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Kai Lightner: From Comp Climber to Social Entrepreneur (2024)

Kai Lightner rock climbing outdoors

Published on: 06/07/2023

Kai Lightner is an American professional rock climber who has evolved over the past decade from a teen competition prodigy to an entrepreneurial activist promoting more diversity in the climbing community.

While some people wondered if Lightner might turn into the next American climbing superstar, à la Chris Sharma or Tommy Caldwell, his life has taken a slightly different path. Don’t worry, he’s still crushing hard routes and boulder problems all over the world!

So, what’s become of this former national champion and World Cup competitor?

Early Life

Kai was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1999. According to family legend, he climbed a 50-foot-tall flagpole in front of his mother’s workplace when he was six. Shortly after, she took him to the local climbing gym, and he was immediately hooked on the sport.

“I feel like I was born to climb,” Lightner said in 2019 (1). “I was always active; I tried a bunch of other sports, but none of them really clicked for me like climbing did.”

A year later, Lightner was already competing in youth climbing competitions at the national level. He won a youth national championship at 10, a Panamerican championship at 11, and over a dozen gold medals in other events.

Even while training and winning on the competition circuit, Lightner placed equal effort on his education. He was the valedictorian of his high school class and enrolled in college with a full academic scholarship.

In short, Kai has been driven and determined to reach his goals from a young age, whether working hard to overcome a climbing route or succeeding in the classroom.

Kai Lightner’s Climbing Style

Lightner has been taller than the average climber since his teenage years, and he uses this height and extra reach to good advantage. His style is controlled and graceful, and he often unlocks static moves where other climbers are forced to dyno or cut feet.

With long limbs and excellent flexibility, Lightner can reach out to grasp positive footholds over his head that few others can use. One potential weak point in Kai’s game is due to his length, which makes it harder to maintain core tension and can lead to awkward positions when holds are spaced too closely.

However, that also leads to another of his superpowers as a climber: the curiosity and intelligence to study a move or sequence and solve the beta that leads to the send. Lightner learned that skill as a kid who was shorter than the adults he was competing against, and it still serves him well now that he’s taller than almost anyone else in the gym.

Competition Results

North American Cup Series Lightner Kai
©️📸by: @breesframes on Instagram

Kai learned his rock climbing craft indoors and gravitated toward competition thanks to his natural ability and love of the sport. After winning his first U.S. national championship at age 10, he enjoyed a wave of success that led to international attention and media coverage.

That first victory started a phase during which Lightner won the majority of events that he entered. In 2014, Kai won the youth world championship in the lead category, the first American international champion since 1995.

At 15, he moved up and won a national lead climbing championship in the Open category for the first time. He continued to win and score highly in top-level climbing events until the COVID pandemic and higher education interrupted this long period of success.

Kai wearing Evolv shoes for rock climbing
©️ Evolv

Overall, Lightner won 12 U.S. national championships and 5 world championships in the competitive climbing arena during his first decade of participation.

Although he began training hoping to join the US national team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, he eventually decided to shift his priorities to his ongoing education:

“I was . . . stretching myself too thin. I decided to take a break from that world and focus on my academics,” Lightner said.

Notable Climbing Accomplishments

In addition to his highly decorated competitive climbing career, Kai has an impressive outdoor tick list. Although he’s mostly renowned as an indoor climber, he loves climbing outside and set his focus on a number of difficult classics in the U.S. and abroad from an early age.

Starting with his first 5.13a (7c+ French) at the age of 11 at the Red River Gorge, Lightner has continually pushed his outdoor limits. He reached the current pinnacle of his abilities in 2015 when he sent Era Vella (5.14c/d – 9a) in Margalef, Spain.

In the first half of 2023, Lightner took a trip to Spain and knocked off three new 5.14s (8c+). These were his hardest routes since 2020, so perhaps this is a portent of new and bigger challenges on the horizon.

Kai Lightner rock climbing in Spain
©️📸by: @marble_rye on Instagram

In case you’re curious, here’s a list of Kai Lightner’s top 5 outdoor sport routes, by difficulty:

  • Era Vella 5.14c/d (8c+/9a) – Margalef
  • Southern Smoke 5.14c (8c+) – Red River Gorge
  • Lucifer 5.14c (8c+) – Red River Gorge
  • Flight of the Concords 5.14c (8c+) – Hurricave, Utah
  • Fabela 5.14c (8c+) – Santa Linya

Personal Life

Kai Lightner portrait
©️ Kai Lightner on Instagram

Lightner started his own nonprofit in his second year of college, called Climbing For Change (2). The organization’s mission is to uplift underserved minorities in the outdoor industry by building connections and lowering the barriers for entry.

As the founder, Kai embraces his position as a climbing role model (3) and leader of inclusivity efforts, along with his mother Connie. A university business professor, she raised Kai as a single mother and has been his biggest supporter and motivator.

Their experience as African Americans in the climbing community has given them a unique perspective and ideas for how to make that opportunity more accessible to populations that haven’t traditionally been able to enter the sport.

Climbing for Change NGO minority outreach in Colorado
©️ Climbing For Change on Instagram

One way they provide this support is through direct grants to BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) individuals and communities who want to pursue new outdoor recreational activities. Their website also offers a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) Connections database and other resources.

Although Lightner is training hard and may still have some competitive juice left, at the moment he’s happy just climbing what he wants, when he wants to.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is Kai Lightner doing now?

After completing his university education last year, Kai is now busy training, climbing, and managing his nonprofit Climbing For Change (C4C).

Where did Kai Lightner go to college?

Lightner graduated from Babson College in Boston in May of 2022, with a degree in entrepreneurship.

How tall is Kai Lightner?

Kai Lightner’s reported height is 6 feet, 3 inches (190.5 cm).

What model of climbing shoes does Kai Lightner wear?

Lightner is sponsored by Evolv and is currently wearing the Shaman Pro model for his hardest attempts.


An Entrepreneur with Eyes on the Olympics
Babson College (retrieved on 06/01/2023)

Climbing for Change (retrieved on 06/01/2023)

How Kai Lightner Is Climbing for Change
NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth (retrieved on 06/01/2023)

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