How Pro US Climber Kai Lightner Is Helping Vulnerable Kids In SA

"I know a lot of the kids come from a background of violence and poverty. I just feel that being able to show them there are more options is really important."

Cally Silberbauer |

“I climbed everything as a kid,” Kai Lightner, USA professional sport climber, says. “I used to eat lunch on the basketball hoop before I was heavy enough to tip it over.” From the get-go it was apparent that climbing was in his blood. “My aunt lived on the third floor balcony apartment and I used to climb to the fifth floor balcony and talk to her neighbours.” He laughs, “she’d run around looking for me.” It’s a no-brainer his love for climbing was there all along, but Kai says that he had very little exposure to the sport. So how did he become a US champion climber? It’s actually quite a funny story…

Kai Lightner

Kai Lightner at Bloc 11 climbing gym.

“I didn’t see mountains or a lot of outdoor areas,” he says on growing up. “Any time I saw climbing or anything related, it was a bunch of smiling white people in hiking boots with their dogs and their family. It didn’t really relate to me.” Miles apart, but the US climber has shared similar sentiments to that of black SA athletes. And while he talks, we can’t help but think about the eight National Champion titles he’s earned since 2010. Not to mention his achievements in international competitions.

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“My mother teaches at a college back home,” Kai explains. “There’s a flag pole there for the national and state flag. I shimmied my way to the top of it while my Mom was busy talking to her boss. This lady came by and she saw me up there and helped me get back down.” What followed was some profuse apologising from Kai’s mom. However, this lady was having none of it. “It’s not a problem,” she said. “He just looks like he’ll be really good at rock climbing.” And so a climbing gym address was exchanged. A few days later Kai, aged six, arrived at a climbing gym for the first time.

“It just connected for me,” he adds. “It was just one of those sports where I could just hone in all of my energy and focus and I’d never been fully committed like that to anything before. I just wanted to be the best that I could at rock climbing.”

Lightner than air

Kai has been climbing for 13 years now. That’s a long time to spend doing anything. So what are his plans? Actually, he’s taking a break from competition climbing. But that doesn’t mean he’s not climbing. He heard about charity group Dream Higher all the way out here in CT – and he wanted to get involved. “I knew at some point I wanted to come to South Africa because the climbing here is pretty legendary. I wasn’t doing the World Cup this year so I was pretty free and decided that I wanted to reach out,” Kai continues.

Dream Higher’s goal is to bring rock climbing to the vulnerable youth of Cape Town, building confidence, bridging social divides and forming connections with the natural world.

Dream Higher is an initiative that aims to bring rock climbing to the underprivileged and vulnerable youth of Cape Town. Rock climbing gym Bloc 11 hosts these kids for an indoor bouldering session every Monday. And on weekends they take things outdoors. Climbing is all about overcoming obstacles and finding your balance, which includes dealing with and tackling a variety of emotions to get it right.

I know a lot of the kids come from a background of violence and poverty. I just feel like being able to show them that there are more options is really important.

“I feel like my story is pretty similar to the kids at Dream Higher,” Kai adds. “When you grow up in a city there’s a lot of crime and other things that can distract you. I know a lot of the kids come from a background of violence and poverty. I just feel like being able to show them that there are more options is really important. I’m just trying my best to be here and be a role model for the kids.” Heading over from America, he wasn’t too sure how the kids would react to him showing up. “But they are really great, ” Kai says. “They’re so inspiring. I don’t even know how to explain how much these people have touched me.”

Lightner watches the young climbers in action, giving advice on their technique and making suggestions on how to approach their decision-making while climbing. The interactive sessions have certainly inspired the Dream Higher youth and have seen new friendships being formed, while having a great deal of fun.

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adidas is one of Kai’s sponsors and when they heard about his plans, they had to get involved as well. They’ve been donating gear to all the Dream Higher kids. Last Monday the MH team joined in with the Dream Higher kids and Kai at Bloc 11 to share our love for climbing. We joined the kids for a session with Kai, who makes even the most impossible climbs look easy.

Lightner will be training with the DreamHigher team over the next few weeks alongside pursuing personal goals that involve some of the best outdoor climbing that the greater Cape Town area has to offer. As the destination for local and international climbers alike, Rocklands, with its world-class bouldering and sport climbing routes is a highlight on Lightner’s itinerary.

“Kai is a remarkable young man, who epitomises our core belief that sport has the power to change lives,” says Lauren Haakman, PR Manager for adidas South Africa. “It’s been an honour for adidas to welcome and support Kai during his trip to South Africa.”

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