Archive for the ‘The Dream’ Category

I’m Officially Invited to American Ninja Warrior 8!

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

I’m truly excited and humbled to share that I just got my official invite to compete in American Ninja Warrior 8!  I’m deeply grateful to have an opportunity to continue to compete in the show, it’s been a surprisingly amazing and transformative experience.  This will be my seventh season competing in American Ninja Warrior, and I never could have guessed that during that time it would rise from being an unknown show on G4 to a global sensation.  It has captured the imagination of not just America, but of the world.  It’s consistently been one of the top-rated summer shows in the US over the last few years, and the past few weeks have seen both Ninja Warrior Vietnam and Ninja Warrior France go down.  Who would have guessed an obstacle course competition full of the “every man (and woman)” competing against elite professional athletes would resonate so profoundly with so many people?  I feel so lucky to get to continue to be part of this journey.

I’ll be competing this year in the Oklahoma City region, which is one of the five regions for this season, along with about 100 other invited competitors (another 15-20 “walk-ons” will join us to compete after waiting in line for days).  The competition will start on Friday May 13th for the OK City Qualifying round, and then the top 30 competitors will advance to the OK City Finals the next night to determine the top 15 ninjas that will advance to the National Finals in Vegas sometime in June.  Twice in the last four seasons I’ve made the Regional Finals only to fall just short of progressing to the National Finals, so my goal is clear – make the National Finals for the first time.  I feel good about fulfilling my American Ninja Warrior 8 Pledge to be better prepared for this season than I have been for any previous season, I feel healthy and without injury for the first time in several years.  No excuses.

Thank you everybody for your continued support and enthusiasm, it means a lot.  I used to think that folks would think less of me and that I was nuts for my pursuit to be one of the top obstacle course runners in America even as I fully entered middle-age (will turn 45 shortly), but I’ve had the opposite experience, I have been deeply touched by the encouragement and love I’ve received on this journey.  Thank you, and I can’t wait to get on that course!

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.

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!

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!

 

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 :-)