Kai Lightner’s passion for rockclimbing began when he was six-years-old on his first climb at an indoor climbing gym. It wasn't long before he was competing with the USA Climbing organization and, at seven years of age, he entered his first Sport Climbing Series National Championship. Since then, Kai has earned six National Championship titles, two Pan-American Championship titles, and ten US Team designations. Last year, at age 13, Kai redpointed 6 Sport Climbs 5.14a – 5.14c at The River and Red River Gorges. Kai hopes to one day compete in the World Cup climbing competitions. But for now, he is practicing the art of balancing his drive for his sport with his Honors classes as a high school freshman in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Between training and schoolwork, Kai shared his love of rock-climbing with PRACTICE.
You can ask my mom. I stayed on punishment for climbing EVERYTHING before I officially started rock climbing. It started with baby gates at six months old - before I could even walk -and eventually progressed to basketball goals and climbing from 3rd floor to 4th floor balconies.
When I was six years old, my mom brought me to The Climbing Place, a nearby climbing gym. The route-setter was Shane Messer, who later became, and remains, one of my coaches. Shane belayed me on several different routes. After successfully climbing three or four routes, he finally reduced me to tears when I could not complete a climb on the 60° angled wall. I was incredibly upset, yet determined to return to the gym to conquer that climb. I’ve been hooked ever since. When I climb, I get a feeling like nothing else…
One of my other coaches, Coach Emily, used to call me "Scrappy" when I was younger. I got the nickname because I was notorious for “scrapping” my way up routes by any means necessary. I would use a knee, an elbow, anything I could to make a move.
I wasn’t graceful or agile at all. But then, for about five years, Coach Emily structured every minute of my practice for me to develop technical climbing skills. I had to learn how to use my lower body to climb more efficiently, so that I could reserve my power for times when I really needed it. She taught me how to feel within my body when climbing movements felt right and secure. Eventually it all came together.
While recovering from a finger injury in 2012, my coach had me enroll in yoga classes to enhance my flexibility and core strength. My yoga teacher also taught me several breathing techniques and how controlling my breathing could help me relax. I later began to incorporate several of these techniques into my climbing.
When I climb, I am completely focused on the route. I am constantly planning, and searching for the most efficient way to complete the sequence. Whether I am outside on a hard climb or on the wall competing in a major competition, I can get nervous. Staying calm and climbing efficiently is much tougher when you are nervous. I plan several resting places throughout routes in order to re-focus and keep myself calm. Each time I pause to rest, I focus on controlling my breathing, shaking out my arms, chalking my hands, and reviewing the next section of the route, up to my next planned resting position.
Every time I encounter a new challenge, I remind myself to keep an open mind and accept failure. Whenever you try to break new ground, it’s going to be difficult. However, if you don’t push yourself, you’ll never reach the next level.
When I train, I am always practicing fundamental climbing techniques. But off the rocks, I am always practicing schoolwork!
Here's Kai Sending Southern Smoke at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky
To learn more about Kai, visit his website at www.kai-lightner.com