Archive for the ‘American Ninja Warrior 7’ Category

My American Ninja Warrior 7 Experience

Monday, 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

Sunday, 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

5 Weeks to Go: The Check-up

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

In just 5 short weeks I’ll hopefully be in Houston competing in American Ninja Warrior 7 and striving once more for my dream of making the National Finals and getting to step on the hallowed course of Mt. Midoriyama.  I say “hopefully” because I haven’t received an official invite to the Houston round, nor has anybody else.  While my anxiety about getting invited has definitely increased this past week after they issued invites to the Venice region, and notably didn’t invite many veterans and stars from earlier seasons, I also try to stick to my mantra of “act as if” I’ve already been invited, and focus on the things within my control, specifically training hard in preparation for stepping on the course should the call come.

So with 5 weeks to go I thought it a good exercise to evaluate myself according to my preparation plan I laid out in my “The Road to American Ninja Warrior 7” blog post I wrote 3 months ago as a reality check.  In general, whether in American Ninja Warrior or in life, I like to set specific goals and plans for myself, and periodically check in against them to measure my progress.  It makes for a certain degree of accountability, and helps focus my attentions on the right activities to get to my desired destination.  For each of the 5 areas of focus I outlined, I’ll give myself a grade and a brief summary.

CORE STRENGTH & FLEXIBILITY:  B+

Recovering from one of my worst ninjuries yet, a torn abdominal muscle in the fall of 2013 which hindered my American Ninja Warrior 6 preparation, I was determined to build a stronger core than ever.  Then a random conversation with super-ninja Drew Drechsel about the importance of a strong dynamic core reinforced my desire to make this a major focus of my ANW7 preparation.  I’ve been following my plan and feel stronger than ever, and feel no residual pain from my ab tear.  For flexibility, I’ve been going to yoga about once a week for the last several months, and doing more stretching for my shoulders, forearms, and hands than ever before.

GRIP STRENGTH:  C-  (or N/A)

After getting an awesome grip board for my house for Christmas to train at home, I unfortunately sprained my thumb in ninja training pretty badly five weeks ago.  A bad ulnar collateral ligament strain, and a couple of small avulsion fractures, has prevented me from training the way I had envisioned.  But I have been grinding the rehab, and I should be ready to roll in five weeks.  Who knows?  Maybe the unconventional grip rehab I have been doing (and putting my “good hand” through as well for balance) might have me stronger than before since I’ve been maniacally focused on it in order to recover in time for the competition.  Side note:  rehab hurts.

WEIGHT:  C

Not doing awesome here.  This is a source of frustration.  I have been dieting hard earlier than ever before, but my weight has not been dropping like I expected.  I can tell that my body fat is quite a bit lower as I feel I am “competition lean” already (for me), but the absolute number of my weight has not dropped to where I want it to be.  Still hovering between 215 and 220, when I expected to already be at 210 by now.  Last year was my lightest ever for competition at about 210, and I thought I could get to “light heavyweight” at 205 this year.  I’m realizing that is not going to happen without something dire, but if I can get to a healthy 210 for this season I’ll be relatively happy.  Still, frustrated that I haven’t done better here because I’m been really watching what I eat and exercising regularly.  Side note:  dieting sucks.

BALANCE:  B

Balance is feeling pretty good, and getting a slack line at home and working on it regularly when I go to the playground with my three sons has yielded some nice progress.  Ironically, pushing the envelope on balance is what lead to my thumb injury!  I have a feeling that a tough balance obstacle is lining up for Houston, so want to be ready here.  I also definitely think my work on a strong dynamic core has helped my overall balance.  Still, I’m going to be working hard here in the next five weeks before the competition to be as ready as possible.

OBSTACLE PRACTICE:  C

My injured thumb the last five weeks has derailed my plan to get more practice on actual competition-grade obstacles at places like Alpha Warrior and Iron Sports in Houston.  My thumb is just not ready for tough obstacles right now, but should be in a few weeks.  However, I usually like to shut down my hard training in the last couple of weeks before the actual competition to avoid over-training and last minute injuries, so I might not get too much actual obstacle practice before the competition.  I did get some great practice in the fall while traveling a lot, hitting Alpha Warrior, the new Ninja Park in Albuquerque, and the 323 Training Ground in LA, so that averages me to a C grade here.

Overall I’d give myself a C+ or B- largely because of the recent thumb injury limiting me.  Other than that, I’d been feeling pretty strong and making good progress in the dimensions that I’ve focused on.  In the past, the seasons where I only recovered from an injury just in time to compete (ANW4 and ANW6) were my best seasons ironically, when I think I was just happy to be able to compete and had fun on the course.  Hopefully that will be the case again!  Regardless of the bumps in the road, the goal for American Ninja Warrior 7 is the same – #VegasOrBust!

The Road to American Ninja Warrior 7 – #VegasOrBust

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

VegasWhile for viewers the American Ninja Warrior 6 season only recently concluded with the airing of the final episodes in September, for me over a half year has past since my season ended in the water below the Ring Toss in the Dallas Finals.  In some ways the season was satisfying – I got selected to compete again for my fifth season, which is always an honor and thrill, and I advanced to the Dallas Finals having been just one of 21 competitors out of around 150 to complete the tough Dallas Qualifying course.  In other ways it was a disappointment, primarily because I failed to achieve a major goal I’ve had since I first dreamed of competing in Ninja Warrior, and that is to advance to the National Finals in Vegas and try my hand at the pimpin’ massive replica of the legendary 4-stage course of Sasuke in Japan.  Two of the last three seasons I’ve fallen just short of this goal by ending my run in the City/Regional Finals only a couple of obstacles before where I needed to get to in order to advance to the National Finals, and it hurts.  I’ve been marinating in that disappointment a lot the last few months and been thinking hard about what I have to do to make it to that next level.

With the American Ninja Warrior season about five months away scheduled to begin sometime in the spring, I thought I’d share with you how I’m preparing for the 2015 season, and what I’m doing to make my dream of earning my way into the National Finals in Vegas a reality.  Here are the five aspects of my training that are at the top of my list in order of focus:

CORE STRENGTH & FLEXIBILITY

One way to get better at anything is to seek the advice of somebody better than you.  Much better than you.  A few months back I had the chance at a training workshop to talk with Drew Drechsel, who is one of the top guys of our sport and a transcendent parkour and ninja athlete, and he shared with me his view that a powerful and flexible core is the most important attribute on the course.  He acknowledged that grip strength of course is incredibly important, but that core often gets overlooked, and is just as important if not more important in the earlier rounds before the latter stages in the National Finals that are grip-intensive.  Given this advice, and that a year ago I badly tore an abdominal muscle that had me on the shelf right up until American Ninja Warrior 6, my top area of focus for preparing for next season is to build a powerful, integrated core.  I’ve always considered myself to have a strong core, but have never really worked hard at it much, and am beginning to realize as I start training my core more frequently that I was deluding myself before.  I’ve asked those in the ninja community for their favorite core exercises and received some phenomenal suggestions, and while my goal is to not get too addicted to any particular core workout but to “mix it up” to train my core for different functional movements, there are a few staple exercises that I find myself using a lot these days:  plank variations, hollow body rockers, and hanging windshield wipers.  So a combination of preparing for American Ninja Warrior 7 and rehabbing from one of the worst injuries of my life has put core strength and flexibility at the top of my training focus this off-season.

GRIP STRENGTH

Anybody who has ever competed or even just watched much Ninja Warrior will say that having a kung fu iron grip is absolutely critical on the course.  And that’s because it’s true.  When I used to rock climb regularly my grip strength was pretty good, but my demanding schedule with work and family doesn’t allow me to go climbing often, and my grip has definitely deteriorated from its peak.  At the same time I see the insane grip workouts that many of my fellow ninjas are putting themselves through (looking at you Jamie Rahn), and I feel a grip strength gulf widening between me and the competitors that routinely achieve my goal of making the National Finals.  So the reality is clear to me that I need to more programmatically work on my grip strength.  I’m dealing with some bicep tendonitis that I need to rest to heal, so a number of training exercises (including climbing) that would be obvious choices for me to work on my grip strength are off the table, so I’ll have to focus on some other exercises that won’t tax my bicep.  For Christmas I’ll be asking for a climbing board so I can train at home in the evenings, and plan to work the various grip and hang exercises.  I’ll also do the Shaolin finger hand exercises in a bucket of rice that a lot of climbers do to rehab injuries and build balanced grip and tendon strength.  I did this last season when I was on the shelf with my ab injury, and it is a ferocious grip regimen that really helped me prepare for the competition when other grip exercises were totally unavailable to me due to my ab tear.

I also have some grip attachments (pipes and skinny ropes) that I can hook up to my kids’ playset in the backyard, and practice on those.  Skinny ropes in particular for me represent a real weakness, and I know I need to get MUCH better on rope and vertical grips in order to make the National Finals, so will be focusing on that in the next five months before competition.  I’ll start with extended hangs, then close transitions, and then leaping graps.  Kung fu iron grip here I come!

WEIGHT

Last season I competed at my lightest weight in my five American Ninja Warrior seasons when I got down to 208 lbs.  It was the lowest I’ve been in almost 10 years, and I felt good and light on my feet.  However, after the competition my weight pretty rapidly returned to its natural “homeostatis” weight of about 220.  I recently had pretty hard training sessions on actual obstacles during trips to Albuquerque and Los Angeles, and I felt very heavy at 220.  Even at 208, I’m one of the heavier competitors in the competition, and this is a big disadvantage for me.  Although I’m clearly delusional to some degree, as evidenced by my competing in American Ninja Warrior at age 43 in the first place, I’m fairly realistic about certain things too.  And one of those things is how much weight I could possibly lose for American Ninja Warrior 7, having relevant data points of how much weight I was able to lose in my sincere attempts to lighten up prior to past competitions.

At the beginning of November I stepped on the scale and weighed an even 220, and clocked in at 16% body fat.  I’m slightly ashamed by that second number, I know there are many ninjas out there who are going to say “Damn!  That’s a fat ninja right there!”  Pretty much every ninja I know would have single-digit numbers for their body fat.  These are some lean fine-tuned athletes.  So I acknowledge that I am not lean at 220 lb and 16%, but it gives me some motivation that (1) I’ve been able to compete pretty well even at this big fatty size, and (2) I have some non-productive weight to shed to get to a lighter weight while not sacrificing muscle.  With almost a half year from the beginning of November to the spring when competition most likely will happen, I feel pretty good about putting out a weight target of 205 lbs (meaning I’d lose 2.5 lbs a month from now until then) and get down to 11% body fat, which would mean 11 of the 15 pounds I’d drop would be pure fat.  If I can hit that goal, I’d feel that I’d done better for American Ninja Warrior 7 than I’d been able to do any other season in this dimension.

BALANCE

Balance is a skill that a lot of ninjas overlook, and they simply hope that they won’t get a brutal balance obstacle in the Qualifying course that begins the competition.  I think there are a large number of American Ninja Warrior competitors who have ridiculous balance from backgrounds in parkour and gymnastics, and while there aren’t very many true balance obstacles in the competition, usually each season a couple of the regions have a tough balance obstacle that reaches out and bites a number of accomplished competitors in the City Qualifying and Finals rounds.  This year that was the Slack Ladder in Venice Beach, which knocked off legendary parkour pro Jesse La Flair (among others), and the Dancing Stones in in Miami which slayed top guys like Idoko Abuh, William Brown, and Brett Sims.  Last year in Dallas our “balance obstacle” was the Tilting Table, which was quite easy, and I have a feeling that we’ll get a more challenging balance obstacle next season.  Balance is not a hard thing to randomly train, so I hop up on beams and rails and practice walking on them whenever I have the chance, and I also bought a kid & beginner friendly slack line that I practice on with my kids on the weekends.  Slack lines are pretty fun, and great balance practice!  My goal is to be ready and confident for whatever balance obstacle they throw my way in American Ninja Warrior 7.

OBSTACLE PRACTICE

While I don’t believe practicing all day long on actual obstacles guarantees success when you encounter them on the course, there is simply no substitute for getting practice on actual obstacles to practice technique and build the psychological confidence that you can surmount similar obstacles when it’s game day.  Sadly I don’t have many actual obstacles at my disposal to train on, and am at a disadvantage to the guys and gals who have obstacle course gyms at their disposal where they can get hundreds of reps of practice.  I’ve never really had ready access to the obstacles though, and have always found a way on my work travels to visit fellow ninjas at their gyms and get some training time and advice from them that I rely on when the competition rolls around.  I’ll continue this approach, and hope to get to places like Alpha Warrior in San Antonio and Iron Sports in Houston a few times before the competition to drill technique and build confidence.  In particular I’m really hoping to build skills in the peg board, which I have a strong feeling we might see in Dallas this year, and the Rolling Escargot which is death to big men and very technique-oriented.  I’m also really hoping to get more experience on some of the vertical grip and rope obstacles as I know I really need to build up my skills and confidence there too.

So for the record those are the five areas, in approximate order, for my preparation and training for American Ninja Warrior 7.  Hopefully I can stay injury-free (always a big ‘if’ for ninjas) and can break through in American Ninja Warrior 7 to realize my longtime dream of making the National Finals in Vegas to compete with the very best obstacle course runners on the toughest course in America.  Vegas or bust baby!