TVI'm An American Ninja Warrior!*
‘American Ninja Warrior’ has become one of the biggest prime-time TV hits in the country, thanks to a very simple premise: Take regular (if insanely fit) folks, let them dress up as CrossFit superheroes, and throw them into a sadistic, candy-colored obstacle course. Everyone who watches it imagines how they'd do if they ever got a shot. *Here's how GQ's Drew Magary did. (Spoiler: He did poorly)
One obstacle. That's all I want to get through. I'm at Turner Field, in Atlanta, erstwhile home of the Braves but now temporary home of the towering course run for the eighth season of American Ninja Warrior—a reality sports competition that started out on a cable channel that no longer exists and has since grown into the crown jewel of NBC's summer schedule. See the course with me now: steel trusses reaching 20 feet into the air, blinking-light diodes shifting from color to color. A terrifying fun house of six increasingly preposterous obstacles—sliding metal bars, spinning baskets, inverted walls—designed to grind up contestants (who train for months, even years) and then humiliate them by dropping them into vats of frigid water on national TV.
Every year, the show's producers have to up the ante and make the course more challenging because the competitors (ninjas!!!) have gotten too good. Except for me. I am not too good. Yes, I am the lucky(ish) 39-year-old father of three who has been allowed a guest run during a filming session tonight. I know I won't make it to the very end—only a small fraction of ninjas do—but I have ambitions. I want to get past the first obstacle—a series of giant pinball flippers—if only so no one makes fun of me.
I have trained for over a month—a hilariously short regimen for normal contestants, but a great deal of sweat equity from my vantage point—and one of the show's most decorated ninjas has served as my counselor. But let's back up so that I can tell you more about how I got ready.
‘American Ninja Warrior’ was never meant to be on network TV. Its earliest incarnation—a spin-off of an insane Japanese game show called Sasuke, hence the ninja theme—was on the since-rebranded G4 cable network. “During the third season,” ANW host Matt Iseman explains to me, “G4 said [to NBC], ‘Listen, we'll give you our finale for free. Just air it on NBC to tell people G4 exists.’ It ends up winning the night with no publicity.”
From there, the show has become a minor phenomenon, with entire families tuning in to cheer on the shockingly wholesome spectacle of maniac athletes flying down booby-trapped zip lines. Over 50,000 people applied to run the course this season. There are ninja gyms operating in nearly every state. American Ninja Warrior is knocking on the door of becoming an Actual Sport now, with actual athletes participating.
Like my trainer, Geoff Britten, the dude who made it through all of last season without falling once and was the first man to ever conquer the final ANW run in Las Vegas. We meet at Alternate Routes, a ninja gym outside Baltimore, which is equipped with a series of slanted wooden steps designed to mimic the Quad Steps, a traditional warm-up obstacle. Geoff shows me how to run through them with a series of three alternating, tapping steps, starting with my outside foot. After a few test runs, I have the rhythm down and make it through with ease. I am now a parkour master. Instantly, I become overconfident. If the whole course is as easy as this, I could be champion!
But the whole course is not nearly as easy as this. After the steps, there are log rolls, and spider climbs, and rope swings. Swinging from one rope to another looks fun, right? Like Pitfall! WRONG. Swinging from ropes is awful.
“It's one of those weird things,” Geoff says, “where I think every human who ever played on a playground is like, ‘I'm great at swinging on ropes,’ when the reality is, most people are horrible at swinging on ropes.”
He's right. I attempt my first rope-to-rope swing and can feel my shoulders pulling apart like a piece of cooked chicken. Geoff sees that I still have my wedding ring on and advises me to take it off.
“Ever seen a de-gloving?” he asks me. I have not. He then mimics pulling the skin off his finger, like removing a prophylactic.
I take the ring off.
A couple of weeks later, I meet Geoff at a nearby climbing gym. The footholds are cute and colorful, in order to disguise the fact that they are merciless. They slope and crimp and jut and generally make your hands and feet angry. By the time I'm halfway across the wall, I tap out. My forearms are bursting.
“There's something called flash pump,” Geoff explains. “It actually happens on Ninja Warrior to famous competitors, where they don't quite warm up enough, and your forearms just get blown out, and you're done.”
What if I'm in the middle of the course and I get flash pump?
I arrive at Turner Field in late afternoon. An ambulance stationed outside the entrance nearly backs into me, which is not a good omen. Dozens of contestants are packed into the stadium concourse already, some of them dressed as literal ninjas. Since ANW is only filmed at night, aspiring ninjas will be here from dusk until dawn, waiting for their number to be called.
One of the men in charge of designing the American Ninja Warrior course—like the game master in The Hunger Games—is executive producer Kent Weed (great name) and he purposely varies the obstacles so that no particular type of specialist (climbers, runners, jumpers, etc.) has an advantage. Once your body or any part of your clothing touches the water below, you're DQ'd. Run over. Bye-bye. The goal is for roughly 23 ninjas out of 100 to make it over the fabled Warped Wall and hit the buzzer to advance to the next round. The rest will fall.
Once you get out of the water, your wet clothes are your scarlet letter. And every time someone eats it, a bunch of squeegee guys hustle out and wipe the water away. It's like watching undertakers at work.
I dip my hand in one of the pools to sample the water and it's polar-bear cold. The PR person, who had warned me earlier to bring my own towel, comes and taps me on the shoulder. They're ready for me now. I've been waiting all this time for my shot, and yet I feel like this is happening too fast. What? Now? We're going now? These Floating Steps are slightly different from the ones Geoff has trained me for. Lots of people are getting through them by grabbing them. The fuck do I do, Geoff? Do I stick with my toe taps?
“Get across them, dude. Get across them,” he says, somewhat unhelpfully. “You have to make a choice. Don't hesitate. Hesitation will kill you.”
The sun is setting and now the course is bathed in spotlights, giving it a menacing air. I walk through a huge entranceway with the American Ninja Warrior logo overhead, which makes me feel like I'm on Skull Island, being sent out to face King Kong. There is nothing going on inside my head. In scary moments, my brain goes literal. Facts only. There are the lights. There are the steps. There are many people here.
I spit on my hand and rub it on the bottom of my shoes for better grip. (Geoff taught me to do this.) Then I stare at the steps. One obstacle.
I hit the first step…left-right-left. No grabbing on. I'm committed.
I hit the second step…right-left-right.
I hit the third step.… I'm doing it! This isn't so bad! I'm gonna make it to that fucking rope! I AM TARZAN.
I bound over to the fourth step and… You know, it's a funny thing about pressure. Usually, you don't feel it until it's too late. In retrospect, I have a great number of new and interesting strategies for handling that fourth step. None of that matters, though, because in the moment, when I leave that third step, gravity takes hold with cruel force. I yell out “BLAHHHH!!!” and then drop straight into the cold water.
While submerged, I take stock of everything. Am I dead? No, I am not dead. Should I climb out? I don't really want to climb out. Everyone will see me. I could just drown instead and that would be cool.
But there's a nasty little coda. Even though my run is technically over, the producers have decided to be generous and let me try the next few obstacles. And so we commence with the ritual falling down. I fall and I yell, again and again. None of the other ninjas yell on their way down, but I do. Real solid dad yells, too. There is much toweling and squeegeeing in my wake.
As a final insult, I get to fall off the 14-and-a-half-foot-high Warped Wall. As Geoff had explained during our training, the key to the Warped Wall—a sloping ramp of death that goes vertical in the center and then inverts at the top—is to run up it instead of forward, grabbing the top at just the right moment. This is a problem because human beings tend to fall when they run in that direction.
I take one run up the Warped Wall, give it a slap ten feet up (generous estimate), and then slide right back down on my ass, leaving a trail of damp failure behind me. No more, please. No more. Geoff shakes my hand and warmly congratulates me even though I have conquered nothing, not even the one puny obstacle I set as my goal.
Like some of the real ninjas who run and fall after me, I am soaked in grief. Those steps will haunt me forever. If only I'd made it, I could have done something more. “The number one ninja statement of all time,” Geoff tells me as I dry off, “is, ‘Well, if I hadn't fallen there, I would've finished the whole course.’ ”