My American Ninja Warrior 7 Experience

“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.