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Kai Lightner Climbs For The Next Generation

Lightner and his mom.
Courtesy of Kai Lightner
Professional rock climber Kai Lightner has won 12 national championship titles and five youth world championship medals...all by the age of 20. He is pictured here with his mother, Constance.

The climbing started with baby gates and wooden balconies. As a kid, professional rock climber Kai Lightnerhad a lot of energy and a love for scrambling up anything he could find. 

While shimmying his way up a flagpole at age 6, a woman approached Lightner’s mother, Constance, with the name of a local climbing gym in Fayetteville. They visited the gym, and Lightner got hooked. Now, as a 20-year-old, Lightner holds 12 national championship titles and five medals from youth world championships.

The sport has brought him to six of the seven continents. His journey as a climber has also shaped some of his more difficult life experiences. Lightner struggled with body image and faced instances of racism as a Black person in a white-dominated sport. As a rising junior at Babson College in Massachusetts, Lightner is an aspiring entrepreneur looking to lower the barriers for minority athletes seeking to enter the sport...all while making plenty of TikTok videos.

Host Anita Rao talks with Lightner about competing, training and overcoming fear as a professional climber.

Interview Highlights

On his first time at a climbing gym, age 6:

My mother picked me up, brought me to the gym and begged the man at the front desk to get her ADHD kid into something productive. And for me, climbing just kind of clicked automatically. Because, as an ADHD kid, my mother had put me into a million activities to try to get me to channel my energy into something. But nothing kept my attention. But for some reason, I could sit in front of a climbing wall and obsess over what was in front of me for hours at a time without my focus breaking once. That's kind of when I knew that was something I wanted to do long-term.


Kai Lightner climbing a steep rock face outdoors
Credit Kai Lightner
Kai Lightner started climbing at age six in Fayetteville, and the sport has taken him around the world.

On his mother’s ability to push him to do his best:

Growing up in North Carolina, there weren't many major clubs when I first started. So if I wanted to get quality training, I'd have to travel with different coaches and collect training programs and follow them in my home gym, which was a small gym with no AC. So it would be 100 degrees in the middle of the summer, and I’d be training and tired and I wouldn’t want to finish my program. And so I’d beg my mom, I’d say: Can we please go home, I don't want to be here anymore. And my mother was like: Absolutely, we can go home. But if we cut the training program and lower how much intensity we train, you're going to have to lower your goals. And that was something I was never willing to do. So I would get back up. And my mother would continue pushing me. And I'm so glad to have that support system because I don't think I'd be where I am today without it.

On discovering his body’s definition of “healthy”: 

When you look at everyone else doing the same things, you don't think anything about how unhealthy that is for your body.

A lot of athletes will work six to eight hours a day in the climbing gym, they run several miles in the morning and then they’ll only eat like a small bar — like a Clif Bar or something. And that was just the norm. And so when you look at everyone else doing the same things, you don't think anything about how unhealthy that is for your body. So for me, it took me a while — and even understanding how exhausted my body was or how ruthless my training was to feel my fittest and my best — to realize that this wasn't something that was sustainable for me. It took me even to take a break from the sport and focus more on my learning and my college experience and speaking to different people that specialize in nutrition to realize that there is a healthy way to do it. There are better ways to fuel your body and be a high-level athlete and not lose anything. 

On the lack of diversity in climbing:

I remember walking into my first competition and realizing that there were no other African Americans and very few other minorities in general. So initially you’re a bit self-conscious, you’re a little bit nervous. I know my mother for sure was. And when I would go back even and tell my friends that I picked up this new sport that I loved called rock climbing, a lot of them have given me a skeptical look and asked me why I wanted to rock climb — because there were no role models in the sport who did it. Not many people knew of any Black people who climb, and it was just such a foreign concept that they thought I was trying to act white, or just not be my authentic self. And for me that was really hurtful as a kid, because no one wants to stick out and not fit in.
Kai Lightner doing the splits to reach for an indoor climbing route hold
Credit Kai Lightner
Kai Lightner competing in the World Youth Championship finals in 2016 in China.

Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
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