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This 16-Year-Old Rock Climbing Prodigy Is Someone Worth Watching

Kai Lightner has been defying gravity since he was six-years-old.

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He's been competing since he first discovered indoor climbing at age six.

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"I climbed over my baby gates before I could even walk. I would climb apartment balconies, or brick walls that had seams in them," he told BuzzFeed Health. One day when Lightner's mother was distracted, he seized the opportunity to try to climb a 50-foot flag pole. That's when his mother took him to their local climbing gym. "It was a great way to burn energy without killing myself," Lightner said. And when he got on the wall the first time, "it was love at first sight."

Lightner said that his mom Connie has been helping to coach him since he was a little kid and needed his coach's advice and instructions translated "into six-year-old language."

Despite Lightner's climbing abilities, he said he's actually pretty clumsy in his daily life.

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At 6-feet-2, Lightner said he tends to trip over his own feet when he walks, and that most of his injuries have been from everyday activities…like walking. “My coach always said I was horizontally challenged but vertically gifted…I guess it worked out for my career,” he said.

But on the wall, Lightner is gifted at positioning his body for difficult sequences.

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Lightner said that he owes his ability to master difficult sequences to his “climbing IQ,” or his ability to “figure out different sequences to the best of your ability given your body type and options on the wall.”

“Being able to figure out which technique to use, when to rest, how to keep the pressure in your feet” can be the difference between a silver medal and a gold one, he said.

And keeping your cool is crucial, too. "I think about 60%-70% of competition climbing is mental," Lightner said. And he believes that although climbing requires a certain kind of physical fitness, to be among the best in the world, it's your mental game that makes you a champion.

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Case in point: When he was 15 he completed Era Vella, a 120-foot-long route in Margalef, Spain with a difficulty rating of 5.14d (which makes it an extremely difficult and technical climb).

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It took him five days of practicing the climb in pieces to figure out the route he'd take to climb the entire thing. "When you're climbing a climb like Era Bella, not only is it long, the grade is at your physical limit....It's 120-feet tall, which is extremely tall. The holds [for your hands] were really small. Having the endurance and mental capacity to finish is what makes climbs like that difficult."

Lightner said he loves climbing because it's "gender, race, age, and even weight neutral."

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"Pro climbers at the highest levels are all shapes and sizes. It depends on how well you train and how gifted you are in the sport. I think it's pretty cool that you can train at a high level and have different body types," Lightner said.

Next up: becoming valedictorian of his graduating class and going to college.

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He's touring colleges right now and says that his main requirements are a good local climbing gym and a big airport nearby so he can fly to competitions.