We saw some great stories and shocking moments in the Venice Beach city preliminary round competition. Though this is certainly not a comprehensive treatment, for me these were the top stories of the opening round in Venice.
Top Veterans Deliver Top Performances, Advance – Although they got different degrees of TV coverage, a handful of the top long-time American Ninja Warrior veterans put in dominating performances. Shane Daniels (2nd), David Campbell (3rd), James McGrath (5th), Brian Kretsch (7th), and Brent Steffensen (11th) showed that although there are many new amazing competitors on the scene, the traditional pantheon of top dogs are not ready to be displaced.
Derek Nakamoto Falls Early – Derek Nakamoto had a truly amazing rookie season performance in American Ninja Warrior 4 when he not only lit up the Southwest Regional Finals with the 7th fastest time in a stacked field, but blew everyone away with the fastest time in Stage 1 of the National Finals in Las Vegas. Expectations were high for Derek entering American Ninja Warrior 5, and despite the motivation of his own traditional Japanese drum section playing for him on the course, he slipped up on the Floating Chains and fell to the gasps of the crowd. Even the great ones fall early in competitions, proving that any obstacle can reach up and abruptly end your season. I think despite the early exit in American Ninja Warrior 5, we’ll see great performances from this talented and focused 22 year old in many future seasons.
Flying Nunchucks Take Down Many – In what most likely proved to be the toughest single obstacle of any preliminary course in this year’s American Ninja Warrior, the Flying Nunchucks took down a long line of new and veteran competitors, including studs like Paul Darnell, Michael “Frosti” Zernow, Kyle Cochran, and Brian Orosco among others.
David Campbell Delivers the Goods – David Campbell is a legend in the Ninja Warrior crowd for his focus and discipline as a competitor, and for being one of the few American competitors who got to compete in Sasuke (Ninja Warrior Japan) multiple times before American Ninja Warrior even existed. In American Ninja Warrior 3 he went farther than any other competitor, and fell on the second-to-last obstacle in Stage 1 of the National Finals last season. One thing that sets David apart is his consistency, he rarely trips up early in competition, and this year was no exception as he delivered the 3rd fastest time.
The Frame Slider Takes Out Grandpa Ninja – Kelvin Antoine, one of the show’s true stars with fans and fellow competitors, delivered one of American Ninja Warrior 4’s most inspiring performances by being the oldest competitor at age 53 to ever complete the preliminary course. His warm personality and positive attitude make him a great spokesman of the “age is just a number” philosophy that he often quotes. Although his American Ninja Warrior 5 run ended early with a fall on just the second obstacle, the Frame Slider, it doesn’t change his inspiring message and journey, and I’m sure we’ll see Grandpa Ninja back on the course defying his age often in the future.
Justin Walcker Overcomes Tourette’s, Dominates Course – In one of my favorite inspiring story-lines of last season and this one is Justin Walcker, who has overcome Tourette’s syndrome to be a top competitor in American Ninja Warrior. American Ninja Warrior 4 was his rookie season where he advanced to the National Finals in Vegas. This year in the prelims in Venice Justin proved that last season was no fluke by blasting through the course to hit the buzzer. I predict we’ll see Justin excel for many seasons to come, and we should all be reminded by him that with focus and determination, many seemingly insurmountable challenges can be overcome.
Second Early Exit in a Row for Brian Orosco – Brian Orosco is a legitimate legend in the Ninja Warrior and parkour communities, having competed multiple times at Mt Midoriyama in Japan as well as being the star in the lone season of the short-lived (but pretty awesome) Jump City. Last season he had a surprisingly early exit when he fell on just the fourth obstacle, the Jump Hang, in the opening regional round. This year he made it one obstacle further to the Flying Nunchuks, a brutal obstacle where he was just one of many to fail this difficult vertical grip test, handing Brian his second early-exit in a row.
Cowboy Finishes Course, Hat Doesn’t Budge – Lance Pekus, a rancher from Salmon, Idaho, cruised through the course with his cowboy hat on without it ever falling off. With so many amazing parkour studs, rock climbers, and stuntmen dominating American Ninja Warrior, I love seeing people of unusual backgrounds and training situations doing well on the course, it reminds the rest of us “common folks” that people of any background have a chance if they have the heart and determination to compete.
Dr. Noah Kaufman Fixes Shoulders, Destroys Courses, Gets Misquoted on Parkour – We all cringed when we saw American Ninja Warrior veteran Alan Connealy take an awkward fall out of the Frame Slider and dislocate his shoulder. Fortunately for him Noah Kaufman, a fellow competitor waiting his turn to run, happened to be an Emergency Room doctor, and he was able to come over and deftly pop Alan’s shoulder back into place to a reward of a gasp of “ohhh, nice!” from Alan. Noah then took his turn on the course and demonstrated a rock-climber’s strength by easily handling the Flying Nunchucks and finishing the course with ease. In his interview Noah shared his belief that the first American Ninja Warrior would be a rock-climber, something I’ve also said for years – ridiculous grip strength and stamina will be required to make it through the late stages of Mt Midoriyama. Apparently Noah was misquoted in the telecast when Matt Iseman said he called “parkour guys wusses” which was in fact was a joke between Noah and a parkour friend of his. This has unfairly made Noah a flash-point in a newly created Parkour v Rock-Climbing debate, and I’ve heard directly from Noah that he has great respect for the Parkour athletes.
Jesse La Flair Floats to Top Time – I must admit, I love watching Jesse La Flair. So smooth and effortless, so skilled. Probably why his parkour videos on YouTube are so watched with millions of views. He continued that theme by breezing through the course in the Venice prelims to the top time and making us all wonder what he’ll do next.
Badass Chicks on the Rise – Watchout men, there is no doubt that there are many badass women ninjas on the rise and getting stronger. Jessie Graff made history be being the first woman to ever advance to the regional/city finals round, and Erika Schwarz and Kacy Catanzaro delivered inspiring strong performances making it all the way to the Flying Nunchuks. I believe American Ninja Warrior 5 is the year that the women ninjas put the men on notice that they are for real, and American Ninja Warrior 6 will be witness to a true monster breakout performance by one of the many strong women ninjas in our midst. My money says that American Ninja Warrior 6 is the season where we see a woman finish the preliminary course for the first time and smash that buzzer.