I thought there'd be time to warm up. I didn't think my first attempt on the Monkey Pegs or the Rotating Log or the Double Salmon Ladder would be during the competition. So here I am, about ten feet back, staring at the Warped Wall with no idea what to do.
I'm sick, snot is dribbling down my face and I've already fallen on the Balance Tank, my feet flailing out from underneath me as I tried to roll the tape-covered keg across the floor. I completed the Half-Pipe Attack but accidentally swung too far on the rope and landed outside the taped area, so I failed that obstacle, too. I traversed across the Globe Grasp successfully, but I may have grabbed the rope instead of grasping one of the globes. I don't know if Nate saw that and took pity on me or even if that maneuver is grounds for failure. Either way, I'm still staring at the Warped Wall, a 14-foot asphalt quarter-pipe I'm supposed to climb and hang from. I start sprinting.
If this were the real American Ninja Warrior, I would've been knocked out after my careless Balance Tank performance. But it's not. It's a practice competition at Chicago Ninja Academy, a gym run by Nate Aye. About 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, Nate has the concisely compact body you'd expect from a wrestler-turned-soldier-turned-powerlifter-turned-ninja. He's organized this event for his usual clientele of "ninja nerds," but also for six men and one woman who've been selected to compete in Kansas City for the seventh season of NBC's hit show, which regularly attracts 5 million viewers a week. After getting the call two weekends earlier from an unknown Los Angeles number – an incoherent conversation in which I repeated, "Is this a joke?" and "Am I really competing?" – I'm one of those chosen to run the course on TV, and I've come to Chicago to train.
Racing full-speed up the Warped Wall, I top out around ten feet up, turn around and try to control my momentum as I barrel back toward the ground. I stumble, regain my composure and hunch over to breathe. Unlike the other obstacles, which I'll get only one shot at, I'll have three attempts at the Warped Wall in Kansas City.
Physically, I know I can do it. I dove in college and did parkour after I graduated but stopped when I broke my neck over-rotating a flip. I'm a grad student and can spend an unconscionable amount of time at the gym, so now I lift, rock climb, slackline and practice yoga. A couple days before coming to Chicago, I maxed out my pull-ups at 21 – though I'm ready to tell any of the other ninjas that it was 27 if they ask. No one does. Since most of the obstacles require hanging and gripping and pulling, and not brute strength, I've stopped squatting, deadlifting and working out my chest altogether. I've given up creatine and almost all processed food. I've stopped drinking. In two weeks I dropped from 180 to 175 pounds.
I may as well weigh 500 pounds as I sprint toward the asphalt wall again. In a flurry of steps, I get about an inch higher, turn to run back down, trip and roll onto the ground. The small crowd of spectators groans as I crawl from my stomach onto my hands and knees. If I want any hope of moving past the Kansas City qualifier to the finals the following night, I'll have to get up the wall, which has been the final obstacle in every qualifying round since the show first aired in 2009.
My last attempt at the Warped Wall goes exactly like my first two. I sprint maniacally toward the wall, slip about two-thirds up and tumble down. I walk back toward the other competitors, who nod gravely, and sit off in a corner.
When the training ends, I go back to the wall. "No," Nate says, putting his arm around my shoulder as I'm about to take off sprinting. "You can't just run at the thing as fast as you can. What foot do you jump off of?"
"OK, so put your left foot here, where it starts to slope," he says, pointing to a spot on the obstacle. "Then your right foot up there, then your left, look up and jump. It's gonna surprise you every time."
I start closer to the wall this time, jog, stutter step and plant my left foot where Nate pointed. Right foot, left foot, I raise my chest and lift my arms. My heart explodes in my chest as I fly back from the wall. I expect to fall the ten feet and land directly on my back when – just like Nate predicted – I'm hanging. I drop from the top and slide down. Nate's smiling, and we high-five.
Later that day, Nate gathers the Kansas City crew around a whiteboard to sketch out the structure of the course. He writes the numbers 1 through 6 at the top. "You know it's gonna be the Quintuple Steps at the beginning and the Warped Wall at the end. That's easy." I nod enthusiastically while he writes Q STEPS under the 1 and WARPED WALL under the 6. "We can guess that the second obstacle will be a jolt, and the third will be balance of some kind." He writes down JOLT and BALANCE. "Looking at last season, we know that the fourth and fifth will probably be upper body, but that's all we know." He scribbles lines under the 4 and 5. "It could be the Peg Board. It could be a giant swinging propeller. You gotta be prepared for anything."
In an effort to do just that, we train for another hour before saying goodbye.
While I drive the three hours back home to Iowa City, I think about what Nate said and wonder how I can best prepare for unknown obstacles. The following day, I consider the jolt as I dead-hang on a bar in the gym. I visualize every conceivable balance obstacle as I fall off the handle of a kettlebell trying to do pistol squats. I imagine hanging from pegs and rings and bars and ropes while I sit in class. I turn these mysterious obstacles over in my mind every time I fall asleep, and two weeks later, when I check into my hotel in Kansas City, I'm still turning them over.
I've lost another four pounds – nine total – and raised my max pull-ups to 22. I haven't had a slice of pizza or a beer in four weeks. Yet, I still have a recurring dream of myself in front of the Q Steps: The starting timer buzzes, and I don't even jump. I just crumble and collapse into the water – a scene that my friends will make into a never-ending GIF. I lie in bed and speculate: If one of the obstacles turns out to be the Globe Grasp, should I hold on with my ring and pointer finger, or should I use a "Spock" grip?
I drive to the course the next afternoon still wondering whether I'll face a Salmon Ladder or a Peg Board or something new altogether. The distinction between these obstacles may seem inconsequential. It is. They all test the same general strength and require similar techniques, but the crux of American Ninja Warrior is this: one small mistake, and it's over. Every season, a dozen veterans fail one of the most basic obstacles. Last year, for example, four-time ANW veteran and perennial favorite Brent Steffensen missed a peg during the Ring Toss, floundered and dropped into the water. Given just one more attempt, he could have easily finished the course. But ANW demands perfection every time. I park my car and walk toward the stadium lights and iron trusses.
After the ninjas check in, we're herded into the warm-up area, a fenced-off section of concrete right next to the Q Steps. I see a set of metal bars at the center and remember Nate's warning: "Guys can't resist showing off for the cameras. They'll be doing one-armed pull-ups twenty minutes before their run and are totally spent." I see a shirtless climber hang from one bar and transfer to another three feet higher. I put my stuff down in the corner.
After four weeks of anticipation, we can finally see the course, and pockets form to discuss each obstacle. As predicted, the second one is a jolt. "You gotta supinate your grip on that bar," a woman wearing a CrossFit jacket says. "Then you'll slide down, release and jump for the cargo net." "Nah," a gymnast responds. "If you're strong enough, you'll be fine with a normal grip." From deadlifting, I know I prefer a regular grip, but I've never deadlifted sliding down a metal pole before.
The third obstacle features four tiles arranged in an elongated hopscotch pattern, each suspended at the corners by slacklines. "Easy. One foot on each, take 'em as fast as you can," a parkour runner from Colorado says. I know my balance is much stronger jumping with two feet, but I nod my head and agree. I speak up when we discuss the next obstacle, the Ring Toss, the one that defeated Steffensen last year, where you hold a ring in each hand and use them to traverse a series of knobs. I learned the technique at Nate's gym in Chicago: at the top your backswing, lift the back ring, swing forward and hook it on the next peg. "It's all about momentum," I say, smiling wisely.
The fifth obstacle is Bungee Road, four pairs of bungees spaced about a foot apart followed by a hanging log that slopes downward. "Hit the trampoline hard and grab each bungee as high as you can and move, or you're gonna slide down," a climber from Utah says. "But what if you grab one bungee with both hands?" I ask. Blank stares. "It's easier to go sideways, and if you start to slide down, you can reach up higher," I add. "I don't think that'll work," another guy says. The crowd shifts toward him, as if my failing strategy were contagious. The last obstacle – the Warped Wall – is so straightforward it doesn't warrant discussion, so I find a place to hang out and wait.
The first competitor of the night is a walk-on who camped out for ten days next to the arena for a chance to compete. Since most of the ninjas come from individual sports, and since anyone who completes the course will advance to the finals the following night, the mood is more tense than competitive. We cheer loudly as he makes it through each obstacle and explode with relief when he scales the Warped Wall. It's settled. To defeat the course, copy what he did. Don't supinate for the Dipper, one foot on the tiles, swing during the rings and take one bungee in each hand.
But I'm not convinced. I know I'm shakier jumping with one foot and weaker holding with one hand. But of all the finishers before me, none take the tiles with two feet or the bungee with both hands.
When the time comes, I remember the producer telling me to approach the start line, a giant gong sounding and then almost nothing else. I know I stumbled on the third or fourth Q Step but didn't fall. I know I used a normal grip on the Big Dipper, launched off of it and grabbed the rope ladder. I got caught climbing down and heard my brother yell, "Take your time!" from the sidelines.
I remember staring at the Floating Tiles and reevaluating my strategy for the hundredth time. I remember thinking that if I started with one foot I might be able to switch to two, but not the other way around, and then jumped with both feet. I don't remember the first or second or third tile, but I do remember the crowd cheering as I bounced off the fourth and onto the other side.
I have a vague image in my mind of grabbing the rings for the Ring Toss but can't be sure whether it's a memory or something that I visualized beforehand. I know I stared at the trampoline for Bungee Road, hit it hard, grabbed the left bungee with both hands and started swinging. When I had one hand on the penultimate bungee and one on the final, I Tarzan-swung between the two to gain momentum. Since I was facing to the side, I didn't see the log until right before I let go, hugged it and shimmied down.
And then, the Warped Wall. I think the crowd chanted, "Beat the Wall!" when I got there, but honestly, I can't say for sure. I'm certain my brother yelled, "Take your time!" and I know I planted my left foot, then my right, then my left. I raised my chest and lifted my arms. I didn't feel my heart explode in my throat but was still caught off guard when I found myself hanging from the edge. I made it – you'll have to take my word for it, since my run wasn't featured on tonight's episode – and moved on to the regional finals.
Just like Nate predicted, it surprises you every time.