Archive for the ‘American Ninja Warrior 6’ Category

Fifth Time’s The Charm

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

It took me much longer than I ever expected to get to smash that red plastic button at the end of an American Ninja Warrior course.  To be honest, I’m a little embarrassed it took me this long.  When I first dreamt of competing in Ninja Warrior (before American Ninja Warrior ever existed), like a lot of couch jockeys I felt sure that I could crush that course and easily complete the first stage of competition.  Although I came very close to completing the course in my third season (ANW4) when I failed at the Warped Wall, and fairly close last season when I failed on the second-to-last obstacle (the Circle Cross), I entered my fifth season competing this year having never completed the course and having never felt the sweet sensation of smacking that red button, hearing the horn blast, and celebrating on the top of the wall  in victory.  While my determination never waned, and my desire to get to the top only increased with each failure, I’d be lying if I said that in my dark moments I never wondered if I had the stuff to get the job done, and that I never worried whether I truly belonged on the same course as the amazing assortment of athletes I’ve had the honor to compete with.

I stepped to the line in Dallas for American Ninja Warrior 6 on a warm April night to compete in my fifth season only having recently healed from the worst injury that I’ve suffered since I started on this ninja obsession.  After I badly tore an abdominal muscle last September while training there was about a half-year window during which I would’ve had no chance at competing at all, I couldn’t even sneeze without pain or do a single situp, much less jump and swing around.  Only in February could I begin to start tentatively doing obstacles again, and I trained hard in rehab to rebuild the core strength necessary for the explosive movements required on the course.  So I stepped to the line for American Ninja Warrior 6 frankly just happy that I was able to compete at all.

I’d say that ridiculous self-confidence (some would say self-delusion) is a required and shared attribute of most of the impassioned competitors who have stepped onto the course for American Ninja Warrior.  No matter what obstacle is before me, or what physical shape I’m in, I always believe that I have a fighting chance to complete it.  So despite having only recently healed from this ab injury, I stepped to the line in Dallas believing I could finish the course, even though history would have argued against such a belief.  I waited on that starting platform for the signal to go with both a grim determination to finish and a singular joy that I was getting to compete at all.  I gave a wave to my wife and kids who were in the crowd, having come to watch me compete in person for the first time.

With my focus on finishing the course, I didn’t press through the first four obstacles quickly as I wanted to conserve my energy for the fifth obstacle, the Ring Toss, by far the most difficult obstacle on the course.  I cruised fairly easily through the Quint Steps, the Log Drop, the Tilting Bridge, and the Swing Jump without any drama.  After those first four obstacles, I took a long pause before stepping up to the Ring Toss which had been crushing the dreams of ninjas all night long.  Before my run I’d seen it eliminate top ninjas like Brent Steffensen, Josh Kronberg, Jonathan Horton (2-time Olympic gymnast), and Ahmed Toure, so I knew it was going to take my best effort to get through it.

My plan was to move through the Ring Toss quickly, moving a knob with every swing back-and-forth.  I’d seen a lot of guys gas out taking a slow approach, and weighing 210 lbs I didn’t want to be hanging around for too long and wearing out my arms.  The approach worked great, until it didn’t.  I twice missed placing the ring on the next knob and found myself swinging forcefully away from the missed knob hanging by one arm on just a single ring.  Fortunately I was able to hang on for dear life on both occasions (where other ninjas in similar situations had that lone ring peel out of their grip), and I pulled myself back up by my one arm on the back-swing and was able to get the ring onto the previously missed knob.  I was getting a little rubber-armed though by the end of the obstacle, and was fairly elated when I cleanly hit my dismount onto the landing pad and completed the Ring Toss.

It was a surreal experience transitioning from the Ring Toss and stepping onto the runway for the Warped Wall.  I saw the distinctively lit-up Centennial Hall in the backdrop and the announcers’ tower right there, and it mentally kicked me back two years before when I’d missed my dream by failing at the same obstacle and in the same location in American Ninja Warrior 4.  Then I heard Matt Iseman’s booming voice “AND MATT LAESSIG MAKES THE WARPED WALL AGAIN!” and it triggered a massive surge of adrenaline.  I took a deep breathe and said to myself, “You’ve replayed your failure from this exact moment two years ago a thousand times in your head, and dreamt of getting a chance to actually re-do it for redemption.  This is that moment!”  I paused to collect my focus and determination (see Psycho Warped Wall picture above!), committed myself to getting the Wall in my first attempt, and drove hard.

I cleanly got the wall on my first attempt, hauled myself up to the top, and smashed that button for all I was worth.  I stood on top of that wall and pointed out to my wife and three little boys who came to watch me compete for the first time, and who have been along for the whole ride.  I looked over at Matt Iseman and Akbar, and Iseman shouted “You finally got it big guy!” to which I responded enthusiastically “FIFTH TIMES THE CHARM!” acknowledging it wasn’t a speedy or easy journey to that destination.  I got a pretty hearty laugh from Matt and Akbar in reward.

And then I let out a barbaric yawp of victory, redemption, and suffering.  It was five seasons worth of determination, failure, doubt, and aspirations all rolled into one moment for me.

At the end of the night I was one of only 21 competitors out of roughly 150 amazing athletes to finish the course, and I advanced forward to the Dallas Finals, but that’s a story for another time.  Thank you to my friends and family, and my fellow ninjas, who have been along for the ride with me, and have encouraged me on this improbable journey.  I hope this journey isn’t nearly at its end (as I write this I just got notice that American Ninja Warrior got renewed for another season), but certainly getting to the top of that wall and finishing the course was a very meaningful milestone for me.  At age 43, and with a body type that’s definitely sub-optimal for this pursuit, I’m rushing into some stiff headwinds as I pursue my dream, but never underestimate what perseverance and vision can achieve, particularly when you throw in a hearty dose of self-delusion!

Calm Before the Ninja Storm

Monday, May 26th, 2014

With the season of American Ninja Warrior 6 starting tonight, and with NBC shoving all its chips into the middle on this show (there will be three times more hours of obstacle course awesomeness on NBC this summer than any previous season), it’s an exciting and nerve-wracking moment for our obsessed cadre of ninjas.  Or is it a pride of ninjas?  Or a flock of ninjas?  Or a nincompoop of ninjas?  Who knows…

It will be interesting to see whether America has an appetite for this much American Ninja Warrior with NBC taking every episode of the season for itself, and showing two-hour episodes every Monday night from now until mid-September.  That’s mucho ninja-ing, and I’m not sure that the average viewer will really want that much obstacle course action.  I hope so.

Even though it’s my fifth season competing I never take the opportunity for granted, and if anything feel increasingly lucky every year that I get to be a part of this great competition and community.  Competing is so surreal and immersive, a roller-coaster ride of adrenaline and aspiration that is only tethered to the earth by the amazing camaraderie and humor of my ninja brothers and sisters who I get to share this experience with.  The amount of encouragement and support I’ve gotten over the years from fellow contestants has been humbling, and I cherish their friendship. Although I love me some obstacle course running, the best thing about this experience has been the friends made and experiences shared with them.

I’m deeply grateful for the broader experience of simply participating in something like American Ninja Warrior.  For a middle-aged dad with serious responsibilities as a father-of-three and a businessman, having something so fun, physical, and playful has added an amazing and joyful dimension to my life experience, and has been an profound vehicle of lessons for my three young sons. Not only does it make them appreciate their dad more (not too many middle-aged dads play on the playgrounds with their kids like I do!), but they also learn key life lessons about trying your best and daring to dream, and hard realities like even when you try your best you sometimes fail.  As my oldest son (8 years old) has observed, if you try really difficult obstacles sometimes you fall in the water.  But then you dust yourself off and try even harder.

I hope America continues to embrace this show which has come a long way since its inception as a back-water spinoff of Ninja Warrior Japan shown just on little G4 with only a few hundred competitors applying.  This year over 30,000 people applied for approximately 500 slots competing in American Ninja Warrior 6, and NBC is looking at our show as one of the key staples of its summer line-up.  A long long way its come.  We’re all hoping that you love the show, see how meaningful it is for us to compete, and appreciate the amazing and inspirational performances many of the competitors deliver this year.  I think this year might be the most amazing yet for a lot of different reasons, so be sure to tune in!

American Ninja Warrior 6, Here I Come!

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!

To my elation, I just received a call from American Ninja Warrior that they are inviting me back to compete in my fifth season.  No matter how much you try to convince yourself that you’re fine with whatever the outcome, when the calls start going out extending invites to your region, you get wildly nervous and anxious, and you remember how BADLY you want to compete.  So when I heard over the weekend that the calls started to go out inviting the roughly 100 competitors that will compete in the Dallas region in 3 weeks, I got increasingly anxious as the hours passed and no call came.

But then today it did come, and I was reminded of the childlike joy of getting what you really really wanted for Christmas.  In 3 weeks I’ll be headed to Dallas, the site of my most successful American Ninja Warrior season and of the moment that most torments me (narrowly missing the Warped Wall in the regional finals by a couple of inches and probably advancing to the National Finals), and will be seeking my redemption.  Just a few hour drive from Austin, my hometown, I’ll be bringing my three little boys to watch me for the first time, as well as inviting other family members to come.  In the past my boys were too young to really behave and understand the competition, but now at ages 8, 6, and 4 I think they’ll at least understand the event and appreciate that their daddy is competing in something so cool.  I’m hoping it will be a memory that they carry with them forever, and later in their life will feel emboldened by it to follow their dreams and dare to try for something that matters to them.

I continue to feel so lucky to be part of this competition and community of competitors, and feel blessed to get another opportunity to steep in both in just a few short weeks!  Wish me luck :-)

The Seasons of the Ninja Year

Friday, February 21st, 2014

I often think of the American Ninja Warrior year breaking down into major seasons roughly equivalent to the five major seasons that professional football players go through. The first phase is the off-season, when the next season is far off and you’re maybe not in full madman training mode, perhaps recovering emotionally and physically from the most recent season’s competition.  This phase is long and usually covers from late summer when the season finishes airing on TV until past the winter holidays, and can sometimes be a lonely phase with erratic swings ranging from intense motivation for the next season to self-loathing over having not performed better the previous season.  Many serious competitors really rachet up their preparation during this phase and change up their training regimen, including possibly building a number of replica obstacles themselves, usually including the one they failed the previous season.  This is a phase that really separates the serious competitors with serious aspirations from the “hobbyists”.  This past off-season more than any other I saw the quality and quantity of preparation from ninjas go through the roof.  I think the increased exposure in mainstream media of the show combined with watching Brian Arnold almost grab the title of the “First American Ninja Warrior” this past season really inspired many top ninjas to try a mad competitive dash to the top of Mt Midoriyama for American Ninja Warrior 6.

Right after the winter holidays and at the start of the new calendar year there is the “combine” part of the season when competitors start their “auditions” to get accepted to compete in the next season, and everybody works hard on completing a compelling submission video.  Getting accepted to compete in the upcoming season really swings on these submission videos in which applicants have to demonstrate both charisma and a compelling back-story as well as some serious athletic and obstacle course chops.  This is akin to the NFL combine as we audition for our dreams.  Most applicants and ninja regulars post our videos publicly for each other, which is sort of a tradition, and no doubt there is competitive pressure to improve your own video based on the escalating excellence of the submission videos of others.  Below is my own submission video for American Ninja Warrior 6 which I just entered a couple of weeks ago.  During this phase the ninja community comes alive as we start the busy chatter guessing where and when the regional rounds will be, and share our excitement and hopes about getting to compete in the upcoming season.

Once the “combine” period is over, basically when they close the submission window, we enter the most agonizing part of the year, the “pre-season” where we’ve effectively done everything we can to make the team, we’re just waiting to hear whether we’ve made it.  This is the phase where I, and my ninja brothers and sisters, currently stand at the moment.  The submission window just closed, and we’re waiting a painfully long indeterminate amount of time to hear (1) where this year’s regions will be, (2) when this year’s regionals will be, and (3) whether they’re actually inviting us to compete or not, which usually happens just a week before our designated regional round occurs.  This pre-season chapter is a painful stage full of hope, agony, and often overly intense physical training.  For me this is the phase when I punish myself with a diet that probably ultimately doesn’t make that big of a difference (I usually drop 10 pounds down to about 213), and I push myself to improve my burst cardio.  I also try to get as much training on actual obstacles as possible, which has historically proven challenging based on where I’ve lived.  The next two months are tough tough waiting, and I usually (somewhat) successfully Jedi Mind Trick myself into believing that I already have an invite to compete to avoid the distraction of uncertainty and to focus my attentions 100% on preparation.  Still, this time of waiting is tough, and my wife knows that this is a stage of increasing distraction and ninja obsession for me.

Finally, after having gotten a call confirming our invitation to compete usually around 10 days before the actual competition, we have our favorite stage of the American Ninja Warrior year – actually competing!  Let me say this with no equivocation, the experience competing in American Ninja Warrior is awesome!  From the camaraderie with fellow competitors, to the delicious anticipation right before stepping onto the course after dreaming of it all year long, to the actual attempt on the course, it is an amazing and positive life-altering experience.  I wrote about the experience at length after last season.  For most of us, the “season” lasts just one intense weekend.  For all but the top 75-100 people who advance to the National Finals a month or two later in Las Vegas, the “season” is brutally short given the lengths of training and waiting that preceeded it.  Even those that advance to the regional finals round only get to prolong their season by a few days, if that (regional finals rounds are usually within a day or two of the regional round).  But brevity of competition is the nature of this beast, and what we signed up for.  Mostly the “season” ends for us with mixed emotions – gratitude for getting to have such an intense experience, and disappointment for not having progressed as far as we wanted.  By the very nature of an obstacle course competition that nobody has completed in five seasons, most ninjas feel disappointed that they didn’t advance farther regardless of whether they failed on the first obstacle (the Quad Steps) of the opening round or the final obstacle of Stage 3 in the National Finals.  You are destined for disappointment of some level.

The final stage of the American Ninja Warrior season is the “post-season” when the actual competition is often long done, and the show finally airs over a couple of months during its TV season.  As competitors we’re bound by silence to not talk about how we did until the show airs to maintain secrecy, so when the season finally unfolds on TV in front of millions of fans, friends, and family, it is an exciting time for the competitors to share how we did.  It’s also when our respective friends and family get to see the madness that inspires us on glossy network-produced TV, which is pretty cool, and we ourselves get to see how many of our ninja friends fared in regions and rounds other than our own.  Watching other ninjas compete motivates us, stokes the fire within, and reminds us that we began our journeys simply as fans of the show ourselves (usually Ninja Warrior Japan originally).  Often this is a fun stage for the competitors, we get to share our passion with people around us, and the competitors actively chat in our respective online communities offering support, encouragement, and commiseration to each other.  It’s the final stage of the American Ninja Warrior year, one that is often bittersweet as it concludes and you’re left wondering if you’ll ever get a chance to step onto the course again to redeem yourself.  You have fears that maybe the show doesn’t renew for another season, and maybe if it does they won’t ever let you back.  It is a lonely sad moment, until you convince yourself that next year will be different and you’ll train like never before to make that happen.  And that’s when the ninja off-season begins again…

Rinse and repeat.