Climbing champion Kai Lightner grabs a hold in Morrisville
“If he’s not the top kid in the country 18 and younger, I don’t know who is,” said Joel Graybeal, managing partner at Triangle Rock Club. He’s speaking about Kai Lightner, a nearly 14-year-old young man who is quickly becoming a sensation in the rock climbing world, winning numerous national competitions and ascending professional-level routes all over the country, indoors and out.
Kai trains at Triangle Rock Club in Morrisville and has been a member of its youth team for more than four years. With Team TRC, which consists of youth ages 8 to 18, he’s won six national championships, four in sport climbing and two in bouldering.
Graybeal jokes that TRC might name the current facility expansion after the decorated climber. Despite his success, “there’s no air of greatness about him,” said Graybeal.
Kai is polite and humble, with long arms and legs. His thin frame belies his strength and energy, which he has in abundance. A typical workout begins at home, where Kai completes more than an hour of cardio and strength training before heading to the climbing gym where he spends two hours bouldering (no ropes), lead climbing (with ropes) and “doing laps on the wall,” he said.
“I’ve always been climbing on everything — furniture, fences, lamp posts,” said Kai. “Now I’m able to release all my energy.”
Kai began climbing when he was 7 years old and sees it as a great opportunity to learn life lessons.
“When you’re in climbing,” he said, “it teaches you how to have failure help you improve.
“I love the feeling of accomplishment when I’ve been able to complete a problem that I’ve been working on for a while,” Kai said. “I don’t get that feeling from any other sport.”
Alex Neighbors, one of Kai’s coaches at TRC, says it can be difficult to coach Kai because he’s so good.
“He’s open to learning even though he’s so accomplished,” Neighbors said. He describes Kai as “cutting edge” for youth climbers, but also as a team player.
“He’s quick to give encouragement to other team members,” Neighbors said.
Competitions that Kai participates in, such as the USA Climbing Youth National Championship where he placed first this past July, feature 60-foot indoor climbs. Kai says the pressure of competing doesn’t phase him; he welcomes it.
“I’m more in the zone and focused on the climb than anything else,” Kai said. “I’m not really focused on the audience or on my coach yelling at me.”
His mom on the other hand: “I’m nervous. Always. I can’t eat, drink. I can’t talk. Everyone knows I’m a zombie until after he’s competed,” said Connie Lightner. “This is season number seven and it hasn’t gotten any better. He handles it way better than me.”
Connie is heavily immersed in rock climbing as well, traveling nationwide with her son for training and competitions. She even had a rock wall installed in his bedroom for his ninth birthday, and is entertaining the possibility of raising the roof and extending that wall.
Recently the pair traveled to Massachusetts for a climbing event where Kai tested his skills alongside professional adult climbers. Kai cites this competition as his greatest climbing accomplishment.
“Not just because I did well,” he said,“but the fact that I was able to climb with my idols and be able to take pictures with them and get autographs with them. These are the people I look up to and watch in videos all the time. The fact that I got to meet them is really awesome.”
In the last two years, Kai has added outdoor climbing to his résumé, noting that the two experiences provide different challenges. His favorite outdoor crag is the popular Red River Gorge in Kentucky, where he’s ascended several intense climbs with difficulty ratings of 5.13 to 5.14c — among the hardest in the world.
Rock climbing grades start at 5.0 and top out at 5.15, only two notches above Kai’s hardest climb to date. If you imagine Spider-Man scrambling up a skyscraper, you would not be far off.
Yet Kai’s attitude remains down-to-earth and focused.
“I don’t see myself as a superstar,” he said. “I just see myself as a climber, like anybody else, that’s trying to do his best at a competition. Whether I’m successful or not, I’m just happy about what I can do.”
What he’ll do next is represent his country in the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Youth Championships later this month in Canada. And from there, the sky is the limit.