Business major has passion for climbing
When Kai Lightner was a child in Fayetteville, North Carolina, his mother found him one afternoon at the top of a flagpole.
The young boy often climbed everything from brick walls to basketball hoops, but this was the end of Constance Lightner’s rope. Desperate for anything to help curb her son’s boundless energy, she gratefully accepted a note from a bystander that day with the address for a local rock climbing gym and a recommendation to let him climb himself tired there. Once he got there, he barely ever wanted to come down.
Now a 19-year-old business student at Babson College in Wellesley, Lightner has won national and international titles in the sport, including placing first in the adult national championships twice and winning the Pan-American Games this past year, and even considered a bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“I knew that this was something that I absolutely loved to do,” Lightner said in an interview with the Banner. “I had tried many other sports before. I had tried getting into basketball, football, soccer, all the conventional sports, and I wasn’t bad at them. They just didn’t click for me the same way that climbing did.”
Growing up with the sport, Lightner said he enjoyed both the strong community and the sense of focus he found while climbing, something that he didn’t experience very often due to his ADHD.
While he said that other kids his age didn’t always understand his interest in the sport, especially within the African American community, the rock climbing community was always very supportive of him.
“They’re some of my best friends throughout the years,” Lightner said of the people he has met through the sport. “Being a part of this community for 13 years, I can definitely say I’ve learned a lot of lessons and met so many people that will be my friends forever.”
As he got older, Lightner devoted more and more time to rock climbing, training five days a week. Now, he says, a typical day will include a two-hour training in the morning before his college classes and another three-hour training in the evening.
The intense regimen guaranteed that the teen developed excellent time management skills, because he had to break his days down into half-hour increments, with everything from homework to extracurriculars to eating and sleeping planned out ahead of time. Through all of his years in the sport, Lightner never lost his dedication to his education, always keeping his grades up to ensure that no matter what, he had a successful future ahead of him.
“My mother grew up in a high-poverty area, so one of the things she always emphasized is that education is the way out,” Lightner said. “I always wanted to get the best grades as possible and do the after-school activities, so it was always a delicate balance keeping up my high-level climbing and also being a really good student.”
However, when he arrived at Babson in September 2018, Lightner said he had a hard time adjusting to the new responsibilities. As he looked toward the upcoming Olympics in 2020, the first time that rock climbing will be included in the games, his training ramped up, as he had to be prepared to compete in all three separate disciplines of the sport: bouldering, which involves a shorter course and no rope; speed; and lead climbing, in which the climber uses a rope to climb a much higher route. Eventually, Lightner had to give up on the goal in order to keep a handle on his schoolwork.
Instead, Lightner has focused more on his other interests, which include social impact projects, especially those related to diversity and inclusion.
In particular, Lightner is working on promoting access to his favorite sport, something that as a minority athlete is very important to him.
“I remember first being in a climbing gym and me and my family were the only people of color in the room,” Lightner said.
Right now, he is in the preliminary stages of working on a project with Memphis Rox, a Tennessee climbing gym which focuses on using the climbing community to benefit underprivileged communities, to provide outreach to people of color, and just travelled to the Adaptive National Championships to speak with disabled athletes.
He added that for many kids of color, not having access to climbing gyms or even just the knowledge of the sport as an option prevents them from participating.
“A lot of minorities live in inner cities or highly populated areas that a lot of times don’t incorporate outdoor recreation,” Lightner said. “I found climbing from a sticky note, not a friend.”
Despite his break from competitive climbing, Lightner is enjoying his work and keeping up with climbing for fun, both indoors and in nature.
“It’s always nice to have that escape,” he said.