Kai Lightner has become one of the best climbers of his generation, with many competition wins and difficult sends of rock climbs. In 2007, at age eight, he competed at his first Sport Climbing Series national, and by his mid-teens was winning both in Youth D and in the open nationals. At age 10, he sent his first 5.13s in the Red and New.

This fall, Lightner will be on a panel hosted by James Edward Mills at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. He’ll be joining a number of other industry leaders for a wide ranging discussion that will include diversity in climbing. Times and locations for this year’s festival have not been released yet.

In 2016, Lightner suffered stress fractures in his T1 and T2 vertebrae, but recovered to take silver at the 2016 Youth World Championships in bouldering and lead. Last fall, he started attending Babson College in Boston on a full-ride scholarship. After his first semester, he realized that training for the Olympics, competing going to school was too crazy and he announced on Feb. 8 that he was going to focus on school and not competition climbing.

“I’ve decided to move in a new direction and take a hiatus from competition climbing. … I’m excited to pursue different passions in the climbing world while focusing on my academics. I love climbing and I’m excited to explore a different side of it!”

Lightner has been spending much more of this year climbing outdoors. “I go climbing to destress, calm down and express myself,” he said. Lightner is also active in his local and national communities and speaks at events, volunteers at Boys and Girls Clubs and helps with fundraising for the adaptive climbing community.

Growing up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Lightner said he was teased and made fun of for climbing as a minority. “[I was told], ‘Rock climbing is not a sport for us. It’s a sport for smiling white people in commercials. But it worked out for me.”

Now he wants to focus on diversity and inclusion initiatives with the adaptive climbing community and Memphis Rox, a nonprofit gym. “Comp climbing has given me the ability to have a platform to support my community, to have resources to help others who aren’t as fortunate,” he said. “We should be given opportunities to look elsewhere to find our passions, and the option to pursue them. Memphis Rox is using climbing as a way to build that community aspect to get more kids exposed to new opportunities, to keep people busy and out of trouble. I just want to do my part to further that project.”

Lightner said that while he isn’t trying to get into the 2020 Olympics, that there might be another chance if Olympics is in the Paris 2024 games, which it looks like it will be. Also attending the talk in Banff will be climbers from the popular Instagram pages Brothers of Climbing (Mikail Martin), Brown Girls Climb and Indigenous Women Climb.

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