Archive for August, 2013

Top Stories from Denver Finals

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

The last of the four cities that held the regional competitions for aspiring ninjas to qualify for the National Finals in Las Vegas of American Ninja Warrior 5 concluded last night on NBC.  It was a pretty thrilling finals in Denver, and we saw only 5 competitors complete the course out of 48 runners, by far the largest regional finals field we’ve ever seen in American Ninja Warrior.  Here are the top stories for me from the Denver finals:

Course Too Easy, Then Too Hard – The producers have a very challenging job every time they set up a course to find that elusive balance of building a hard yet achievable course.  Both the viewers and producers I don’t think like to see too many people finish the course, because it makes it look too easy and too surmountable by mortal folks, but they also don’t like it to be too insanely difficult that nobody can clear it.  In Denver more than any other region in recent memory the course swung from one end of the spectrum of difficulty in the preliminary qualifying round to the other end of the spectrum in the finals round.  The preliminary opening round in Denver was probably the easiest course in American Ninja Warrior history with 49 of approximately 130 runners clearing the whole course.  Then with a few adjustments for the finals round, including increasing the distance of a couple of the obstacles in the first part of the course that runners had already experience in prelims, it suddenly became such a difficult course that only 5 athletes out of 48 in a very strong field were able to clear the course.  I don’t point this out to criticize either course design in any way, because as we’ve seen in past years it is very hard to calibrate the “optimal difficulty” of a given course, just that for me as a viewer and a competitor the extremes of course difficulties was one of the top stories of Denver.

Paul Kasemir Just Consistently Awesome, Clocks Top Time – The soft-spoken 26 year old software engineer is a three-time Mt Midoriyama veteran, and one of the most consistently awesome competitors in American Ninja Warrior.  This cerebral and focused competitor sped through the course with seemingly little effort to register the fastest time of the Denver finals.  I actually don’t know Paul personally, but as a fan he’s one of my favorite competitors.

Rock Climbers Dominate (Josh Cook, Brian Arnold, Isaac Caldiero, Colby Frontier) – A recurring theme of American Ninja Warrior 5 has been “the rise of the rock-climbers.”  I’ve long thought that elite rock-climbers would soon populate the upper echelon of competitors, and this is the year that prediction is apparently coming true.  It would be a dramatic overstatement to call myself much of a rock-climber, but having had rock-climbing as the foundation of my training my first years competing in American Ninja Warrior showed to me that the ridiculous grip strength and stamina of rock-climbers lends itself very well to the advanced stages of American Ninja Warrior.  I believe it’s more than just their grip strength and stamina which gives them an edge in ANW, but also the total body control that they have which was elegantly demonstrated by several rock-climbers who flowed through the difficult Pole Grasper utilizing all four appendages very gracefully.  4 of the 5 competitors who cleared the course in the Denver finals are fairly elite rock-climbers, including professionals Isaac Caldiero and Brian Arnold (I know Paul Kasemir climbs, but I think his base is more parkour than climbing).  After this season I’m pretty sure most serious American Ninja Warrior competitors will be hitting the rock-climbing gyms harder than ever.

Sam Sann Delivers Inspiring Performance – 46 year old Sam Sann ran on a badly injured ankle and delivered one of the most inspiring runs in American Ninja Warrior history by making it all the way to the Warped Wall and then up it on his final heroic 3rd attempt.  Him kissing the top of the Warped Wall once he got to the top on his bad ankle is a memory for the annals of the competition.  With an inspiring back story of growing up in and fleeing from Cambodia during the conflicts throughout Southeast Asia in the late 60s and early 70s, this ageless wonder will be a fan favorite for years to come.

APEX Athletes Struggle – Aside from Paul Kasemir who finished with the top time, a number of other incredible athletes who train at APEX together who we are used to seeing dominate struggled in the Denver Finals.  After witnessing a breathtaking display of speed and dominance in the preliminary round of Denver by speedsters Brandon Douglass, Jake Smith, Amos Rendao, and Tre Sussy Vaughn (not shown on TV but still with a speedy time), we saw speed-demon Brandon Douglass have to withdraw with an injury, Jake Smith fall on the first run of the Floating Stairs, Amos Rendao fall on the first rung of the Salmon Ladder, and Tre Sussy Vaughn fall early on that spinning bridge thingy (blanking on the name).  Although Jake Smith still was able to advance to the National Finals based on his fast time through the Salmon Ladder, after past years’ performances and their awe-inspiring runs in the opening round of Denver, their struggles in the finals round was surprising to many viewers.

Floating Stairs for Real – The immediate transition to the Floating Stairs from the Salmon Ladder clearly tested the stamina of even top-level ninjas.  As Akbar pointed out, the Floating Stairs is an obstacle that most ninjas would cruise through if it were at the beginning of the course and people could attack it with fresh muscles and grip, but it was something else entirely later in the course, and right after the Salmon Ladder.  Legitimate studs who have proven themselves top competitors in past seasons failed here, including Lorin Ball, Josh Grant, Jake Smith and Steve Volcko, as well as Camilo Brokaw, Caleb Garnham, and Chris Romrell.

These are the competitors from Denver who advanced to the National Finals of American Ninja Warrior 5, in order of finish:

  1. Paul Kasemir – Clear
  2. Josh Cook – Clear
  3. Brian Arnold – Clear
  4. Isaac Caldiero – Clear
  5. Colby Frontiero – Clear
  6. Casey Finley – Failed Pole Grasper
  7. Tremayne Dortch – Failed Pole Grasper
  8. Kyle Sinacori – Failed Pole Grasper
  9. Andres De La Rosa – Failed Pole Grasper
  10. Chris Romrell – Failed Floating Stairs
  11. Lorin Ball – Failed Floating Stairs
  12. Jake Smith – Failed Floating Stairs
  13. Caleb Garnham – Failed Floating Stairs
  14. Camilo Brokaw – Failed Floating Stairs
  15. Josh Grant – Failed Floating Stairs

Top Stories from Baltimore Finals

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Some truly amazing performances went down in the Baltimore finals of American Ninja Warrior 5, many of them by good ninja buddies of mine, so I feel a great deal of pride and joy being able to relay them.  After falling on the second-to-last obstacle, the Circle Cross, in the Baltimore qualifying round I sat in the stands and watched the Baltimore finalists throwdown in the freezing cold later that same night.  My selections of the top stories here are somewhat biased by my personal relationships, and the limitations of not having DVRed the competition and being forced to jot down my notes without the benefit of rewatching anything, so please forgive (and correct) any limitations or inaccuracies in my reporting.

Dan “GravityForged” Galicynski Takes Top Time – Before I get started on his performance, I have to say that I’ve long thought “GravityForged” is one of the best nicknames in the ninja world.  Dan proved that he’s deserving of such a cool nickname by cruising through the course with a calm consistent speed that had him hitting the final button just a split second ahead of second-place finisher Joe Moravsky.  With much of the commentary in American Ninja Warrior 5 centering on “Parkour versus Rock-Climbing” people are overlooking that gymnastics is an amazing and applicable background for ninja obstacle activities.  GravityForged, the 2010 college champion in the floor exercise for Penn State, reminded people of that reality with his strong performance.  Dan’s a great guy, and after having failed at the Warped Wall in American Ninja 2, 3 and 4, this was a much deserved breakout performance by this great athlete.

Salmon Ladder Still Slays Ninjas – American Ninja Warrior 5 witnessed a change of most of the obstacles for brand-new ones never before tested in competition.  Personally I loved this development, as well as how the producers were wise enough to still keep three iconic obstacles that are emblematic of the Ninja Warrior experience – the Quad/Quint Steps to start it off, the Warped Wall to end the qualifying course, and the Salmon Ladder to kick off the extended course for the regional/city finals.  More than any other obstacle, fans of the show bring up the Salmon Ladder to me in conversation as one that just blows their mind.  Although there are many Salmon Ladders in gyms and backgrounds across the nation at this point, the Salmon Ladder still slays top ninjas in competition all the time.  Witness Brent Steffensen, American Ninja Warrior 4’s top ninja, fall on it in the Venice Finals this season.  The Baltimore Finals were no exception as many talented ninjas (and friends of mine) fell on it including Elet Hall (fastest time in qualifiers), Chris DiGangi, Brandon Mears, and Justin Conway.

Rookie Joe “The Weatherman” Moravsky Delivers – Joe Moravsky, a professional weatherman who helped all the Baltimore ninjas interpret and deal with a massive weatherfront that postponed the competition for a full day, proved that rookies can deliver the goods with his incredible performances in both the Baltimore qualifying and finals rounds.  Looking like a seasoned veteran he cruised through the finals course, pausing to throw a side-flip off of the end of the Body Prop before moving on to the Spider Climb.  Although I wonder if he regrets this now since he finished just a split second behind GravityForged for the top time and a $5k top finisher bounty.  Regardless of this point, I think we can stop calling Joe a rookie, and I anticipate seeing him as a top competitor for many seasons to come.

Mike Bernardo Believes He Can Fly – In perhaps the most spectacular wipeout of the season, and destined to become a staple of highlight clips for seasons to come, 33 year old DC firefighter Mike Bernardo misjudged his high dismount from the Rumbling Dice and ate some serious mat before bouncing back into the water.  Unfortunately the difference between advancing to the National Finals and ending his season was sticking that dismount.  Mike is an incredibly strong and intense competitor, and somebody who I have known since American Ninja Warrior 2, so I expect this to be fuel for his raging fire and drive him to greater heights in future seasons.  Mike also has a great ability to laugh at himself, and has been cracking his friends up with self-deprecating jokes about this dismount ever since, so he has many many ninjas rooting for his future success.

Jamie “Captain NBC” Rahn Dashes to the Top – Jamie Rahn, who broke into the public consciousness as Captain G4 and Captain NBC last season, proved that he is no costumed joke by putting in a top performance and finishing the course.  I’ve trained several times with Jamie, and know him as both a great guy and an intense competitor who possesses one of the most ridiculous grip strengths I’ve ever witnessed (dude can dead-hang for like 12 minutes, no joke).  Jamie showed his desire to win by gutting it through the Body Prop where he was clearly on the edge of fatigue.  My kids love “Captain NBC”, and are thrilled that I’m friends with him (even though I’ve competed for 4 seasons they are always amazed and impressed when they find out I’m friends with other ninjas on TV), and a good 5 minutes after Jamie ran my 5 year old whispered to himself during a commercial break, “Captain NBC, I’m so happy for him.”

The Body Prop Kills – Some top ninjas that I feel honored to call friends ended their runs on the Body Prop just one obstacle short of the final one.  Fortunately everybody who made the Body Prop ended up advancing to the National Finals, but in the moments of competition nobody knew this, and the Body Prop proved its mettle by knocking some incredible athletes into the water, including:

  • Tim “LiveWire” Shieff – The 2-time world parkour champ couldn’t make it through the Body Prop to my shock.  Tim has handstand press strength for days, witness his YouTube videos of one-hand hand-stands and walking through subways on his hands, and he “just got tired” as he told Jen Brown on the sidelines.  When Tim fell is when I realized that doing the Body Prop at the end of this tough course must have been brutal.
  • Travis “Sunset Hogan” Weinand – Representing the tall folks (Travis is 6′ 5″), talented artists, and meathead heavy metal thrashers, Travis’ impressive run ended on the Body Prop.  Travis is an incredibly strong competitor, and when he chuckled dryly on the Body Prop as he realized he was running out of gas was when I realized that the Body Prop can sap the strength out of even the most powerful ninjas.
  • Mike “Bedroom Ninja” Needham – Mike Needham is a favorite of both fans and competitors alike, and his walkon story ended heroically with him advancing to the National Finals.  With perhaps the best ninja nickname for picking up chicks, the “Bedroom Ninja” ended his run on the Body Prop like many other worthy competitors.  Mike earned his nickname with his amazing training setup in his bedroom that has driven his YouTube channel to over a million views of his training videos.  Mike reminds me of my favorite Sasuke competitor, Yuuji Urushihara, with his size (115 lbs), drive (intense), and humility (admirable).
  • Adam “Megaman” Grossman – Another member of the self-described meathead crew from Chris Wilczewski’s The Movement Lab, Adam Grossman also fell on the Body Prop after a great run.  Adam has earned his nickname Megaman from his ridiculous leaping ability and overall strength, and joined his fellow “Labbers” Travis Weinand and Mike Needham in the water under the Body Prop.

Brian Represents for the Wilczewski Clan – Brian Wilczewski, younger brother of famous ninja Chris Wilczewski, stepped out into the limelight on his own in American Ninja Warrior 5 in his first year of eligibility.  Chris, like me, fell on the Circle Cross in the qualifying round of the Baltimore competition, but Brian picked up the family torch and carried it to Las Vegas by finishing with the 3rd fastest time in the city finals.  One thing that needs a bit of correction is the representation in the Baltimore qualifying episodes that there is a sibling rivalry between the two – in fact there is nothing but love and support that I’ve ever witnessed, and for the last couple of years Chris has been openly bragging about how awesome Brian is, how Brian is even better than he is, and how he can’t wait until Brian turns 21 and can show the world.  Chris is a super-supportive big brother, and I know nobody was prouder than he was when Brian hit the button at the top of the Spider Climb and advanced to Vegas.

Andrew Lowes Also Represents Gymnasts – Andrew Lowes, a National Finalist in American Ninja Warrior 4, also advanced to the National Finals again this year with another strong performance.  Andrew is a great guy, and trained this past season with a “fire in his belly” to improve his performance, and I was psyched to watch him achieve his goal of getting back to Mt Midoriyama.  Andrew, like GravityForged, is another accomplished gymnast, and is part of the gymnast clan (including Travis Rosen from Miami) who reminds everyone that gymnasts deserve to be in the conversation along with parkour athletes and rock-climbers as top ninjas from specific training disciplines.

Top Stories from Venice Finals

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

A few days late I just finished watching the Venice Finals, and wanted to share what were the top stories for me from the Venice City Finals of American Ninja Warrior.  As always, this is just one man’s take of what jumped out to him from watching the show.  As a competitor, and a competitor with friendships with other competitors, my view is obviously somewhat biased by my experiences, so take it all with that grain of salt!

Biggest Obstacle Downgrade Ever – The Flying Nunchucks in the qualifying round of Venice was the single hardest obstacle in any of the qualifying rounds in American Ninja Warrior 5, and they massively downgraded it by changing it out and putting in the weak lame Trapeze Swing for the Venice Finals.  Nobody fell on it, nor came close to falling on it.  It was a blatant move to ensure more competitors went deeper into the course.  I can understand it though, as we’d be bummed if only a few competitors got to try the cool obstacles like the Rope Maze and the Cliffhanger in the latter part of the course, but it was still the biggest obstacle downgrade ever in American Ninja Warrior history.

The Beast Means Business – James “The Beast” McGrath dropped the hammer and got the fastest time of the Venice Finals as he blazed through the course, only one of four competitors to finish the tough course (yes, it was still very tough despite the Biggest Obstacle Downgrade Ever!).  James is consistently one of the top ninjas, and a legitimate threat to be the first American Ninja Warrior.  I call James “The Patron Saint of Walkons” because in American Ninja Warrior 3 he walked on and made it all the way to the Ultimate Cliffhanger in Stage 3 in Japan.  Everybody who has ever walked on to American Ninja Warrior (including me) wants to be James “The Beast” McGrath when they grow up.

Jessie Graff Fails at Warped Wall – The 28 year old stuntwoman from Santa Monica was the first woman to have ever advance to the city/regional final round, and demonstrated that was no fluke with a strong run in the Venice Finals making it all the way to the Warped Wall.  She didn’t really come close to completing the Wall, but my sense is that with some focused training on it this amazing athlete will get it the next time she confronts it on the course.

Dustin Rocho Bounces Back from Injury, Gets 2nd Fastest Time – In American Ninja Warrior 4 this dedicated dad, humble guy, and generous soul (did he really give away his house to a family in need?) went out on a nasty fall on the Jump Hang that ruptured his ear drum.  This season he delivered an inspired run finishing the course in the 2nd fastest time and advancing to the National Finals in his hometown of Las Vegas.

David Campbell Secures 5th Mt Midoriyama Visit – Upfront I have to say that as a long-time Sasuke (Ninja Warrior Japan) fan, I have mixed emotions with American Ninja Warrior branding the National Finals in Las Vegas as Mt Midoriyama.  But it is clear they are, so no point battling against it.  That point aside, David Campbell further cemented his status as one of the true superstars of American Ninja Warrior by competing the Venice Finals course and advancing to Mt Midoriyama (there, I said it) in Las Vegas for a record 5th time.

Jesse La Flair Fails on Cliffhanger – Like I said before, I love watching Jesse La Flair run, you should check out his videos on YouTube.  I was interested to learn that he’s been with his wife for 13 years since the 9th grade, so much respect there.  He fell in the Venice Finals on the Cliffhanger, which was really no surprise since they’ve been showing that fall in TV promos for the last month!   Many people didn’t realize the guy falling in the promos was him, and NBC had a fail when it showed that promo ad immediately before his run, and many people recognized that it was him for the first time.  Social media blew up about that mistake #NBCfail.

Mario Mendoza and Daniel Dick Represent the 40 Year Olds – Last season in American Ninja Warrior 4 I was proud to be the oldest guy who advanced to the Midwest Finals when I was 40.  Here in Venice in American Ninja Warrior 5 there were two strong 40 year old competitors who advanced to the city finals:  Mario Mendoza and Daniel Dick.  Both of them had fantastic runs, with Mario Mendoza advancing to the National Finals in Las Vegas.  Congrats to both guys for holding it down for we middle-aged guys 😉

Team Douglas Represents – The Douglas brothers did fantastic in Venice with both Andrew and JB advancing to the city finals.  Andrew Douglas, who finished the qualifying course, caught a tough break and clearly slipped on the Quintuple Steps and went out early.  JB, the big brother who fell in his qualifying run but still advanced to the city finals, had an amazing run and was one of four competitors to hit the buzzer on a very difficult course.  There was a heartwarming story about JB helping a young boy who had selective mutism find his voice through their friendship, which made me root hard for him.  I’m a sucker for anybody who helps kids, so count me a JB fan.

Brent Steffensen Fails on the Salmon Ladder – Brent, one of the top consistent competitors in American Ninja Warrior and the guy who went the farthest in American Ninja Warrior 4, came to a shocking end when he slipped on the Salmon Ladder ending his season.  You could see he fell out of his rhythm, and his fall reminds us all how difficult each and every obstacle is, and any one can end our season at any moment on the course.  Brent is a great guy, and a fierce competitor, and he’ll be back strong in American Ninja Warrior 6, no doubt.

Here are the Venice competitors who advanced to the National Finals in Las Vegas…er…Mt Midoriyama:

  1. James McGrath – Clear
  2. Dustin Rocho – Clear
  3. JB Douglas – Clear
  4. David Campbell – Clear
  5. James Eggiman – Failed Spider Climb
  6. James Sclar – Failed Spider Climb
  7. Jesse La Flair – Failed Cliffhanger
  8. Dan Mast – Failed Cliffhanger
  9. Brian Krestch – Failed Cliffhanger
  10. Luke Carson – Failed Cliffhanger
  11. Lance Pekus – Failed Cliffhanger
  12. Justin Walcker – Failed Cliffhanger
  13. Levi Keller – Failed Rope Maze
  14. Mario Mendoza – Failed Rope Maze
  15. Will Roberts – Failed Rope Maze