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Feature: Climbing Higher

By Nathan Walls

You could say that Kai Lightner is sitting on top of the world.

At 6 years old, he was able to climb a 50-foot flagpole. At 14, he was a world champion rock climber. At 17 years old and with a GPA of 4.85, he’s the first black male valedictorian in the history of Reid Ross Classical School.

How did he get so far up? He climbed there. He worked. It’s not that surprising.

When Kai was four years old, he climbed from his aunt’s third-floor balcony to her neighbor’s fourth-floor balcony. “I was very active and willing to climb everything,” Kai said. “I did it until I got caught.”

This determination—which Kai has always had—was the main ingredients for his success. But along the way he’s also had the support of his mother and a few instructive coaches. 

“We live in an area with no mountains, no highly competitive climbing teams or coaches and when Kai started climbing at six, North Carolina had very few former national champion climbers,” said Constance Lightner, Kai’s mother. “The U.S. only had one previous World Champion, in 1995. When Kai decided he wanted to accomplish both at an early age, he was advised that the deck was stacked against him and it would be an uphill battle.”

On belay

Constance added rock climbing walls to her son’s room with a flat screen mounted to the wall. “He would climb the walls and hang from climbing holds on the ceiling as he watched TV,” she said.

So, it seemed like a good idea to invest in rock climbing training. These lessons were where the two met Shane Messer, Kai’s coach, who was more than a little surprised. Messer is a rock climber himself who also runs nationally recognized high-end training camps for competitive climbers and who has coached the U.S. National Team multiple times.

“I was surprised to see an African American kid climbing. Back then, when you worked in a climbing gym, your vision became white washed for sure,” Messer said.

Plus, in a sport dominated by males 5’10’’ and under, Kai’s height made him stand out. “He's a giant,” Messer said. “When I met him, he was six years old and probably 4’10 or something.”

Now at the age of 17, Kai is 6’ 3’’. “He holds things over my head and I can't get them back. It's kind of messed up,” Messer said with a laugh.

Kai’s height hasn’t gone unnoticed by other climbers at competitions. They call him a man-child, his mom says, and a prodigy.

Winning streak

Kai won his first youth national championship when he was 10 years old. 

“At 10 years old, it was hard for me to grasp the gravity of my accomplishment,” Kai said, reflecting. “I was of course very excited, but I didn’t really understand how big of an accomplishment being number one in the country meant.”

Kai’s national championship was rewarded with his first sponsorship, from Evolv, a climbing shoe company. The group now sells shoes with Kai’s autograph and part of the proceeds from sales benefit USA Climbing.

Then, at the youngest eligible age of 15, Kai won his first of two national rock climbing titles in the adult category, which thrilled him. “I was excited beyond words,” Kai said. “It had always been a dream of mine to win the adult national championships, and I was able to achieve that goal in my first year of eligibility!”

When he was 16, he finished second, and then his second adult national crown came around again when he was 17 years old.

To date, Kai has won 10 youth national championships and two adult national championships. In 2014, he broke a 19-year drought in the United States and won the youth world championship—the United States had only one previous world champion, in 1995.

Training Up

Training with Messer and Emily Taylor, another coach, helped Kai build his foundation for rock climbing success.

“They give me more credit than I deserve, because he and his mom have been doing their own training for a few years now,” Messer said. “We played a much bigger role in his early climbing. Emily taught him to use his lower body first then learning efficacy became a priority. Once he began to master those skills, he began really training with me to learn how to use his upper body, more like how guys generally climb. Mixing the two types of climbing has helped to turn him into the climber he is today.”

Kai’s rock climbing success certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed. He has received recognition from well-known individuals, companies, prestigious colleges, and universities. Recently, while lobbying in Washington with senators and congress members for the preservation of outdoor locations for rock climbing, Kai snapped a selfie with Sen. Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate in the 2016 presidential election. Kai’s sponsorships from Adidas and Clif Bar, along with his Evolv shoe endorsement, help cover his travel costs.

“Kai is lucky in the level of support he gets,” said Constance. “He has been able to get really good sponsorships.”

Kai and his climbing abilities have been featured in four rock climbing films, one of which is on YouTube and two of which are on Vimeo. The films have been shown at film festivals worldwide. One film festival was held in Telluride, Colorado, and the documentary shows scenes of Kai climbing outdoors in Norway. His efforts and endeavors have also been featured on ESPN, Men’s Health Journal, MSNBC and the Today Show, and he was on the NBCBLK28, which highlights 28 African Americans under age 28 who are breaking barriers, including the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton and Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry.

Kai’s climbing achievements—and his great academic record—have helped him acquire nearly $1 million in college scholarships. He has been accepted into Babson College, the top school in the country for entrepreneurship, a subject in which his mom is well-versed. Constance is Chair and a professor in the Department of Management, Marketing, and Entrepreneurship at Fayetteville State University.

“Kai has a knack for public speaking, networking and interacting with people,” his mother said. “He also carries himself in a professional manner, with so many young aspiring athletes looking up to him. These traits are great for business.”

Babson College, it so happens, is located near Boston, where Messer lives.    

“Kai is the little, not so little brother I never had,” Messer said.

And, in Boston, the “little, not so little brother” has his sights set on something bigger.

The Olympics

That’s right, Kai Lightner, who has accomplished just about everything you can in rock climbing now has a new goal: competing in the Olympics in 2020, the first time the sport will be included in the games.

“It’s a natural progression to be in the Olympics,” Kai said. “If the Olympics were held tomorrow, I would have a good shot at being selected, but I still have three years to go.”

In Massachusetts, Kai will have plenty of time to train with Messer. “When he gets to college here, things will definitely change in terms of training,” Messer said. “With the Olympics moving in, we will be working together more than ever. We have an amazing team of trainers, physios, and coaches assembled eagerly awaiting his arrival and ready to get to work. It'll be the first time he's had a team like this in the same place as him so I'm excited to see what we can do!”

Messer says, “I've competed at every level and traveled around the world for the sport. The only thing I've been more passionate about in my climbing career is helping others become better at climbing.”

It’s obvious that his coaching passion has benefitted Lightner.

“I couldn’t have done it without Shane,” Kai said. “He’s been essential to the whole process. He put me on my first climbing wall and has been there for all of my major competitions ever since. He has calmed me down when I was really nervous and got me excited and hyped up for my competitions.”

Until his arrival at Babson College, Kai plans to climb in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, the United Kingdom, Slovenia, and China.

Before he left for his travels, Kai delivered his valedictorian speech, imparting two of the big lessons that his journey as a professional climber has taught him. The first idea, that kids should not be afraid to take “the path less travelled,” was followed by his second idea, that you should “never let anyone tell you what you are or are not capable of accomplishing. Smart planning, hard work, and dedication can triumph over most obstacles.”

“Kai was teased a lot as a kid for choosing a sport that was very uncommon in our community,” Constance said. “Nonetheless, it was his passion, so he followed his instincts, and it has completely changed his life. He likes to motivate kids to be brave and resist their fear of being different, following their dreams instead.”

Judging from the results, Kai didn’t allow obstacles to get in his way – he simply climbed over them, above them instead.