When Olympic hopefuls Kai Lightner entered a climbing hall for the first time, he was six years old. The visit was suggested by a colleague of his mother’s teachers after she needed help to climb him down from a 15-meter-high flagpole that he hung at school.
“I had a lot of trouble climbing things that I shouldn’t,” says Lightner, laughing at an IG Live with Uproxx from Salt Lake City. “I grew up with ADHD and couldn’t focus on the games everyone else was playing. But when I started climbing, for some reason everything clicked – I could spend hours trying to find a route. “
These days, Lightner is encouraged to rise both literally and in the culture of his sport. The 21-year-old has won 12 national championship titles and recently made a film “Go Milk?”. Commercial by Free Solo Director Jimmy Chin and aims to compete in the 2024 Summer Olympics.
We spoke to Lightner from the National Selection / Preview event in Salt Lake City to talk about training, snacking attacks, and introducing climbing into the next generation.
How early did this obsession with climbing begin?
I’ve been climbing things since I was a kid. I used to climb over my baby gate. And when I was four I ate lunch on our basketball hoop. I would go up the bar and sit in the net. When I first stepped into this gym when I was six, I’ll never forget that there was a wall with a massive overhang that had a piece of purple tape attached to it. It was the only wall in the facility that I couldn’t get up.
I was so angry that I started crying while clinging to it and I didn’t want to let go until I was defeated. I was up there probably 15 minutes before they could tear me away. For the next week I came back every day to do this climb until I finally made it to the top. I think at this point everyone around me realized my dedication and passion for the sport. They decided to get me on the competition team and it has increased since then.
Given that you started competing so early and those were indoor events, what was the first time you managed to climb outdoors?
I had won a few national championships before going on my first real outdoor climbing tour. One of my friends on the scene made fun of me for climbing plastic all the time, but I’d never been on a real mountain. I admit that the first experience I was scared. I was only about 10 years old.
The moments indoors are smaller and in some ways more intense. The surroundings are clearly different, there is more to be enjoyed outdoors and you have the time to do so when you want. It’s much more comforting, and there’s a beauty that comes with it. It has become a really important part of my life now, and I take time to do both all year round.
How did your classmates at school find your climbing at such a young age?
Growing up my friends thought that I was a climber was really weird. You didn’t really get it. I get it, though, because we’ve never really seen climbing, except maybe in commercials. And usually they were smiling white families with their dogs. It just seemed like a “sport for white people”.
So back home in North Carolina, my friends were curious as to why I wasn’t trying something more “normal”. I’ll never forget that I was in 2nd grade and one of my teachers said it was strange that I climbed rocks and that because I was so tall I should play basketball. Most of my family didn’t really get it either.
Do you remember when your friends and family started taking the sport and your climbing career really seriously?
I did a section for the Today Show and I remember a lot of kids coming to me in my classes. They were shocked that I was still climbing and that I was getting that kind of attention. When such moments started the respect was much greater and I even got a couple of them to go to the gym with me.
I think it’s very important to see more people who look like you or are from your community. Especially this younger generation, because this is how you open these spiritual doors and offer new paths, if they are still possible. I have a lot of people in my circle who are now trying to climb and be more outside.
Who do you look up to in climbing and sports in general?
As for sports, I look very up to Adam Ondra. He’s probably the best climber in the world, and he’s the same build as me, I would say. As for other sports, watching LeBron James play basketball is pretty special. Or watch Usain Bolt hit a track. Or watch Simone Biles doing a routine. These are all groundbreaking athletes who are paving their own way.
The climbing that was added to the Olympics made waves. What did you think when you first heard the announcement?
There was a mixed response from the climbing community. When I started climbing, there wasn’t even an idea that it was possible. Personally, I see it as a great opportunity to take the sport I love to a whole new level. I’ve loved seeing the Olympics as an event over the years, it’s something I look forward to.
How have your training and focus changed since this announcement was made?
The format for the Olympics is different from any other event that takes place in our sport. There are three different climbing disciplines, including lead climbing, in which you hit large walls with a climbing harness, bouldering, in which you hit smaller walls with seven to nine pulls without a rope, and then speed climbing, in which you all hit the same thing Wall meet wall time-controlled.
These disciplines are usually individual. And it’s unique that the Olympics combine results from all three disciplines to get the final numbers and award medals based on those. This is extremely physically demanding – because many athletes really have to enter one or two of the disciplines for the first time. I was usually a boulderer so it was interesting to practice lead and speed climbing. It made me a better climber overall.
How much do you train these days?
I usually race at the gym six hours a day, five days a week. This consists of two hours of climbing, one hour of core work, conditioning training and a lot of stretching. The challenge about climbing is that you not only perfect one movement over and over again, but that you are constantly changing. We always travel to different gyms or parts of the world to compete. Especially these days, it requires a lot of workouts and a very varied training style.
I find Leg Tag one of those elements that I really have to force myself to do. The sport has developed a lot and has become more physically demanding. I used to not be able to do a lot of leg training because they are already strong, but with everything we put them through, it has become more and more necessary.
Do you hear anything while climbing?
I am a huge fan of music. I’ll hear artists like Drake or Lil Baby. It helps me climb better and get mental. If you see photos of me in a competition, I definitely have my headphones on. You are not allowed to climb with music while you are on the wall. I like the Bose headphones. They stick well to my head. I like the ones that wrap around my head because the wireless ones can sometimes fall off and get damaged.
What do you eat during all of these workouts?
Since I work out most of the day, it is important to have snacks and drinks at the gym. I start my day with a glass of milk before breakfast. it gives me potassium, the protein for the muscles and the nutrition I need. I also keep some at the gym to break up when I need another boost.
I also like to have clif bars [one of Lightner’s sponsors] around for the carbohydrates and energy I need on the wall. Not only is food important to keeping you fit, but it can also be a great motivator in this situation. I try to have a general high protein diet that is constantly changing to keep it interesting.
Speaking of milk, you recently did an ad for her with the great Jimmy Chin.
Jimmy Chin was great to work with. As you can imagine, we had a lot of mutual friends. Such a great cameraman. It was great to finally get to know him, especially how useful he was to our sport for his projects like Free Solo. He’s a storyteller who has the ability to get the story right because he’s a climber.
The project was very cool and felt so natural because I drink milk every day. It felt like it was another great way to promote the sport. I used to get in trouble for climbing up building walls and my mom yelling at me to get down. It was amazing to climb this huge building in Chicago, not just come and be asked to do it.
Let’s talk about how accessible climbing is these days. I was just at Vital, a stunning new facility in Brooklyn. What was it like to watch its expanse?
I have heard of that! The facilities are there, I think there is a climbing hall or under construction in almost every metropolitan area these days. You can take a subway or other public transport and be there in no time. I like it when it’s more common in these color communities. I think it’s only getting bigger.
I feel like the sport is still seen in a very specific light, with people imagining hippies living out of vans. The idea that downtown kids excel at it, after all in forums like the Olympics, I think would be of great importance to the overall perspective. And to be part of it is a great honor.
What’s your plan for the Olympics?
My sights are set on the 2024 Olympics. I decided to go to school first. So I missed this year’s event. I’m here in Salt Lake City right now for some national trophies and team selection. It’s really exciting for me to get one step closer to this process. To be a part of it would be a dream.