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There's More Than One Route To Raise A Climbing Prodigy

There's More Than One Route To Raise A Climbing Prodigy
Photo: Don Boomer, Melissa Majchrzak-USA TODAY Sports
By Storms Reback

With the 2017 USAC Sport and Speed Open Nationals beginning today in Denver, Colorado, all eyes will be on 17-year-old Kai Lightner, who has already earned 11 National Championship titles in his career, and 15-year-old Brooke Raboutou, who last year finished second in the Sport Climbing Youth National Championships and third in the Speed Climbing Youth National Championships as well as third in this year's USAC Bouldering Open Nationals. Brooke's 18-year-old brother Shawn, who won the USAC Bouldering Open Nationals last month, is currently in Switzerland climbing some of the most challenging boulder problems in the country.

Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou and Connie Lightner are the mothers of some of the best young climbers in the world, but the two women could not be more different.

Since Robyn began climbing in 1981, she's won five U.S. championships and four World Cups, and in 1993 became only the third woman ever to climb a 5.14. Connie has never climbed in her life (but has plenty of experience belaying for Kai). For most of her adult life, Robyn has lived in climbing hotbeds such as Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, France and Boulder, Colorado. Connie has spent much of hers in the lowlands of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Robyn is white. Connie is black. Both women are teachers, but Robyn's focus is climbing while Connie's is statistics and management science.

How did women with such divergent backgrounds both end up raising climbing prodigies? As it turns out, by following more or less the same template.

'Mama's gonna help build the wall'

After Robyn retired from competitive climbing in 1996, she and her husband Didier Raboutou settled down in France. Together they opened Planete Grimpe, a climbing gym in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, whose name has since been changed to Quercy Climb. They also started a family.

Their son Shawn was born in 1998, and their daughter Brooke followed three years later. A self-described "all-or-nothing kind of gal," Robyn continued to climb during her pregnancies, and after her kids were born, she took them everywhere she went. "If I was going climbing," she said during a recent phone conversation, "they were going too, so they grew up either at the cliffs or in the gym."

A former member of the French national climbing team, Didier started building climbing apparatuses after he retired from competition. "My husband is a builder," Robyn said. "That's his passion. If I say I want something to have small handholds, be 30 degrees, and then bombay out--whatever my grandiose ideas are--Didier can put it together."

In the house they purchased in Boulder, Robyn had Didier build a climbing structure specifically designed for their kids, planting the seed for what would quickly become an obsession. "They were in that room with that climbing wall every day. For them, it was just another play structure."

As soon as he could walk, he started climbing

For Connie, it was a long, oftentimes exhausting, journey to get to the same place. The stories about her son's passion for climbing at a very early age are the stuff of legend. At daycare, when he was just a baby, he once climbed out of his crib and into the crib next to his. As a toddler, he climbed up and over the baby gates Connie installed in their home. As soon as he could walk, he started climbing trees, forcing his mother to cut down two sickly-looking ones in their back yard. Before he'd turned six, he was regularly climbing the basketball hoop outside their house to eat lunch and once climbed from the balcony of his aunt's third-floor apartment to the balcony directly above it.

"Long story short," Connie said, "he used to do a lot of really dangerous things. He would climb up so high, and it wasn't like he was thinking, 'How am I going to get down?' It was just an impulse."

The situation came to a head on the campus of Fayetteville State University, where Connie was an associate professor. While she was talking to her boss, a passerby alerted her to the fact that her six-year-old son had climbed to the top of a 50-foot flagpole and suggested she take him to a nearby rock gym called The Climbing Place.

Connie had never heard of it before. She didn't even know rock climbing was a sport. But at that point, she was willing to try anything to channel her son's climbing proclivities into something more controlled and constructive.

Watch Kai secure the win at the 2017 Youth Bouldering National Championships by sending Final No. 3:

During their first visit to the gym, an employee named Shane Messer showed them around. Shane put a harness on Kai and had him climb a simple route while Connie belayed him--something she would continue to do for years. When Kai easily ascended the route, Shane put him on a wall with a pitch that was less than 90 degrees. When Kai mastered that one as well, Shane led him to a section of the wall that had a 60-degree overhang. This time, Kai could only get a few feet off the ground and left the gym crying in frustration. It took Kai several days to figure out how to climb that route, but once he did, he was hooked.

Kai's new passion wasn't immediately accepted by his friends and extended family. "Kai was teased when he first started climbing because you don't see black people on mountains," said Connie. "It's not popular in the community. They thought we were a little wackadoo, but he loved it and I liked the lessons it taught him. If my kid wants to eat healthy and be at a gym instead of being at a mall or hanging out a skating rink, I'm on board with that."

The sport became such an obsession for Kai that Connie agreed to do for him what the Raboutous did for their kids years earlier. By raising the ceiling, adding holds to the walls, and covering the floor with pads, she turned the bonus room in their house into a mini bouldering gym. Kai's training time at home came with a unique twist. After turning the television upside down, he would often watch entire episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants while hanging from the ceiling.

The right dose

In 2003, Robyn and Didier opened ABC Kids Climbing, a gym in Boulder that focused on teaching three- to seven-year-old kids the fundamental skills--"ABC" stands for agility, balance, and coordination--needed to climb. "Shawn and Brooke were five-and-a-half and two-and-a-half years old, and they were already showing quite a strong passion for climbing, and yet there weren't a lot of young kids that climbed or knew anything about climbing," she said. "I thought, 'What can I do to build a community for my kids and share their passion for climbing with other kids?'"

When the first crop of ABC kids began to age out of the program and expressed a desire to continue learning, Robyn and Didier started Team ABC, an elite group of young climbers that often trains three or four hours a day and travels around the world for competitions. In this case, ABC stands for America's Best Climbers, which isn't hyperbole. Since its creation, the team has won more than half a dozen national titles and produced such stars as Margo Hayes, Megan Mascarenas, and, of course, Shawn and Brooke.

As the head coach of Team ABC, Robyn understands the potential pitfalls of coaching her own children. "The obvious disadvantage would be to have so much knowledge that you don't allow your children to grow. You see this in a lot of sports where you have parents who have been extremely successful in the sport so they think they know it all and they don't allow their children to develop in their own way."

Robyn is not one of these parents. She recognizes the importance of allowing her kids to be individuals. "They're very different athletes. Shawn doesn't believe in a lot of training. He believes more in having fun and following your gut in climbing. He's very instinctive. About the age of 15, he was already on his own path. Brooke is a little more traditional. She understands that training is important and putting in the effort reaps the benefits. She climbs a lot more than Shawn does, but she doesn't overdo it. She's not an overtrainer by any means."

There might be no greater challenge for a coach/parent than knowing when and how to separate the roles, but Robyn seems to have found the right balance. "Sometimes it's tricky," she admitted. "That's a question that comes up a lot and Brooke will say, 'Sometimes she's annoying,' and I think that's a great way to put it. Sometimes Brooke's annoying, too. But we really do well together. We do a lot of trips together where I take a bunch of kids, and Brooke and I make a pact before we leave town. We'll say, 'Pinkie promise that we're going to be good to each other.' I know it can be a little much having Mom there all the time, but my kids have never made me feel like they didn't want me in their lives or they didn't want me to be their coach. Maybe I've learned the right dose when it comes to educating and offering advice for my kids."

She laughed. "I give pretty small doses these days."

Climbing as medicine

Connie has managed to get to a similarly comfortable place with Kai, but the path she's taken has been a little more circuitous than Robyn's.

At the start of Kai's climbing career, the greatest hurdles he had to overcome were his own hyperactivity and impulsivity. Some parents would have begged a doctor for a Ritalin prescription, but Connie took a more holistic approach. "For me, medication wasn't an option."

Kai's hyperactivity was particularly noticeable whenever he was placed in isolation during competitions. "When you put a seven-year-old ADHD kid in iso, it's a nightmare, and the fact that he had no one to watch him scared the bejesus out of me," Connie said. "Kai was a nightmare in iso. If you'd stood outside the door, what you would have heard was, 'Stop, Kai. Get down, Kai. No, Kai.'"

What Kai needed was a coach, and he found one in a most unexpected way. He was at a competition, and as usual, the gym was almost entirely devoid of black people. In his typically exuberant manner, Kai spotted a black woman sitting in the audience, plopped down in her lap, and started jabbering away at her before he turned around and realized she wasn't his mom. That's how he and Connie met Emily Taylor, a climbing coach from Georgia.

When Emily told Connie she could help Kai clean up his climbing, Connie started driving her son to Atlanta for a three-day session each month. Emily didn't just teach Kai. She taught Connie how to teach Kai. Emily would send Connie back home with lessons for Kai to work on and teach her how to fix his mistakes. She also helped Kai manage his own behavior by developing a structured program for him to follow. She had him make lists to remind him exactly what he was supposed to do before and after school.

Hoping to achieve the same end, Connie made a deal with her son. If he behaved himself and got good grades in school, she would continue to fund his passion--one year, she spent $15,000 on his climbing trips. Her plan worked. Kai gained the ability to focus in the gym and, more importantly to Connie, the classroom, where he's always maintained an A average.

Shane Messer also began coaching Kai. When he left The Climbing Place to work at the Triangle Rock Club in Morrisville, North Carolina, Connie and Kai would make the long drive, 90 minutes each way, to train with him once a week. As his coach, Shane has accompanied Kai to far-flung destinations such as Ecuador, China, and a small group of islands in the Pacific Ocean called New Caledonia for international competitions. "Shane was about the only person I would trust to go with him when I wasn't there because Shane has been with him since he was six," Connie said. "Shane knows Kai. He can look at his eyes, just like me, and tell when his mind is a little hyper or whatever."

Connie used to go to every competition, but once Kai turned 14, she started to stay home on occasion--as long as Kai agreed to check in with her daily. When he forgot to do it during a recent trip to Canada, she got his attention by having his phone temporarily disconnected.

In addition to his 11 National Championship titles, Kai has also won three Pan-American Championship titles, and in 2014, he became the first American to win a Youth World Championship in 20 years.

Connie has often said that she has no idea where Kai got his climbing talent from, but during our conversation I told her my theory. With a PhD from North Carolina State University, she readily admits to being a math geek. From his grades at school, it appears that Kai has inherited her proficiency in math, which comes in handy on ascents. Great rock climbers don't just see walls of stone or plastic. They see problems. They see geometry. Kai, I suggested, got his climbing ability from her.

She didn't disagree. "I think you're 100 percent right. Climbers who are really good at it are very intelligent, and they can look at the wall and they just see something. They can see the path. Kai calls them the triangles or the different boxes. He can look at the wall and see the box or the triangle and know what his body position should be." She laughed. "If my kid wasn't good at math, that would've been an epic fail."

The great (and not so great) outdoors

For the Raboutous, climbing outside is often as easy as walking out their front door and heading to the nearest mountain just a few miles away. They often spend their summers in France, and when they aren't hosting summer camps, they can often be found climbing at nearby Super Manjo-carn. Brooke climbed a 5.6 route there when she was five, and Shawn still considers the climbing area to be one of his favorites.

As an 11-year-old in 2010, Shawn climbed his first 5.14a (Attention Vous Regard) at Super Manjo-carn. The next summer, he climbed another 5.14a (Quick and Toast) there and was joined at the top by his 46-year-old mother, who bagged the fourth 5.14a of her career. When Brooke climbed her own 5.14a (God's Own Stone) at Kentucky's Red River Gorge during her spring break in 2012, she became the youngest American and the youngest female to ever send the grade.

Watch Brooke (center) flash the third qualifier at the 2017 Youth Bouldering National Championships:

Brooke one-upped herself that summer when she red-pointed Welcome to Tijuana at Rodellar in Spain. At only 11 years and three months old, she became the youngest climber in the world to send a 5.14b. During that trip, Robyn also climbed Welcome to Tijuana, and she credited Shawn, who'd climbed it the previous summer, for helping her make it to the top. "He was like, 'You can definitely do this. You're strong enough to do it this year.' And then I did it. So that was cool."

During a bouldering excursion in Rocklands, South Africa, Shawn gave 13-year-old Brooke the same treatment, providing her with the beta and encouragement she needed to get to the top of Fragile Steps (V13). Shawn returned to South Africa the next three summers in a row, this time without his mom and sister, and last summer, he sent two of Rocklands' most challenging V15s, Spray of Light and Monkey Wedding, just a few months after Brooke sent her first 5.14c (Southern Smoke) at Red River Gorge.

After all the hours they'd spent in the gym being trained by one of the best, if not the best, climbing coaches in the world, the Raboutou children were making some of the most difficult routes on the planet look like, well, child's play.

Kai's transition to outdoor climbing wasn't quite as smooth. On his first trip outdoors in 2010, he struggled to climb 5.10s and 5.11s and didn't have much fun. "He wasn't used to the elements and all the things that were different," Connie said. "I think he was 13 when we started taking more weekend trips a year, like three or four of them, and he started to enjoy it. That's when he got his first 5.14. Then he did a 5.14 a week or so later, and he realized, 'OK, I can handle this.'"

Connie's own discomfort had more to do with the approaches to the climbs than the climbs themselves. "It took me a while to interpret the climber lingo. In a book, if they say that the approach is 'safe,' that means it's probably a little rocky and for a normal person it's going to be a little scary, but if they say that the approach is 'sketchy,' for a normal person that means stay the hell away. Because climbers, their perception is a little off. What's normal for them isn't normal. I got over sliding down the mud hill on my butt. That one, I survived, and I kept going out. But encountering the ladders that would be attached to the side of a mountain--it's just you, a 30- or 40-foot ladder, a mountain, and a wide-open space--that was crazy."

And yet she continued to go. Why? "I had to keep my baby safe. I had to make sure that he knew what he was doing. I'm not going to have my 12-year-old up on a rope trying to figure it out for himself."

Kai joined the 5.14 club in 2013 when he climbed Omaha Beach at Red River Gorge. He went on to climb four more that year and four more the next. In 2015, he climbed his first 5.14d, the famed Era Vella in Margalef, Spain, despite being sick and not having climbed outdoors for seven months.

The climbing moms network

Moms worry about their kids--it's what they do. So it was surprising how easily Robyn blew off the suggestion that her kids might be rankled by the (relative) lack of press coverage they've received despite all they've accomplished.

In Shawn's case, Robyn said it's mostly by design--he spends as much time on his skateboard as he does in his climbing harness and is famous for the lengths he goes to avoid fame. "Shawn barely posts on Instagram," she said. "The guy does 18 boulders monthly and doesn't even talk about it. He thinks climbing needs to be more like skate[boarding], where you can just go skate and people find you. He really doesn't want to do what all the other climbers have done, which is talk about how great they are. That's Shawn. He skates, he climbs hard, and he doesn't spray about it."

As for Brooke, who lives in fellow 15-year-old climbing phenom Ashima Shiraishi's shadow despite there being almost no difference in their abilities, Robyn was quick to dismiss this line of thinking. "I don't talk to Brooke about the difference between her and Ashima," she said. "I simply support Brooke for who she is. Ever since they were young, I've told my kids to just be kind, respectful, and make good choices. I don't ask them to be like me, and I don't ask them to be like Ashima or anyone else. I only ask them to be themselves."

Connie relayed only one real concern about Kai. In the last two years, he's grown 12 inches to six-foot-three--a massive growth spurt that's forced him to change some aspects of his climbing and pushed him close to the point in the sport where height goes from being beneficial to detrimental.

As accomplished as their kids are, Robyn and Connie are both amazingly even-keeled about the undue expectations that come with such results. It helps that they're part of a tight-knit community of parents who are willing to help each other out. "All of the parents are pretty much connected," Connie said. "We're at the point now where we'll look after each other's kids. It's like, 'What time does his flight get in? I'll go and get him. He'll stay with me. I'll make sure he gets where he needs to go.'"

Connie credits Robyn with giving Kai the confidence he once lacked in bouldering. For years, Connie didn't let Kai boulder because she was scared he'd get hurt. But several years ago, Robyn pulled Kai aside and imparted to him what everyone already knew: He could be just as good at bouldering as sport climbing if only he started to believe it.

When I asked Robyn about Connie, she had nothing but nice things to say about her. "Every time I see Connie, she's there for her son. She's super supportive. She's not the first or only parent who didn't know much about climbing whose child has picked up this passion, but she's certainly one of the few, and she's been able to support him in a way that's been very professional. I think she's guiding Kai in a direction that's very powerful for all of us as coaches and parents."

Connie was just as effusive in her praise when I asked her if she thought it was difficult for Robyn to keep her two roles--mom and coach--separate. "She pulls it off. I've seen it. She does a balancing act that's pretty amazing. When she thinks things are a little bit much for her babies, she backs off because them being happy is more important. I think that's probably one of the most impressive things to me about her. You know how some people push their own dreams on their kids? Not her. She's going to help them as much as they want to be helped, but she's Mom first."
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