BeWild with Kai Lightner
Tue., Feb 20, 7 p.m.
7700 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle 98115
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In this era of the perpetual run-up in sports, when the next trend or wunderkind can be spied, not just a mile but often an entire continent away, Kai Lightner has been an under-the-radar, champion-in-waiting for so long, he’s literally had “next” before his sport had a recognized competitive outlet.
Lightner’s is the kind of lightning that strikes only once. Not in a lifetime or a generation. E-ver.
Sport climbing will debut in the Summer Olympic Games two years from now in Tokyo. A leading contender for gold, Lightner is just 18 years old, but already a veteran of 11 years of competition. His ascendance parallels the rising popularity of indoor climbing. And … wait for it … he is African American in an era when the promise of racial diversity is the #ustoo movement of environmentalism and outdoor recreation. Not to mention that his friend and female counterpart, Ashima Shiraishi of New York City, is 16, one of the best female climbers in the world, and Japanese American.
As another Boy Wonder might say, “Holy stars in alignment, Batman!”
Lightner is a young man who knows he’s having a moment, but he also knows his moment might have some limitations. He is, in a way, like the most valuable player of the WNBA — on top of a game that doesn’t yet pay very handsomely. To attempt to crack that nut, he will enroll at Babson College in Boston and study entrepreneurship.
But first, Lightner has been taking a “gap year,” to focus on climbing-the way it will unfold in the Olympics-which means lots of travel, around the country and the rest of the world. Some of the journeying also is a nod to his role as ground-breaker. When we spoke, Lightner had just returned from a swing that included Denver, new site of the Outdoor Retailer trade show, where he conducted a talk about the need for more diversity in outdoor recreation.
I mention that some people believe he and Shiraishi are the future of the outdoor movement and should be on magazine covers. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to make myself so damn unavoidable that they don’t have a choice,” says Lightner, who appears in Seattle on Feb. 20, 7 p.m., as part of the Mountaineers’ BeWild speaker series.
The declaration is not as arrogant as it might sound. What Lightner means is that he will push beyond the normal threshold of human competitive nature and force people to take notice.
To wit, on the second day of the 10-day 2017 Youth World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, Lightner suffered a ruptured ulnar collateral ligament and two avulsion fractures (when a ligament pulls off part of a bone) in his left thumb. Climbers obviously need their thumbs for grip, but Lightner kept competing and claimed two bronze medals. More than a month later, he claimed the overall championship at the Pan-American Youth Championships in Montreal. Only after the Pan-Am event did Lightner undergo surgery to repair the ligament.
Five weeks later, just 10 days after shedding his cast, Lightner competed in the 2018 USA Climbing national open bouldering championships in Salt Lake City. A silver medalist the year before, he advanced to the semifinals, where he ran into routes that did not fit with his size and climbing style.
Lightner hung on by his damaged digit for the Pan-Am Championships because winning the event qualified him for two years on the World Cup circuit, where he could groom himself for the Olympics by competing against the world’s best.
“I understood his thinking,” says his mother, Connie. “He was buying himself some time. If he needed to sit out five months after the surgery to heal, he could. It turns out he didn’t need to.”
As much as he now seems the embodiment of fate, Connie Lightner’s son for much of his climbing career has been the very definition of unlikelihood. He took up climbing in a place, Fayetteville, that is surrounded by nary a peak, where the sport was an alien concept to his friends and mother, and he lacked siblings and peers to push him. Climbing also is an overwhelmingly white sport, so Lightner certainly did not have role models. Until it was slated in 2016 for the Tokyo Games, climbing didn’t even have an attractive competitive path. Whatever financial support existed was reserved for the outdoors, the peak taggers and granite jockeys.
Lightner tried other sports-basketball, football, swimming and baseball (“that’s a sport that really didn’t work out,” he says), but kept returning to climbing. But not just any climbing-indoor climbing because it offered competitions (or “comps,” in the sport’s own lingo). By 10 years old, he won his first youth national championship. By 13, he was signing his first endorsement deal, and a year later won his first major adult competition.
His rise is all the more remarkable because of his isolation. Lightner first traveled some six hours away, to Atlanta, for proper coaching. Later, he trained in Boston, which now is his part-time home. Connie Lightner was his chauffeur but necessity expanded her role. They recognized he wasn’t going to improve markedly on a one-coaching-session-per-week schedule, so she paid rapt attention, pen and pad in hand, during his trainings. Having grown up in Cleveland, she admits she’d never even heard of climbing when her son took it up. But soon she became his belay partner and deconstructed all the drills and advice from his coaches and supervised him the rest of the week.
Connie Lightner also became her son’s scheduler, advisor and “ATM machine”–his “momanger,” as she’s called it. Her fee: Stay on top of his academics. The fees, equipment and travel piled up, but so did the As on Kai Lightner’s report card. He graduated last year from Reid Ross Classical High School in Fayetteville, N.C., as the senior class valedictorian.
“That valedictorian and straight-As business was him figuring out how to sucker me into doing whatever he wanted,” Connie Lightner says, with a chuckle.
Their considerable investment seems poised to pay off. He has general sponsorships from adidas and Clif Bars, and equipment support from Black Diamond, BlueWater and Evolv. He will be starting to grow into his athletic peak by the time the Olympics roll around. Kai Lightner will have that, and time, on his side; Romain DeGranges of France, currently ranked No. 1 in the world in sport climbing, is 35. Moreover, the cockeyed way sport climbing will be introduced in Tokyo also plays into Lightner’s strengths.
The Olympic competition will combine three climbing disciplines and will offer only overall medals. So all athletes will have to compete in bouldering, completing as many fixed routes on a 5-meter wall within a certain time frame; lead, completing a fixed course within a specific time, and speed, which essentially is a sprint on a fixed, 15-meter route. Speed requires an almost full-time training regimen, while bouldering and lead share power and agility requirements. Lightner is the only American to make the national team on the latter two and his 10 national youth championships are split evenly between bouldering and lead.
That’s the overwhelming good news. The somewhat countervailing development is Lightner’s size. At 6 feet 3, he is the tallest competitive climber. That makes holds a lot closer, and some move sequences can be skipped, but the tight, twisty maneuvers that favor shorter climbers are far more pervasive. In little more than a year’s time, from ages 15 to 16, he had a doozy of a growth spurt, sprouting from 5-7 to 6-2. The resulting spinal ailments held him out of competition for six months and it was feared would cost him his career. While he adjusted, sometimes constantly, to a new body, his results became less consistent, and he took hits to his confidence.
Asked if he’d rather be 5-7 or 6-2, Lightner didn’t hesitate: 5-7, which is about average for elite climbers. However, as is usual for the ground-breaking teen, there is a big but.
“When you have anomalies in sports and athletes that are exponentially better than others, it’s usually because they have something about them that no one else has that makes them special,” Lightner says. “It’s like watching Usain Bolt run. Obviously he’s so much taller than what was previously was perceived as what could have been the best in the world. But with that comes a different technique and different revelations of the sport. They had to study him to realize why he was so much better than everyone else.
“So I feel like being different doesn’t always have to be a disadvantage. It means I have something that the other competitors don’t, and it’s just genetics.”
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