World Championships in Paris, Dickson earned the first of his two world silver medals. He is a three-time USA Climbing adaptive national champion and also has a silver and a bronze medal in that competition.
Dickson conquered his toughest challenge when he made it to the top of a boulder called Resident Evil in Joe's Valley, Utah, in 2015. It is a 10 on the V Scale, which is the standard bouldering grading system in North America. The scale goes from V0 to V17.
Close to home he likes to climb at Denny Cove in Jasper and enjoys spots in Soddy-Daisy off the Cumberland Trail and at Stone Fort. And he refers to Signal Mountain as a "playground for those who seek."
"There is a certain amount of stubbornness that has to go around with being a successful rock climber," Dickson said. "You can't back down to challenges. I have this limb diffference, but you know what? That doesn't really matter, and it won't stop me from doing what I want to do. To have tenacity and character can go a long way in defining success versus failure."
One of the founding members of the adaptive nationals' committee, he has seen the turnout rise from 35 in the event's debut in 2014 to 86 recently in Columbus, Ohio.
Dickson has helped enhance adaptive programming for climbing in New York City, Boston and Chicago and is excited about the growth he sees in Chattanooga, Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina. Every third Thursday of the month, High Point Climbing in Chattanooga hosts an adaptive climbing session for those with disabilities.
He enjoys working with Catalyst Sports in Atlanta, a nonprofit organization that recently helped a group of 100 people with disabilities learn how to climb in one day.
"We think we have only broached the surface of what adaptive climbing can be," Dickson said. "I remember the days where there would only be three people climbing in tournaments. It feels great to be a part of something that will continue to spread throughout the country. There is a great group dynamic to the sport."
Having taken summer trips to his mother's home country of Venezuela and seeing less fortunate people there, as well as having spent time at the Shriners hospital in Tampa, Dickson is putting his caring heart to use.
With a firsthand experience of living with a prosthetic leg, he has been led to build them for patients.
Dickson is the lead clinician and president of Prosthetic and Orthotic Associates of Tennessee, which is located at 2116 McCallie Ave. near Parkridge Medical Center. The company's mission is to "provide a prosthesis that is comfortable, aligned for your body and feels like a part of you."
"In 2007 I took a trip to Chattanooga for the first time with a climbing club and I fell in love with the city, the views and the people," Dickson said. "I knew then I wanted to spend my career helping people and making prosthetic legs for people who need them. This is always a place I wanted to call home."
Dickson's disability has not held him back. He hopes to help others find their breakthrough, too.
"We want to help give somebody the tools to accomplish whatever their goals are," he said. "The most common question I have heard through my time as an amputee is, 'If somebody could give you your leg back tomorrow, would you take it?'"
"Believe it or not — this isn't just my answer but one I have heard from a lot of other folks — the answer is no. Just because I wouldn't have had any of these opportunities to do the things I have done. I wouldn't have this platform to be able to navigate. I wouldn't have met all these amazing people. It would change everything.
"This has been more powerful for me than anything could replace."