Aptitude For Altitude: Babson Freshman Begins Ascent

Kai Lightner climbs in Yosemite, California. The Babson College freshman has dreams of competing in the Olympics. Adidas photo

He’s a climber — and not just metaphorically.

Babson College freshman Kai Lightner has been rock climbing for more than half his life — and winning competition for almost as long as that. At 10, he won his first first-place at the National Youth Sport Championship. Four years later, he took top honors in the International Federation of Sport Climbing Youth World Championship. Now, after more than a decade of competition, Lightner has begun his college career at Babson — while eyeing Olympic glory in 2020 in Tokyo, where competitive climbing will be featured for the first time.

“I train five days a week, with two different coaches, in the morning and in the evenings,” Lightner, now 19, tells Poets&Quants For Undergrads. He says he plans to major in business management or marketing. “I love the fact that Babson’s culture is so focused on being interactive, hands-on, and experiential, and it does make things a little challenging when I have to be in school to do all that, but it’s why I chose Babson.”

A BUDDING STAR AND HIS DEDICATED MANAGER

Kai Lightner. August Heim photo

Constance Lightner, Kai’s mother, says it all started with a boy who had a ton of energy. As Kai seemed to display traits normally associated with ADHD, she was advised to have him diagnosed — and possibly medicated. Instead, she made sure he had an organized schedule where he knew what to expect and what was expected of him. And then she tried to figure out what to do with all that preteen energy. Kai’s dad, who was no longer involved in their lives, was 6 feet 9 inches tall, and Constance knew she was raising a young man who would grow up to be an energetic — and big — black man whom the world would not go easy on.

The answer came in their hometown gym in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where Kai discovered that he had an aptitude on the climbing wall. More than  an aptitude: He was really, really good, and what’s more, he loved it. Little did either mother or son know that Constance encouraging Kai in the sport would bring out his competitive side in other things, as well — particularly his ambition to excel in business education.

Constance, who has been chair of the Department of Marketing, Management, and Entrepreneurship at Fayetteville State University for eight years, said once Kai showed a real love and aptitude for climbing, she began taking him to gyms all over the world to compete. And as he learned to navigate the sport and the crevices and crannies of countless climbs, she learned the ropes of another occupation: manager for her budding star of a son. 

“We’ve been asked to get him an agent many times, but because I am mom, I negotiate differently,” Constance tells P&Q. “When people realize that I’m also department chair for Marketing, Management, and Entrepreneurship, they realize I know what I’m doing.” It’s certainly not all about money. Kai needed time to be a kid, too, Constance says. “I want balance for him. It’s not just about money, and definitely not always about the highest price. I needed the balance of allowing my kid to be a kid, and we turned down big contracts because I wasn’t OK with what they wanted from him. He needs time for himself.” Among Kai’s current sponsors: Adidas Outdoor and Clif Bar.

A LOVING MOM LEADING BY EXAMPLE

Starting out, Constance says, Kai was often teased by his peers for “acting white” as he persisted in the sport of climbing, where competitions have long been dominated by Europeans. But he persisted, and his mother helped keep his eyes on the prize. Working her full-time job at Fayetteville State, she would go home in the evening to help Kai with homework before bringing him to the gym. She helped to belay him during his training until it grew dark outside. Then they’d go home, eat, shower, and go straight to bed — and do it all again the next day.

By the time Kai was 13, they were traveling every weekend, Constance says. There was no time for her to “have a life,” but she was OK with that. “I saw it as an investment to put in a kid, to make him great in life,” she says. “If not, he could be a menace for the next 60 to 70 years.”

Now, as Kai takes on the challenge of business school while pursuing his passion, he says the biggest hurdle has been time management — something he fortunately has some experience with, having had to study on planes and at competitions for many years. How successful was he? He was his high school valedictorian upon graduation in 2016, having taken not only AP classes but also additional community college courses.

Kai Lightner at the 2014 Youth World championships. Courtesy Constance Lightner

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