Rock Climber and Nurse, DJ Michaels Has A Passion for Adventure and Community

If it’s not healthcare, it’s rock climbing.

David Jonathan Michaels, 28, has two loves that you wouldn’t really associate with one another.

DJ, as many people call him, graduated from Nashville Christian School in Bellevue in 2005 then went on to finish a nursing degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 2009. After school DJ returned to Nashville to work at Vanderbilt Medical Center.

“With rock climbing I discovered there were so many adventures to have,” he said. “It’s a pretty unique hobby for sure. It’s a cool pursuit, and it’s healthy as well. The sense of community is there. If you want to be competitive you can, if you want to just compete with yourself and keep it internal, you can do that too. It’s however you want to use it.”


This rock climber and nurse said he was first introduced to the sport through Boy Scouts. When he was 15, a friend from high school invited DJ to go to a climbing gym one day after school. He said his friend told him it was an entire gym filled with multicolored tape routes.

“It sounded crazy. It sounded like madness so I went to check it out,” he said. “After the first time I did it. I was completely hooked. It’s such an interesting process when you’re on the wall and you see what has to happen and you have to figure out how to do it. It’s all problem solving.”

DJ has been climbing for the last 12 years and has been member of Climb Nashville since 2005.

He said now indoor rock climbing has become a means of training for outdoor adventure.

DJ said initially he wasn’t quite sure how he wanted to get into the nursing field or how to make the transition over from previously being a nurse technician.

For a while, he contemplated getting into the field permanently at all. He said he would look at the work nurses did and tell them they were crazy.

“The more I was around patients and people, the more I realized why they were doing it,” he said. “It’s not a sense of vanity that makes the job good, it’s something so personable and something so humane about not only taking care of someone in a hospital bed who needs the help, but also the family and the social support that is with them.”

He said it’s fascinating to be a part of that every shift.

“You can’t do that in any other field. You can’t touch someone’s life in that way.”

Another reason DJ chose the healthcare industry, and more specifically nursing, was because of the scheduling flexibility allowing him time to devote to climbing.


DJ said the Southeast is phenomenal for climbing and calls it “a hidden treasure.”

He said many people know about the Smoky Mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the amazing canyons and parks in this region for hiking and camping but said climbing is a very particular hobby that not many people get a chance to get into.

“Middle Tennessee is unique because we’re on this plateau so we’re kind of capped out on the level of the amount of any potential mountains or bluffs could be,” he said. “But if you go east or south, you dip down off that plateau and what you were on creates these amazing landscapes.”

DJ said if you drive in any direction south or east from Nashville for about two and a half hours, you’re going to run into some rocks or canyons. He said it’s a good place to take a day or weekend trip.

Right now, he said his favorite place to go to climb is Chattanooga.

“The joke I always say to locals is if you’re standing in downtown Chattanooga pick 15 minutes in any direction by car, you’re going to run into rock,” he said.

In taking his love for travelling a step further, DJ said he is working on becoming a travel nurse. Working through an agency he’ll be able to pick where he wants to live and work for approximately three months.

“Where I’m picking to travel will be specifically for climbing and for that pursuit to live that lifestyle,” he said. “It’s very structured and they help you through the set up and break down, but you still do the work. They assist you throughout the whole process but once you’re wherever you want to be, you operate independently.”

DJ said in essence he’s doing the same work; he will just be in different locations with patient populations.

“This April or May I will potentially to go to Salt Lake City, Utah. After that if it’s fall again I might swing out to Colorado. There are these cool options where you let the season dictate where you want to go,” he said.

DJ has worked in the operating room, in cardiovascular care and has floated around to other emergency departments like the ICU and trauma.

“You can’t just come out of school and go into something like that. You have to know what you’re doing a little bit,” he said. DJ said he’s been building that foundation for the last five years by working in many different specialties of nursing at Vanderbilt.

“It’s a lifestyle that I fell into,” he said. He said he never thought that when he got into healthcare that traveling would also be an option.


DJ said when he thinks of community, the word “like-mindedness” comes to him first.

“My opinion of [community] comes from many perspectives because I’m taking the idea of the healthcare community, but also from this independent sport that I love,” he said. “For what I do on a professional level you can’t survive without your coworkers. You cannot operate alone. And it’s just like that in climbing, too. You have to have someone there to manage your rope and be your lifeline.”

He said community means communicating with people in a way that let’s you know they are there for you.

DJ said the climbing community is one of the most relaxed and laid-back communities he’s ever been a part of.

“As a whole, you slide into your group very quickly,” he said. “You learn there are people with a high level of intensity when it comes to competing and others who could not care less. You learn where you fit in pretty quickly,” he said.

“I used to be super competitive, but as time goes on you learn where your own plateau is and you learn what body is physically capable of,” he said. “That happened around three or four years ago. I did an outdoor competition and was able to win it. It wasn’t the top tier but after that I knew where I was always going to land. The competitive part fell back a little bit and it was more of me keeping a mental inventory of goals and training regiment.”

DJ said being less competitive has been a better process for him. It has allowed him to know when he’s accomplished something and know his own progress and goals.

“People here are so willing to connect and so willing to exchange messages so quickly,” he said. Being a part of a community for DJ has made his work and his sport easier to come back to andhas made it easier to stay in Nashville.

DJ said the last five years have turned Nashville into a melting pot.

“Growing up where I did, my house was secluded in the woods and my family kept to ourselves quite a bit. To see now where there were fields is now industry and shopping, they’ve done it in a good way. I’ve enjoyed it for sure, and it’s given you the opportunity to meet diverse people.”


“There are areas in East Nashville that did it right,” he said. “In areas that seemed to need some help, there was this gradually process of making things better.”

He said when he was a teenager in the early 2000s no one went to East Nashville if you didn’t live there.

“There really wasn’t a reason to go to a restaurant or a park across town when you had so much more to offer in other places,” he said.

With so much of the city revitalizing itself, DJ said one thing he raises his eyebrow to is how growth in the city has transitioned on the west side.

He said areas like the Nations neighborhood, a part of town where most of the streets are named after states, is a good example.

“Instead of slowing flipping those houses there and maintaining the quality and the respect that it holds, they level it, gut the lot, put down a foundation slab and put two townhomes in the place of one house,” he said. “It’s strange to see how fast this is happening.”

DJ, who lives in Belle Meade, said for a transplant that might be a normal thing to see a city that is growing, but for a someone who has grown up in this area, it is a little odd.

“This particular season I’m focusing on power,” he said. “I find myself getting on the boulder, a campus board and getting into the weight room to do very specific power workouts.”

For now, DJ said it’s more bouldering and training while he awaits his new adventures.

“I’m so excited to go to these places and get to know new people and a new climbing community, but to say I’m here travelling and my home is Tennessee, I’m a Nashville boy. Born and bred.”

A sponsored ambassador by Friction Labs, DJ practices around three or four times a week. He said sometimes if he’s had a stressful day at work he’ll hop in the gym for an hour in his scrubs after work and head home.

“Climb Nashville has been amazing over the years,” he said. “The facility and the staff and everything they’ve given to people who have come here specifically train have been stellar. I’ve enjoyed every day here,” he said.

Thanks for reading Nashville! 


Every Thursday at noon Neat Nashville embraces the community by highlighting an individual in a feature article that tells their story and voices their concerns about the city moving forward. It is our hope to inspire good change locally, to be a force of unity, and support the people we all call neighbors.

It starts with community. It starts where you are.