The World According to Kai

posted by dpm on 07/21/2013

Kai Lightner and his mom, Connie, embrace for the camera. Photo: Elodie Saracco

6-year-old Kai Lightner takes  a bite of his sandwich and chews deliberately, barely able to keep the food within the confines of his wide grin. His bright eyes scan his surroundings from high above. He's relaxed and comfortable up high, which is abnormal for the usually hyperactive child. He leans against the backboard and takes another bite, his butt cheeks hanging through the rim and into the net of the goal. Kai has climbed the basketball goal to eat lunch...again.

"Kai! Get down from there!" Kai's mom yells for him to come down and watches nervously as he easily slides down the pole to terra firma. Connie Lightner, a single mom and college professor, is no stranger to finding Kai in high places. "When Kai was an infant  and still crawling,  I had to remove all the baby gates in our home. He would scale up and over the gates. The daycare center had to post a note to workers reminding them to put Kai in the bottom cribs only. They had stacked cribs, where the top one was open. Kai would climb over the top of his crib into the adjacent crib to play with another kid. His obsession with climbing eventually turned to trees, basketball goals and the side of homes and apartment balconies. One time I caught him climbing from the 3rd floor balcony up to the 4th floor!"  

It was a neighbor that took notice of Kai's abnormal behavior and suggested that Connie take him to a climbing gym near their home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a sprawling city in the state's sandhills region, hundreds of miles from the nearest rock to climb. "I'd tried threatening and punishing him," recalls Connie. "Getting him to stop climbing wasn’t working, so I gave in and concluded that this was the safest way for him to release his urge to climb. It was love at first sight the first time I brought him into a climbing gym."

That first walk into a climbing gym was in 2006 and since then Kai has transformed from a hyperactive, singing, dancing 6-year-old into one of America's most promising 13-year-old rock climbers. Over the past few years he's achieved consistently impressive rankings on the competition circuit. In 2010, he took home 2nd in his division at the American Bouldering Series Youth National Championship, 1st place at the Sport Climbing Series Nationals, and 1st in both sport and bouldering at the Pan American Continental Youth Championship. In 2011, he finished 2nd at ABS, 1st at SCS, and 1st in the junior category at the Triple Crown bouldering series. Last year he finished strong with 1st place finishes at both ABS and SCS, but it wasn't until Kai began to venture outdoors that his talent became truly apparent.

On his first outdoor climbing trip in 2010, he struggled to climb 5.10's and 5.11's. The next year, he took two trips outside and managed the 5.13a's Snooker and Convicted at the Red River Gorge, and Apollo Reed at the New River Gorge. 2012 yielded three short trips, a handful of 5.13b's, and The Madness (5.13c), a 35-meter pumper out the belly of one of the steepest and biggest caves in the country. Over a two month period in March and April of 2013, heads turned when Kai took a three day trip to the Red and fired Omaha Beach, his first 5.14a, and Ultra Perm (5.13d). A few weeks later he visited the New and ticked Proper Soul (5.14a). With confidence high, he then went back to the Red and on his first day sent Transworld Depravity (5.14a) following it with Last of the Bohicans (5.13d). Two days later he was clipping the chains on Southern Smoke, becoming one of the youngest climbers to achieve the grade of 5.14c.

Kai isn't the first "kid" to tick the grade, nor will he be the last. He's joined  a rapidly growing number of youngsters that have shattered the perceptions of difficulty and grading by quickly rising to the top, specifically at the Red River Gorge where the rock structure offers multiple options for smaller frames. The phenomenon hasn't been ignored by the media despite the near weekly reports of "breaking news" as another record is set for "youngest" or "hardest" or some combination of the two. For a kid to climb at this level is remarkable but it's not just any kid that can rise so quickly in the sport.

Most of these phenoms  have been introduced to climbing at a young age and mentored by a supportive family structure and the culture of their community, but the emergence of these preteen rock stars over just the past five years is no coincidence. Sport climbing in America boomed in the late 80's and early 90's. The first generation of American performance climbers peaked in the early to mid 90's, had children around 2000, and a decade later they're now holding the rope for their kids.   

Brooke and Shawn Raboutou, for example, were some of the first American preteens to emerge as young talents. Born into the climbing culture of Boulder, Colorado and raised by former World Cup competition climbers and skilled athletic trainers, their successes are remarkable but somewhat unsurprising. The Hörst brothers represent another pair of remarkably talented kids raised in a climbing family with father Eric the author of best-selling training books. Drew Ruana, Mirko Caballero, Harry Edwards;  the list is long of kids that were nurtured  toward success through an early introduction and fostering culture.

How then, did a young black child from the flatlands of North Carolina come to find his passion in a sport largely dominated by white people that his mother would never introduce him to? Kai isn't the only black rock climber, but he does currently represent a vast minority. One look around the landscape of the sport and it's impossible to overlook the homogenously white outdoor crowd. Climbing, and outdoor recreation in general, is not part of black culture but the reasons for that are murky.

Connie points to a cultural gap based on access and cost. "Outdoor climbing crags are not located in inner city areas, thus, young blacks don’t grow up around the sport," she says. "Outdoor camps are expensive. Unless, you have parents or friends that climb outdoors, you have to have a generous discretionary income in order to get “hooked” on outdoor climbing . With regards to indoor climbing, today we have a lot of large gyms located across the country. This is increasing the number of first generation climbers like Kai. It’s hard for kids to stay motivated with indoor climbing alone, unless they are hooked on competition climbing. Gym fees, training, traveling, and competition fees are expensive.  If we could get more African-American kids exposed to the sport, I think they would love it."

Kai remembers noticing the racial divide early on in his life during some of his first competitions. "When I first entered the sport, I did notice that the competitors were almost all white. At first I felt a little uncomfortable because I thought that I didn’t fit in. But after a while, the kids began to come up to me and I noticed that none of them cared that I was the only black kid. I never had any problems with anyone excluding me because of my race, which I really appreciated."

The climbing community is a supportive culture but accessing it would have been impossible without the support of Kai's mother who does not share his same passion for the sport. Connie's climbing experience didn't exceed playing on the monkey bars when she was a kid and her knowledge of technical rock climbing was nonexistent. To support Kai's passion, she had to learn the fundamentals of climbing herself.

During early excursions to the local gym Kai remembers being reduced to tears after not being able to climb a difficult route. He recalls becoming, " furious and determined to come back to the gym to conquer the climb." After more trips to the gym the duo became educated on proper training techniques and technical skills. Connie learned to belay and they became a self-sufficient team. For five years, they made a monthly drive to Atlanta, Georgia to train with Coach Emily Taylor for a three day session. Coach Emily, the only African-American female coach in the industry, took on the task of not only training Kai, but also training Connie to be a coach herself. They developed a structured training program that at first focused on Kai's discipline and life skills.     

Kai quickly learned that his hyperactivity and lack of focus wasn't helping him achieve the climbing goals he desired. "I drove EVERYONE crazy for years trying to tame my energy," he says. "They would give me structured drills and I would go from singing and dancing, to completely ignoring the lesson. My mom and coaches joined forces to make me get it together during my training. It took A LOT of burpees, push-ups, and making me leave the gym, before I got it together."

Connie recalls that, "Emily forced him to structure all aspects of his life. He had lists telling him step by step what to do each morning (between waking up and going to school) and what to do each day after school (change clothes, clean up, do your homework…) She believed that she could not structure his climbing routines unless he was used to following structured lists in all aspects of his life. He went from being severely hyperactive, to being very focused when needed."

Now, Kai credits the development of his life skills for his success saying, "The more I wanted to excel in the sport, the more I realized that focus is essential to climbing. For me, I think the key to sending hard routes is at least 50% mental strength and focus."

Kai Lightner working Still Life (5.14b) at Summersville Lake, West Virginia. Photo: Dan Brayack

As Kai's interest turned to outdoor climbing, the pair faced the additional challenges associated with cragging. Connie says, "I love my kid, and I would never send an active kid like Kai off to climb outside with just anyone. The two or three people that I would trust outdoors with him live too far away, so I got stuck doing the job. I got trained to teach him outdoor essentials."

Aspects that are overlooked or considered insignificant to experienced outdoorsmen were no walk in the park for Connie on their first climbing trips. "I encountered a 40-foot narrow ladder that was attached to the side of the mountain that I had to climb down in order to get to the crag. Other times I had to slide down a steep muddy hill on my buttocks or drive across a waterfall and bridges slightly wider than the width of my car to get to a crag. The hiking, dirt, bugs, camping ...on ALL TRIPS, are far beyond my comfort zone but our world is a huge and diverse place, and rock climbing is a wonderful sport that exposes you to many elements. It's good to move outside of your “normal” zone, and explore new things. I want Kai to have the discipline and work ethics to aggressively go after his goals and climbing is exposing him to some invaluable experiences that are worth all reasonable sacrifices on my part." 

Connie's sacrifices are not ignored by Kai, who even at the age of thirteen recognizes her devotion and commitment. Kai sees his mother as a "strong African-American woman and a wonderful role model." "She shows me how to be a better person every day," he says. "She has raised me and taught me all of my life lessons. My mother is almost always my belayer and I think she’s memorized every climb I’ve ever been on which comes in handy when I need beta to figure out sequences on a tough route. She’s always the one who drives me to all my events and the one who hikes up the mountains with me, even when she doesn’t want to, which is all the time. She is always the one who offers the most motivation and support, whether it’s at a competition or on a climb that I’m having a hard time completing. Even when she is tired, she has always worked really hard so that I can do some of the things I want to do."

Kai is in the 8th grade this year and maintains an A average in his studies as part of a deal he worked out with his mother. Connie says that he has to do well in school (grades and behavior) and follow his training programs. In exchange she's promised to give him her money and time. Kai also participates on the speech team and acts in plays on top of his rigorous training schedule, part of which he accomplishes on a home wall that he was gifted for his ninth birthday. When he grows up, he wants to be a lawyer or possibly start a business in the climbing industry, either of which is possible given the tools he's learned from climbing.  

Through climbing, Kai has learned about structure, discipline, focus, and goal-setting; skills that will not only help him achieve his goals in the sport, but in life as well. His story is a reflection on the value of climbing and the outdoors, not just as a means to tick hard routes, but as a way for our youth to build experience and develop into well-rounded, productive young adults. Kai and Connie act as a team, both holding up their end of the bargain and showing that to truly achieve your dreams; you've got to have someone holding the other end of the rope. 

Kai Lightner smiles his way to the anchor of Southern Smoke (5.14c) at the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Photo: Elodie Saracco