Kai Lightner, Climbing’s Boy Wonder

Every superhero deserves an origin story. Kai Lightner, the 17-year-old indoor-climbing phenom, has a beauty.

Lightner was six, walking around his hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina, with his mother. He spotted a flagpole, 50 feet tall, and quickly slipped away and started climbing. “I was at the top, hanging from the little ball where the flag was flying,” he recalls. “And I yelled out, ‘Look, Mom, I did it!’ ”

Before Connie Lightner could register the proper horror, a woman walked by, wrote down the address of a climbing gym, and handed it over. “She said it would be a good activity for a kid to get into,” Lightner says, “so I could climb without killing myself.”

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By the time he was seven, Lightner was competing in his first national youth championships against some of the top 11-and-under indoor climbers in the country. By 14, the skinny, fawn-limbed adolescent had won a major adult competition. A year later, he nabbed a national championship. “He was an adorable little shrimp up there on the podium,” his mother says.

In the past three years, he’s shot up nearly a foot, to a willowy 6-foot-3, and has become unstoppable indoors, bagging first- and ­second-place finishes in adult national championships in 2017. Declares Kynan Waggoner, CEO of USA Climbing, “Kai represents the future of our sport in the United States.”

I meet up with the future at Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, an indoor-climbing hot spot in suburban Boston and discover a baby-faced kid in braces with a high, musical voice, and an ever-present iPhone. Losing himself in the screen, he scrolls through Guinness World Records videos and proclaims, ” ‘Youngest woman with a full beard’ — whaat? Very weird for a record. ‘Loudest burp!’ Look at that! That is so cool.”

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Put him in front of a climbing wall, though, and suddenly Lightner is all business. Right now he’s immersed in a practice workout ahead of the evening’s bouldering finals, a tune-up for climbers likely to go to the Salt Lake City nationals in a month’s time. Looking over at Connie and me, Lightner reassures his mother, “I’m not going to do anything hard.”

In quick, fluid motions, he begins moving up the urethane and fiberglass pieces of the bouldering route. The hand- and footholds have been specifically designed to challenge a good grip. They may be small “crimps,” so you can get only a fingertip or two on top of them (which is why good climbers can rep out pull-ups using only one or two fingers). Or they can be large, bulbous “slopers” that require you to press an open hand against them, or “pinches” that force you to place a thumb on one side and fingers on the other and squeeze like hell.

Lightner makes handling these obstacles look effortless. “Like he’s dancing,” Connie says. It’s true. Next to the wall, his long, muscled legs recall a dancer at the barre — Lightner even walks with a dancer’s turned-out gait. On the wall, instead of throwing himself at the pieces in a series of muscular upward lunges, the classic dude approach, he almost glides.

The style is a reflection of a thoughtful temperament — and his height. Lightner is indoor climbing’s version of Alice in Wonderland, having gone from the smallest to the tallest athlete in adult competition in three years. As a consequence, he often has to adjust to routes that were set to accommodate the average 5-foot-4 to 5-foot-9 guy who dominates the sport. (Tall climbers generally have a less favorable strength-to-weight ratio, and with their long limbs, they have a harder time stabilizing their bodies if their legs come off the wall.) Rather than trying to fold himself into contorted clown-car positions, Lightner takes the opposite tack, throwing his lead leg upward in a vertical split, so that he’s using his feet to climb on pieces that everyone else is grabbing with their hands.

This hyperflexibility is hard-won. “When we realized he needed it, I literally did a Google search for exercises,” Connie says. Watching her stretch out her son, it’s clear she’s got the technique down — kneading, pulling, thumb pressure points. She’s a self-taught physical therapist. “Kai used to hate it, but then he realized how useful it is,” she says. “Now he gets me out of bed with, ‘Mom, will you help stretch me out?’ ”

Connie has seen her son’s improbable Spider-Man routine thousands of times, moments when he looks like he’s walking up a vertical wall. What she’s pleased with today is watching him struggle with a tricky route graded V9. The level is usually a moderate challenge for him — although probably beyond what the stud at your local climbing gym can do — but this one requires several tries before he gets the midwall body pivot that allows him to flow to the top. “I figured he’d get it when he locks in like that,” she says approvingly. “I like to see him have a little fight before a competition.”

Since he began climbing, Lightner has been relentlessly peripatetic, representing his sport and country at events in China, Slovenia, and Ecuador. Outside of these competitions — “comps,” as they’re known in the indoor-climbing world — he keeps to a tightly choreographed schedule: school, training, homework. The routine has produced a world-class athlete and a beyond-4.0 valedictorian. (While he plans to go to college, either Morehouse or Babson, Lightner will take a gap year to focus on climbing.) Much of the credit goes to Connie, the self-described “momager,” who borrows hours from her career as a business professor at Fayetteville State University to keep the trains running on time. “I should get a business card,” she says in Sender Films’ recent climbing short Young Guns: “ATM, chauffeur, and belay bitch!”

What’s unusual about Lightner is that, aside from the occasional outdoor foray, he’s stayed in the climbing gym. (Lightner says he had a standing deal with good pal Ashima ­Shiraishi, who at 15 is arguably the top female outdoor climber in the world: “If you do this comp, I’ll go on that outdoor climbing trip with you.”)

While indoor climbing has been well developed in Europe for decades — old-timers may remember Lynn Hill kicking ass there in the late ’80s — in America, the sport hasn’t been a path to wealth and glory. The big corporate-sponsor money still goes to just a handful of brand-name rock climbers: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Chris Sharma.

But American indoor climbing is growing up — and fast. The recreational climbing gym scene has mushroomed, with more than a hundred new dedicated gyms opening in the past three years. In 2020, the Summer Olympics in Tokyo will be the first to include indoor climbing. That has only fueled the indoor fever more, helping to transform what was once a collection of climbing-gym-sponsored comps into the beginnings of a professional sport.

That’s not to say Lightner is getting rich. But he wins his share of modest comp-prize money, which can mean $3,000 for a championship event. He’ll also be entering his physical prime at 21, the year of the Games. At this early point, he looks to become the next Apolo Ohno or Shaun White, charismatic talents in lesser-known Olympic sports who wound up on a Wheaties box.

To be sure, Lightner has the talent to take his act outdoors. At 14, he artfully picked his way up a single-pitch sport climb rated 14c — a route nearly as hard as anything preeminent rock climbers like Sharma can do. For comparison, Honnold, the most celebrated climber in the U.S., has never climbed a sport route technically harder than what Lightner did in his midteens.

On the other hand, traditional climbing, or “trad” — ascending multiple pitches while trusting your life to gear that you place in the rock yourself — is something Lightner had always figured was “for crazy hippie people living in their vans.” (And that wouldn’t be too far off if we’re talking the ’70s.) He’s had one major outdoor adventure, roping up behind Yosemite veteran Doug Robinson to climb a 600-foot-high granite dome in Georgia, an outing that gave rise to Lightner’s polished essay in climbing’s most literary-minded journal, Alpinist. (“When we approached the summit, the rock became bright white and indented like the craters of the moon,” he wrote.)

“He was scared of it,” Connie says. Lightner agrees: “Single-pitch climbing goes better with my nerves. For me, it’s not so much the height — 100 feet tall or 1,000 feet, you’re still saying goodbye to the world — it’s more the process of placing gear. You can’t focus just on the climbing, and I don’t really trust myself that much. I’m kind of ADHD.”

In truth, he’s both distractible teen and old soul. “I focus when I have to,” he explains, “and I have what I call stare-at-the-wall time every day: an hour when I can just relax, be on my phone, take a nap if I want to.” Last year, his maturity was tested by a nagging back injury — microfractures in two vertebrae — that shut down his climbing for six months and threatened to end his career. “I’ve been competing since the age of seven,” he says, “so I handled recovery like I would a competition — calm, taking everything step by step, piece by piece.”

And not that it’s pressure, per se, but there is an awareness for Lightner that he’s an athlete of color in a mostly white sport. I ask him whether he feels like he’s a part of Fayetteville’s large African-American community, or if, having spent so much time traveling the world, he doesn’t put himself in any kind of racial or cultural category. “If you’re asking me if I know I’m black, then the answer is yes,” he says, a new bluntness in his tone. He elaborates: “The African-American community is a big part of who I am, and I think I have a unique platform to expose it to adventure sports. That community isn’t limited to basketball, football, or role models along those lines. There are other doors that can be opened.”

Back at the comp outside of Boston, some hundred people have crammed into an alcove of the MetroRock gym, and are sitting on the foam flooring. The MC booms out the names of the 11 mostly 20-something male competitors who come bounding in from stage right, carefully keeping their backs to the gym wall. That’s a rule. Part of the mental challenge of indoor climbing is being forced to size up a wall you’ve never seen in a matter of seconds and then attack it, a kind of gymnastics meets vertical chess.

Make that speed chess. There’s a large digital clock on the wall that counts down from four minutes as soon as a climber turns to face the route. Lightner is racing that clock, but he’s also racing his own body. Each time he gets stuck midwall, or falls to the pads, he’s figured out more about the route, but his lactic-acid-pumped forearms and hands are that much less capable of taking advantage of it. In these minutes, the attention-challenged Lightner becomes, as Connie says, locked in. “You’ve got four minutes — can you figure out the trick?” he says. “If you can’t think your way through, you won’t succeed.”

The first wall, with its little crimp holds that don’t suit Lightner’s big hands, goes badly. Like most of the field, he makes it only a few feet off the ground, which isn’t easy to take with the crowd roaring like we’re at some millennial gladiator games. In his early years, Connie says, Lightner would get psyched out by a slow start like this and obsess over his mistakes. Today he shakes off  his frustration within minutes, and before he tackles the next wall, he flashes the crowd a smile.

The top climbers remain tightly bunched until the third of the comp’s four walls, which is a beast that sheds every competitor — until it’s Lightner’s turn. After a couple of instructive falls, he’s ready to tackle the crux sequence. He swings back and forth on a stable piece until momentum allows him to fly leftward across the wall, grab a half-globe with an open palm, and glue his entire body to the wall. He’s nailed the route and, as it turns out, taken the entire comp.

A natural, unaffected showman, Lightner gives a
small bow, then makes his way across the gym to Connie, whose arms are
outstretched. For a few moments, they embrace, his head resting on her
shoulder, eyes closed, at home amid the tumult of the crowd.

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