Ninjas in Our Midst

ninjas-in-our-midstAmerican Ninja Warrior is set to kick off its seventh season early this year. Aspiring champions all across the country are training hard and submitting entry tapes, hoping their personality and athletic prowess are enough to earn them one of the few limited spots. Ninja Warrior is a grueling obstacle course event that originated in Japan and has since expanded to the United States. While the Japanese version of the televised contest has seen champions, no one at home has ever earned the ultimate prize: $500 thousand and the prestigious title of ‘American Ninja Warrior’.

The course is a race against the clock loaded with obstacles. Would-be Ninja Warriors must scale curved walls, jump between canted platforms, make vertical leaps while dangling from poles, and do some other truly unbelievable things in order to traverse the course. Competing requires superior physical strength and endurance, and only those with the best runtimes move onto the next stage, of which there are a total of four. A single slip means falling into cold water in front of millions of television viewers, with no re-dos until next year. To date, no American Ninja Warrior participant has made it beyond the third stage.

Failing to see a champion crowned only drives more people to want to compete each year, and it motivates veterans to continue making runs. Those who don’t see the games through to the end seem to enjoy the challenge and experience that comes from competing on television with other athletes from all walks of life. Despite their collective defeat, American Ninja Warrior veterans are a sea of smiling faces and determined attitudes. Many cite it as one of the most fun experiences of their life, resulting in lifelong friendships bound by a sense of unity.

“It’s a good community, we ninja warriors,” says Ed Lorenzo, who competed in American Ninja Warrior 5. “We all get along. Because at the end of the day, I’m not competing against (another competitor), I’m competing against the course. … I always tell everyone, ‘we’re in this together’. We’re all still in the same boat, man. None of us has ever conquered it. … Here in the United States, nobody has ever made it past round three, and that unites us.”

Ed and his wife, Elizabeth, have made Ninja Warrior their full-time career by opening Fit Lorenzo in 2010. In 2012, they began building a Ninja Warrior course at the 7500 sq. ft. facility, which is located in Palmetto. Inside the walls of Team Lorenzo there have been past competitors from all over the country, in addition to new faces who hope to one day be the first person to conquer the elusive fourth stage and bring home the grand prize.

One such contender is Colleen McCormack, 27, who trains at the Lorenzo gym once a week as she prepares to compete for the first time next season. Colleen is a Florida native who works out nearly every day, using fitness as a positive outlet as she copes with a major family tragedy. She believes her story will inspire others, and hopes to share it on a national stage. But there’s one more reason in particular why Coleen stands out from other Ninja Warrior hopefuls:

“I actually don’t (have any obstacle course experience). I’ve done races, but my only sort of athletic background is cheerleading in high school,” she laughs.

While it is true that most American Ninja Warrior competitors do have a variety of obstacle course races under their belt, the community is made up of people with diverse athletic backgrounds in competitive running, CrossFit, parkour, martial arts, college football, and much more.

Marybeth Wang, 33, has competitive gymnastics on her resume, and runs her own business, Jubilee Gymnastics in Ruskin. She trains at the Fit Lorenzo, and is an American Ninja Warrior veteran herself, having competed in the Season 6 qualifier. She is currently finding the time to make another run while juggling her job as a trainer, and mother of two young kids.

“Running a family, running a business and still training – still chasing your dreams – it can be done,” she says, mentioning that she finds it difficult to work out as much as she’d like, and really benefits from staying active by teaching classes and chasing her “very fearless, very active” kids around the house.

Accompanying Marybeth next season will be both the Lorenzos, with Elizabeth aiming to join her husband amongst the ranks of those who can call themselves American Ninja Warrior veterans. If selected, the 28 year old would be the smallest athlete to ever compete, standing at a mere 4-foot- 11 (“and three-quarters,” she jokes). Although Elizabeth has other obstacle course championships under her belt, Ninja Warrior offers her a spotlight on a larger stage.

“I want to showcase what I’m all about,” she says. “I want to prove that even though I’m 4’11 and three-quarters, I can do it. I have what it takes.”

With Miami hosting the regional qualifiers for American Ninja Warrior, Florida has no shortage of people interested in the show and its athletes. For aspiring ninjas and veterans alike, there are a growing number of unique opportunities in the Tampa Bay area to train and join the larger community.

Josh Hill, 27, competed in American Ninja Warrior twice, with potential plans to make a third run. The veteran owns his own gym, Parkour Sarasota, which he uses as the primary venue for his Ninja Warrior training. Josh says parkour makes him feels as though he’s having fun on an “adult playground,” as opposed to putting in an intense training session.

“I try to stay away from Ninja Warrior specific workouts,” he says. “I will practice on (Ninja Warrior courses), just to feel them out. But I don’t train on them. I do more parkour than anything because it’s such a well rounded thing to do; you learn how to move with your body, which is what you need to do on American Ninja Warrior.”

While Josh was defeated on the first round in both of his runs, he feels as though his switch to a parkour focus greatly improved his performance: “When I ran my first year, I was training on obstacles in my back yard. … I was really strong, but I was like a wrecking ball running through there; I was just smashing into stuff – all power, no finesse.

“But this (past year when I participated in American Ninja Warrior), I flew through the course, and it felt like it didn’t take any effort. I ended up slipping on something silly. My shoe was wet. The guy who ran before me cannonballed on the cross-steps and soaked the cross-steps. So, I had to run with wet shoes and slipped.”

Other veterans have taken to training exclusively in their back yard. Sean Morris, 27, has turned his Sarasota home into his own Ninja Warrior course, complete with 18-foot rock wall, ground-level trampoline, slacklines, and an indoor climbing cave. He invites the public to stop by and try it out.

“We have an open-door policy – feel free to go climbing whenever you want. We’ve maintained that for six years. I’ve gone on television and said ‘yeah, if you want to come by, we’re down in Sarasota,’” Sean says. “We take this very open-ended, laid-back approach and it provides nothing but a more enjoyable life.”

Sean is a media producer and programmer, describing himself playfully as a “Jackass of all trades” since he has also made time to compete in every American Ninja Warrior competition to date. Sean has consistently made it to the stage three finals every season before being eliminated, making him one of the most accomplished veterans in the country.

While he’s presently on the fence about competing again, Sean plans to stay active in American Ninja Warrior, hoping to adopt a behind-the-scenes role in the show’s production. For now, he stays busy with his developing business and by hosting education seminars that encourage kids to stay active and live a healthy lifestyle. And to those aspiring Ninja Warriors out there, Sean says this about competing on television:

“The course is purely difficult because you have to do it on the first try under an immense amount of pressure. It’s careless errors that take 95 percent of the people out. Nothing except getting too nervous and doing something silly.”

Other veterans in the community echo this sentiment, saying that every athlete will learn from trial and error, and many won’t find their legs until after they’ve slipped and fallen into the waters or found themselves stuck on an obstacle after time has run out.