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Generation 5.16: Kai Lightner

Age 18 / Fayetteville, North Carolina

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This story is part of our series, Generation 5.16: 10 Young Crushers That Could Take Rock Climbing to the Next Level. It was originally published in the December/January 2018 issue of our print edition.

Kai Lightner Rock Climbing Generation 5.16 Sport Competition USA Climbing
Kai Lightner at the USAC Youth Bouldering Nationals, SLC, 2017.   Andrea Laue

Since birth, Kai Lightner was climbing anything he could—baby gates, brick walls, balconies—and at age six began climbing at The Climbing Place, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This thanks to his ascent of a flagpole on the Fayetteville State University campus where his mother, Constance, works as an associate professor in the Department of Management and MBA program. Constance yelled at him to come down, and an onlooker gave Constance the gym’s address.

In 2007, at age eight, Lightner attended his first Sport Climbing Series national, and by his mid-teens was winning both in his current bracket (starting at Youth D and moving up as he aged) and in the open/adult nationals. While Lightner spends most of his time indoors, he loves rock: At age 10, he sent his first 5.13s in the Red and New.

In 2016, during a bouldering-circuit session, Lightner’s back went numb. After a series of doctor’s visits, X-rays, and misdiagnoses, Lightner learned he had stress fractures in the T1 and T2 vertebrae. Says Lightner, “For the longest time, I couldn’t lift my arms above my shoulders without it hurting.” During his six-month recovery, Lightner managed the Adaptive Climbing Fundraiser in Fayetteville and hosted clinics through Outward Bound and the YMCA. The November 2016 Youth World Championships were his first comp post-injury, and he won silver in bouldering and lead.

Lightner is one of the few African Americans climbing at his level. He feels like “the embodiment of the lesson to do what you love regardless of the opinions of your peers.” Early in his career, he experienced pushback from people in the black community who told him to play traditional sports, but he’s since gained much more support. This spring, Lightner graduated from Reid Ross Classical High School as valedictorian and will be taking a year off before college to train for the 2020 Olympics. He also has the goal of “establishing my own climbs for the next generation.” 


  • Era Vella (5.14c/d) in Margalef, Spain (2015)
  • Lucifer (5.14c) and Southern Smoke (5.14c) in the Red River Gorge (2014 and 2015)


  • Eight National Championship titles since 2010
  • Three-time IFSC Youth World Championship medalist 2014–2016


Study entrepreneurship in college (after a gap year), travel the world, compete in the World Cup circuit for lead climbing, win gold in the 2020 Olympics.

Read more Generation 5.16 profiles.