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Q&A with Kai Lightner

When and how did you get started climbing?

Even though I didn’t begin climbing in a gym until I was 6, I stayed in trouble for climbing things WELL before then. From climbing over baby gates in our house (before I could walk) to eating lunch on the basketball hoop in our driveway, my mother lived in constant fear I would fall and hurt myself while climbing something. She tried to get me into numerous sports, but my ADHD made it hard for me to give any of them my full undivided attention. One day, while my mother was outside her job talking with her boss, I decided to climb the 50 feet flag pole behind her. One of my mother’s colleagues walked by and instead of freaking out, she helped me down and wrote the address to the local climbing gym on a sticky note and gave it to my mother. The next day, my mother brought me to that gym and begged the man at the front desk to help me learn to climb. From the moment I stepped into that gym I felt a connection I couldn’t explain. Different from all activities I had tried in the past, I found it hard to focus on anything else but the climbing wall in front of me. I began climbing almost daily at the gym after then and eventually joined the competitive team.

What motivates you to climb and why do you find it appealing?

Climbing has always given me a euphoric feeling that’s hard to explain. When I’m climbing, I feel the most in control of my body and my mind is at its sharpest. The more I train and the better I get, the stronger this feeling becomes.

How long and in what disciplines have you competed in?

I’ve been competing for 14 years and have competed in all three disciplines (lead, speed, and bouldering). However, most of my accolades have come from competing in lead and bouldering.

What do you like or dislike about each of the disciplines?

I enjoy lead climbing because it requires the most control and patience of the competitive disciplines. I also really enjoy bouldering because of the powerful short movements and the fact that it requires less equipment and planning to participate in. While speed has always been the most difficult discipline for me, I enjoy the short bursts of intensity it takes and the exhilarating feeling of setting new PR’s!

How many days a week are you training? What disciplines are you training for each week? 

I usually train 5 days a week and incorporate both lead and bouldering in all my gym sessions. Three days of the week are more lead focused with power endurance bouldering; two days of the week are bouldering focused with speed training to start sessions.

How train differently for different disciplines?

Each of the three disciplines require different kinds of training. Lead climbing involves climbing on long routes, which means more endurance focused training. Boulder problems are much shorter and have harder individual moves, which requires more power focused training. Speed climbing is completely different from any other discipline, since it is the only one where the course never changes. Because of this, speed training requires constant repetition on the standardized speed wall in order to excel at it.

What do you do to stay motivated in times when you are feeling tired, discouraged, or when you get injured?

At times when I feel discouraged, I stay motivated by keeping my long term goals in mind. Even though today is a rough day, persevering through will keep me on track to accomplish my dreams further down the road!

Where do you typically train and how does your routine change when you are traveling?

I typically train in Boston with my coach Shane Messer. However, when I travel for competitions, I have a modified training program I follow to accommodate for long stints at the airport or short practices before competition day.

How have you had to adapt your training since the COVID pandemic hit?

COVID has caused most climbing gyms to shut down and limited our access to basic equipment needed to stay fit. Because of this, I and my coaches have come up with modified home trainings and I even built an at-home climbing wall!

What’s the biggest competition you’ve been apart of?

I’ve competed in several international competitions, including the Youth World Championships and Several World Cups.

What is your most memorable moment from a competition?

I’ve had several competition moments I will never forget, including winning my second adult National Championships in 2017 and winning the Youth World Championship in 2014.

Competition climbing is on the rise for younger and younger climbers around the world. What advice do you have for young climbers for preparing mentally for competitions?

Ultimately, the only things you are in control of at these competitions are your preparation and your performance. So, make sure you train hard, have a solid routine for isolation that you practice beforehand, and try your best!

Do you prefer climbing on plastic or real rock?

I enjoy both types of climbing for different reasons. My competitive spirit draws me to competitions and indoor rock-climbing is the best way to maintain fitness for competitions. However, I have always seen outdoor climbing as a form of escapism; the remote and scenic locations of outdoor crags allow me to do what I love while simultaneously enjoying nature.

What is your favorite crag(s)?

Although a specific crag is hard to pinpoint, I have always enjoyed climbing in Spain! There are many crags I enjoy climbing there, including Margalef, Santa Linya, and Siruana.

What climber(s) do you look up to most?

I look up to Adam Ondra the most. Not only is he the best climber in the world, but he has a similar body type to me and always finds creative ways to accomplish hard climbs!

Tell us about your favorite t-shirt?

My favorite t-shirt is one that has the word “Nope” in large letter across the front. I think it perfectly represents my mood when I first wake up and makes me laugh every time I wear it!

What music do you have in high rotation right now?

The two artists I have been listening to the most are Summer Walker and Khalid. Both have a very moody and chill style of music which has kept me calm and focused during these stressful times.

The one must-have item for life on the road?

Speakers! I never go on any trip without my JBL speakers with me!

What other sports are you in today?

It’s currently really hot where I live, so swimming is the sport I’m most into right now besides climbing!

Favorite climbing and non-climbing movie?

My favorite climbing movie is my friend Margo Hayes’ feature in Reel Rock; my favorite non-climbing movie is Black Panther!