Climber Kai Lightner refueling with his mother’s kitchen


Kai Lightner was a rock climbing prodigy. From a young age he climbed anything and everything, including, at age 6, a flag pole at Fayetteville State University, where his mother worked. It was this incident that encouraged her to bring her 6-year-old – diagnosed with ADHD at the time – to the nearby climbing gym. Climbing walls has become an outlet. A year later, in 2007, he competed in his first national championship and in 2010 he won it. At this point, the North Carolina native has won 12 national championship titles (10 in the youth categories; two on the adult circuit) and is a five-time medalist at the youth world championships.

Over the past year, he has also become a strong voice on the deeper issues of rock climbing. In the spring of 2020, he wrote about his experience with eating disorders. And after George Floyd’s murder, he founded a nonprofit, Climbing for Change, which seeks to make climbing and the entire outdoor industry more inclusive.

GQ recently met the 21-year-old on how he fuels his workout, Got Milk? commercial he shot with Dawn Wall director Jimmy Chin, and is aiming for the 2024 Olympics.

GQ: What’s the first thing you put into your body in the morning?

Kai Lightner: I get up around 7:30 am every day. After brushing my teeth, washing my face and brushing my hair, I go straight to breakfast. I’m big on oatmeal and eggs. I prefer my eggs to be in the sun. The scramble makes me nauseous. Then I will usually have some fruit, Greek yogurt and a glass of milk. I used to steal my mom’s glass of milk in the morning after I finished mine. It makes me laugh just thinking about it, because it’s still a big part of my daily life.

Are you a morning workout person?

My morning practice is from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. It takes place at the US Training Center in Salt Lake City. At noon, I come home and work on my nonprofit Climbing for Change.

I also eat breakfast, which is usually quite high in protein. Right now in my fridge there is tuna salad. I also like to do Thai at home, kind of Thai situation. I’m always looking to eat something that helps me rebuild my muscles and helps me get ready for the rest of the workday.

Guess you have more training after this?

Oh yes. Come 5pm, I go back to the gym and work out until 8am. I have dinner at 8:30 p.m. I prepare meals on Sunday. My mother does them for me, bless her. In my rotation right now for dinner, there is steak, potatoes and a salad. The other meal I’ll be looking at a lot is succotash, which is basically a bunch of vegetables in a pot. After dinner, that’s when I relax and get ready for bed.

What is the difference between morning and evening workout?

In the morning, I’ll do the stuff without escalation. So, think about things like regular weight training, like campus boarding school. For that, you have rungs in the wall and you climb them with just your hands and arms to build up your strength. The other days in the morning, I will go to the training center and I will climb on climbs of type competition.

In a climbing gym, this is not what you will see when watching the Olympics or watching rock climbing on TV. They are completely different beasts. So we have to train specifically for this. While at night I go to a commercial gym and do the things you probably see more regularly, like rock climbing and bouldering. This is my opportunity to have a lot of reps on the wall in the gym.

A few years ago you talked about your eating problems. Tell me about how your recovery has been for you.

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