Kai Lightner trains five hours a day rock climbing, not counting the 90-minute commute from his school in Fayetteville to Morrisville’s Triangle Rock Club.
But his long trips to the Morrisville facility paid off last month when the 15-year-old was named world champion at the 2014 International Federation of Sport Climbing’s World Youth Championship.
Kai is one of the few nationally elite youth climbers on the East Coast. Before his most recent title, he had won seven national championships. He also defeated more experienced adults at another competition.
“There’s speed climbing, where it’s all about speed, and then there’s sport climbing, which is who can go the farthest,” Kai said. “And that’s what I do.”
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He doesn’t just do it. He excels at it.
Kai was the only youth climber from around the world who made it to the top of the World Championship course on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia.
It’s the first time an American has won the championship in 20 years.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” he acknowledged.
Earlier this month, as Kai walked back into Morrisville’s Triangle Rock Club for the first time since his big victory, many climbers didn’t pay much attention to him.
Kai, a lanky, bespectacled teen, doesn’t physically stand out the way a football or basketball player might.
But Joel Graybeal, one of the gym’s managing partners, made sure to seek out his star climber.
“I am so proud of you, man,” Graybeal greeted Kai. “That was ridiculous.”
Megan Britt, the gym’s marketing director, said several of the gym’s staff members watched Kai win in real time in streaming video online. They were shocked by the difficulty of the course, even though Kai was able to master it.
Connie Lightner, Kai’s mother, said she’s not sure where her son got his talent. She has tried climbing a few times, she said, “and I’m, like, horrible at it.”
But she’s proud of her son, who attributes his success to a combination of talent and experience; he has been climbing since the age of 7. He also is able to maintain a sense of focus, despite the pressures.
“I’m able to keep a level head,” Kai said. “And I guess I’m talented in the sport. But it really goes to the mental part.”
It doesn’t hurt that he’s obsessed with the sport, working out and climbing before and after school every day. He said he intended to join clubs or sports at Reid Ross Classical School in Fayetteville, where he’s a sophomore, but it just never worked out.
“I try to do other stuff, but I don’t have the time,” he said.
But his mother is OK with his focused dedication to perfecting his rock climbing.
“When you’re at this level, you can’t do anything else,” Lightner said. “He’s up at 5:45 a.m., when I’m still snoring,” to hit the gym before school. Because he’s still too young to drive, she brings him up to Morrisville to climb.
Soon he might have a shorter drive. Triangle Rock Club is expanding to Fayetteville this fall. It’s not to keep Kai involved, though. Graybeal and Britt said the area’s large population of soldiers and their families from nearby Fort Bragg makes for a lot of potential customers and climbers.
But even with a gym closer to home, Kai may continue to travel to Morrisville. The local club has the highest rock wall in the Southeast at 55 feet – about six stories tall – and his coaches and friends are there.
Kai often finds himself acting like a coach for his friends.
Now he’ll likely be getting even more questions – being the best in the world tends to draw some attention – but he said he’s more than happy to share his secrets.
After all, he’d rather the country not have another 20-year championship drought. And if the next champion comes out of Morrisville, too, he wouldn’t complain.
“I try to act as a role model to the kids here,” he said. “And that’s the great thing about the sport, is everyone helps each other.”