American Ninja Warrior 8, Here I Come!

May 12th, 2016

This morning I hit the road to make the 6 hour drive to Oklahoma City to compete in this season’s American Ninja Warrior on Friday night, and then hopefully again Saturday night if I advance to the OK City Finals.  I’ll step to the line this weekend reinforced by the love and support of my friends and family, and with the knowledge that I fulfilled My American Ninja Warrior 8 Pledge to be better prepared for this season that I have for my previous six seasons.  I plan to lay it all out on the course with no reservations or hesitancy, and hope my training and experience will take me far and let me play on a whole bunch of obstacles before the run inevitably ends in the water somewhere :-)

Even though it is often a humbling experience, and can be brutal in that it is often over in a flash of an eye or a slip of a hand, I’ve gotten so much out of this journey in ways I could never have expected.  I’m very excited to see where this season’s chapter takes me.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The Man in the Arena – Theodore Roosevelt

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I’m Officially Invited to American Ninja Warrior 8!

April 19th, 2016

I’m truly excited and humbled to share that I just got my official invite to compete in American Ninja Warrior 8!  I’m deeply grateful to have an opportunity to continue to compete in the show, it’s been a surprisingly amazing and transformative experience.  This will be my seventh season competing in American Ninja Warrior, and I never could have guessed that during that time it would rise from being an unknown show on G4 to a global sensation.  It has captured the imagination of not just America, but of the world.  It’s consistently been one of the top-rated summer shows in the US over the last few years, and the past few weeks have seen both Ninja Warrior Vietnam and Ninja Warrior France go down.  Who would have guessed an obstacle course competition full of the “every man (and woman)” competing against elite professional athletes would resonate so profoundly with so many people?  I feel so lucky to get to continue to be part of this journey.

I’ll be competing this year in the Oklahoma City region, which is one of the five regions for this season, along with about 100 other invited competitors (another 15-20 “walk-ons” will join us to compete after waiting in line for days).  The competition will start on Friday May 13th for the OK City Qualifying round, and then the top 30 competitors will advance to the OK City Finals the next night to determine the top 15 ninjas that will advance to the National Finals in Vegas sometime in June.  Twice in the last four seasons I’ve made the Regional Finals only to fall just short of progressing to the National Finals, so my goal is clear – make the National Finals for the first time.  I feel good about fulfilling my American Ninja Warrior 8 Pledge to be better prepared for this season than I have been for any previous season, I feel healthy and without injury for the first time in several years.  No excuses.

Thank you everybody for your continued support and enthusiasm, it means a lot.  I used to think that folks would think less of me and that I was nuts for my pursuit to be one of the top obstacle course runners in America even as I fully entered middle-age (will turn 45 shortly), but I’ve had the opposite experience, I have been deeply touched by the encouragement and love I’ve received on this journey.  Thank you, and I can’t wait to get on that course!

My American Ninja Warrior 8 Pledge

March 27th, 2016

With American Ninja Warrior 8 on the near horizon, I thought to share publicly the pledge I made to myself for this upcoming season.  I’ve been studying behavioral science and psychology a lot recently, and one thing that really resonated with me was the power of publicly stating your goals.  Studies have shown a measurable difference in achievement rates between just thinking about having a goal and actually writing it down, and an additional difference between writing it down privately versus publicly sharing it with friends and family.  People obviously are motivated to be consistent with their stated goals and actions made in front of the people in their social circles, and not seem like a weak-willed lameass for lacking the discipline to climb a mountain they publicly set for themselves.  It is the “consistency” and “commitment” principles of behavioral psychology combined, and is a proven potent cocktail for motivating people to drive hard towards their goals.

So here is my pledge for ANW8 – I will be better prepared for this season of American Ninja Warrior than any of my previous six seasons.

At age 44, the window may be closing on my ability to compete at a level that is acceptable to me.  For sure, I am past my athletic prime, but I think I make up in “old man determination” what I now lack in youthful spring and recovery.  My mental resolve is strong, and in fact physically in many ways I’ve been feeling stronger than ever recently.  If I stepped on the course tomorrow I could make a decent argument that I’d come pretty close to meeting my pledge, but not quite.  I’m very determined to crush it this season, so I’m driving hard to step on the course in mid-May knowing that by fulfilling my pledge I’ve done my best to set myself up to achieve my ultimate goal – make the National Finals finally after having narrowly missed it twice before.

Here are the dimensions of “preparation” that I am measuring my pledge against (graphic courtesy of Wharton Magazine who did a profile piece of me):

ANW Training Principles

CORE:  After tearing an abdominal muscle two years ago prior to American Ninja Warrior 6, I’ve worked hard at making my core stronger than it was even before the injury.  The great Drew Drechsel told me once that he thought a powerful dynamic core was the hidden key to obstacle course success, and if Drew feels that way who am I to disagree?  I train core more than I ever have before (and it hurts).

GRIP:  After busting my thumb up pretty good before last season – I competed in American Ninja Warrior 7 with a ligament tear and two fractures in it – I have been arduously working my way back.  I’ve returned to actively rock-climbing, got a climbing training board for the house, and have been rocking the kung fu rice bucket grip exercises Brandon Mears turned me onto a couple of seasons ago.  And I just placed an order for a couple more nunchuk grips from Three Ball Climbing to get stronger on hanging vertical grips which is a real weakness of mine.  As I’ve said many times, there is simply no replacement for having a kung fu iron grip on the American Ninja Warrior course.

WEIGHT:  My weight is down to the lowest it has ever been for competition.  At 207 lbs at the moment, I am as light as I was for ANW6 when I had my best performance and cleared a tough Dallas Qualifying course, and with another two more months of runway before the competition I have a chance to be as low as 200 lbs for this season.  I don’t think I’ve seen 200 lbs since the 20th century.

BALANCE:  I need to get much better here.  I competed in my first private obstacle course gym competition a couple of months ago at Power Park Fitness, and I totally sucked on the balance obstacles.  I’ve been working on the slack line and rolling PVC pipes, but have a ways to go.  Fortunately there are not too many slow balance obstacles in ANW, and most of the balance obstacles are of the “skeedaddle over that spinning thing quickly” variety which is a lot easier for me than the slow balance challenges.  But I need to be prepared for anything they throw at me.

OBSTACLE PRACTICE:  I am at a massive disadvantage here to many competitors that train regularly at a gym with actual obstacles, and there is no substitution for practice.  I’ve been getting down to Power Park Fitness recently and am benefiting from some technique tips from good friends and awesome ninjas Thomas Stillings and David Yarter, and am making some important strides here on some obstacles that have given me problems.  More reps on real obstacles to come!

So that is my pledge, to be better prepared for this season than any season before.  Regardless of my performance this year, feel free to ask me whether I fulfilled this pledge!

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

– Dylan Thomas

My American Ninja Warrior 7 Experience

June 8th, 2015

“Daddy, I heard you fell on the second obstacle.  That’s terrible.  That’s your baddest try ever.”  –  Luke Laessig, age 5

Nothing summed up my performance on the course this season like the scathing assessment that my 5 year old delivered to me the morning after I fell on the second obstacle at 4:30 am in Houston.  In my defense, but of no interest to Luke who expected me to crush the course after having narrowly missed making National Finals the previous season, was the fact that I was still recovering from my worst hand injury ever after fracturing my thumb in two places and tearing my ulnar collateral ligament just a couple of months before the competition.  Despite my best efforts to “pay the iron price” through grueling rehab in the weeks prior to the competition, my thumb just wasn’t up for the task of catching a thick vertical pole after a swinging jump on just the second obstacle.  That many other ninjas also fell on this unusually hard second obstacle (the Tilting Slider felled more ninjas than any other single obstacle in the history of the show), and that it was sopping wet from the splashes of fallen ninjas before me and the condensation of a humid Houston night, were facts that offered no consolation.  When you hit the water and your season ends in a fleeting slip, it is the lowest of the lows, and no excuse or rationalization can numb the pain.

“You fell, but you’re still jacked.” –  Chris Wilczewski, friend and fellow ninja veteran

Nobody can know the despair and agony of that failure like fellow ninjas, what it’s like to have trained all year long for a single opportunity that may never come again, and then to have it snuffed out in a millisecond leaving only disbelief and self-recriminations in its wake.  While still soaking wet and stunned by my season ending so quickly, before it even felt like it had taken its first breath of life, I found myself talking to good friend and fellow longtime competitor Chris Wilczewski while standing (ironically) in the winner’s circle on the side of the course.  Chris and Michelle Warnky, who last season was only the second woman to ever complete an American Ninja Warrior course, had come to Houston to watch the region and cheer me on.  While inarguably a more successful competitor than me, Chris has also known the highs and lows of competing, and in season 5 of American Ninja Warrior we shared a touchstone moment of having fallen on the exact same obstacle in the Baltimore Qualifying round (fuck you Circle Cross!) when we both had major aspirations of making it all the way to the National Finals in Vegas.  With humor and tenderness Chris offered me some much-needed perspective, “You can’t be defined by what you do on the course in any given season.  What you get out of this is so much greater than a single result on the course.  Take this guy for instance,” and Chris pointed to some super-muscular guy on the course who conveniently was just falling into the water next to us, “he’s totally bummed he fell in the water, but you know what?  He’s still totally jacked.  That’s you.  You fell, but you’re still jacked.”  I liked that.  This concept should be a talisman all competitors carry to ward them from any sense of failure ever.  We may fall, but we’re still jacked.

“I could see your disappointment.  I just love your passion.” –  Matt Iseman, host of American Ninja Warrior

Fans of the show know Matt Iseman as the voice of American Ninja Warrior, and while co-hosts and sideline reporters have come and gone, Matt has been with the show since the very first season.  What fans don’t know is that beyond just being the man in the booth commenting on the show, he truly loves and understands the gestalt and essence of the experience for the competitors, and has genuine affection, compassion, and enthusiasm for them.  When I finally smashed the button at the end of the Dallas Qualifying round last season for the first time after a couple of near misses in the previous seasons, he was genuinely pumped for me and came down from the booth to share my joy and congratulate me.  When I fell this season, he did the same, giving me a huge hug of empathy and words of understanding and encouragement.  Sometimes as a competitor you feel like an “interchangeable rat in the maze” on a reality show, but human moments shared with folks like Matt Iseman and several of the great members of the production team like Jeffrey Breeden, Claire Loeb, Dez Hernandez, and Peter Szeliga make you feel like part of something greater, and kinder, than just “a reality show.”  Their kindness that night, and the next night when I came back to root for ninja friends competing in the Houston Finals, helped me deal with a pretty massive sense of failure and disappointment.  Those guys behind the scenes are a big part of why the experience of competing is so incredible.

“The most amazing thing about American Ninja Warrior is never really seen on TV, and that’s the bond among the competitors.”  –  Me

I’ve met some of the kindest, most amazing, and most inspiring people through competing on this show over the last six seasons.  As an adult you rarely get to have something in your life that you are flat out giddy excited about.  That you think about and dream about, and that puts butterflies in your stomach.  That you ache for.  Life tends to flatten out a bit as you get older, and the emotions get less intoxicating.  Pursuing and competing in American Ninja Warrior makes you feel like a kid again, and the bonds you build with other folks from all walks of life who are sharing in that rare experience are pretty amazing.  It feels like you are part of a secret club (a ninja clan!), and we all encourage each other and share in the trials and tribulations of the journey.  Even though the competition is a zero sum game situation – only a certain number of people can even get accepted to compete in a given season or advance to the National Finals in Vegas – folks are constantly helping each other to get better, training others to improve their skills, and dispensing tips on race night.  When the evening of the competition begins, there is so much raw hope and aspiration in the air, but by the end of the night for most people their dreams have been crushed and the only ones capable of giving true commiseration are the fellow fallen.  The range of emotions on that surreal journey bonds us close.  Part of me wants to shout out the names here of ninjas that I love and respect and with whom I shared that experience in Houston, but I wouldn’t want anybody to feel slighted if I forgot to add their name to a laundry list that would somehow minimize the individual connections I have with each.  But you know who you are.  We’ve shared words of encouragement, embraces of empathy, shouts of victory, tears of despair, and laughs at the absurdity of it all.  You’ve made the journey so much richer and have made me dare greater, and Houston despite my failure to achieve what I wanted to on the course was as fun an experience as I’ve had in six seasons on the show.  So thank you my fellow ninjas.  I’ll look forward to sharing this dream with you again and getting out to train together to get stronger, because you better know I’ll be back next season more determined (and hopefully less injured) than ever!  And I’ll keep coming back until the wheels fall off.

On Like Donkey Kong – American Ninja Warrior 7

March 1st, 2015

So excited!  Just got my official invite to compete in American Ninja Warrior 7!  I’m truly honored and humbled to get another chance to have this amazing experience.  For a middle-aged dad who spends most of his time either humping his corporate job to provide for his family or trying to be an engaged fun dad for his three incredible and active little boys, I really appreciate having this insane experience once a year pretending to be a ninja and testing myself against some ridiculous obstacles on an adrenaline-soaked stage .  And being part of the amazing ninja community with its diverse, passionate, and supportive members has given me a lot of wonderful friends that simply like to play and have fun.  I’m deeply appreciative of these things, and when I step on the course in Houston in just four short weeks for my 6th straight season I’ll feel that gratitude as I push myself to go further than ever before.

Donkey Kong