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‘American Ninja Warrior’ Is Sparking A Family Backyard Workout Renaissance


I’m not a very handy person. Nonetheless, I have started an epic building project in my backyard. My three sons have begged and pleaded long enough. The swing set needs to go back to doing its job as a swing holder and not some odd mix of metal, 2x4s, and PVC pipe that my kids call an obstacle course, which they traverse to get to the make-believe buzzer. So I’m building an obstacle course out of lumber, pipes, rope and some other items, as directed by the plans I bought online.


So why am I subjecting myself to several weekends of toil and accidentally hammered thumbs? You have likely seen the phenomenal reality TV show called “American Ninja Warrior” (ANW). If you haven’t, it features an oversized obstacle course where competitors have to use huge amounts of upper body strength, balance, speed, and a little bit of planning to get to the end in the fastest time possible without falling into the water below. The best and fastest move on to compete at the Las Vegas finals to win a $1 million prize. The show started eight years ago, and is an offshoot from a Japanese TV show called “Sasuke.”

ANW is a reality show, but it’s also a sport. It’s unique in that men and women can both compete in the same course and league, and there is no lowering the standards for women. Everyone has the same obstacles to beat. Even though as a whole women thus far have not done quite as well as the men, each year more women compete, and each year they do better and make it further.

These athletes have tremendous skill, but they are also normal people, most with normal day jobs. While not perfect, they have been much better role models than athletes who feel the need to make social commentary in their time on the field. If you doubt their skills, you can take note that many professional athletes, from football players to race car drivers, have competed on ANW, and most of them don’t get very far.

Good Role Models in a Challenging Sport

ANW makes the obstacles a bit tougher every year, but tens of thousands of contestants send in videos and stand in walk-on lines to try to get on the show and compete. Only two people have ever completed the full finals course in Las Vegas. Last year, Geoff Britten was the course’s first finisher, but Isaac Caldiero completed the course right after him with a narrowly faster time. Both now hold the title of American Ninja Warrior, but Caldiero is the only one to hold the title winner. My kids think Britten is not fully appreciated because he didn’t get any of the prize money.

My favorite part about this sport is that while you do have to craft a good video and have the right story or look to get picked for the show, once you’re on the field, it’s a sport that relies solely on your preparation, skills, and determination.

I don’t teach my kids to idolize athletes or famous people, but it’s still refreshing having some athletes on TV who just go out there and do what they do best and don’t talk a lot of trash or turn their sport into politics. They are role models that encourage boys and girls to get out and get physically fit.

My three young boys know all the names of the top ANW athletes. While they sometimes play organized sports such as soccer, baseball, and football, my kids hardly know the names of any famous athletes in those sports. They do know Kacy Katanzaro, the first woman to get up the warped wall, and weatherman Joe Moravsky, who usually destroys the course on the first few rounds, although he has yet to make it past stage three in the Vegas finals.

The Development of a New National Sport

Of course I worry that as the kids move from jumping across couches and swing sets to a full-blown obstacle course they may get hurt, but all sports have some risks. Kids get seriously hurt playing football and baseball every year. The rewards, however, are physical fitness, focus, discipline, a sense of accomplishment, and a positive and healthy respect for competition and athletes without a lot of the baggage that other sports bring.

I’m not always the best sports parent. I have at times overly focused on my kids’ playing time on the field instead of them just having fun. I have also watched coaches pick their kids to play over other kids, and have probably been guilty of this myself when I was a coach. I’ve watched kids who have the skills to play get left out regardless of how good they are. I’ve also seen kids get left out and never given the chance to play because they aren’t as talented. But on the obstacle course, it’s all on yourself to work hard and do your best and keep getting better.

There aren’t leagues for this yet, at least not like there are for baseball, but Ninja Warrior gyms and events for kids are popping up all over the country. I don’t know if this reality show will be around when my boys turn 21 and are allowed to compete, but they have already been having the time of their lives cheering on their favorites and learning the same skills that the top athletes strive to excel in. We’ve even made the pilgrimage to a couple of different Ninja Warrior gyms.

As the sport grows, I’m sure problems will develop. Hopefully they will be overcome. For now, at least, ANW is a show and sport that encourages athletics, equality, and good sportsmanship, and it shows that regular people can do amazing things.

As for that soon-to-be behemoth obstacle course in the back yard: my kids saved up their own money to pay for the materials. So they are dedicated and “have some skin in the game.” I even expect my teenage daughter to work out on the course. Who knows, maybe she’ll be the next Jessie Graff! It’s okay if you don’t know who that is. Just look her up and be inspired.