Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbajabiamila
Each year, hundreds of athletic and agile competitors descend upon Venice Beach, Calif., in a bid to become the very first American Ninja Warrior, which returns Monday (9/8c, NBC). But what, exactly, does it take to become a Ninja? I decided to take up the challenge — or fail trying!
Adapted from the Japanese program Sasuke, the American spin-off challenges competitors to make it through four separate stages of obstacles that test speed, agility, grip-strength and balance, among other attributes needed to be named the very first American Ninja Warrior in history. The first two stages take place in Venice (or other various qualifying cities). Stage 1 consists of various obstacles, including the Quituple Steps and the Warped Wall, while Stage 2 is an extension of the first but also includes longstanding obstacles like the Salmon Ladder and the Spider Wall Climb. The final two stages move to Las Vegas, with much more difficult and changing obstacles — so difficult that no one has ever made it to Stage 4, the elusive Mt. Midoriyama, named after the Japanese version's filming location.
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"When you think about Americans and all the achievements they've done over the years, whether it's putting 12 men on the moon or having over 590 climb Mt. Everest, no American has ever completed Mt. Midoriyama, so there's still that big hurdle for them to overcome," executive producer Kent Weed says.
But I'll be the first to conquer Mt. Midoriyama, right? On a balmy night in March, I hit Venice Beach to take a stab at Stage 1. As a reporter for TVGuide.com, I get to cheat the system as I'm escorted straight to the course, but for those vying for a spot on the show, they have a long night ahead of them that will stretch into the wee morning hours as they wait for their turn among thousands of strong and equally determined hopefuls.
What does it take to stand out among the more than 3,000 who sent in video submissions for Ninja Warrior's upcoming sixth season? And that doesn't even include the walk-up competitors who show up to the course in hopes of getting a slot! "We're looking for interesting people and people that can finish the course. It's a combination of story and skill," Weed says. Unlike other reality shows, ANW is not looking for goofballs to make fools of themselves. This competition is so difficult, even fellow Ninjas root for each other just hoping someone, anyone, will make it to Mt. Midoriyama. This includes female competitors, who have yet to topple the Warped Wall, the final obstacle in Stage 1.
"We want women to complete it, so we're really studying closely that they have the proper amount of training and body strength and upper body strength," Weed says and points to last season, when women made it to Stage 3 in Las Vegas for the first time ever thanks to a special wild card group.
Still, the powers that be won't make it easy for anyone to reach Stage 4, let alone through Stage 1. With the exception of permanent obstacles — the Quituple Steps, the Warped Wall, the Salmon Ladder and the Spider Wall Climb — each city will have two dozen never-before-seen obstacles for the Ninjas to face.
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Standing at the top of the course, ahead of me is a sprawling array of obstacles that look like a parkour playground, including the infamous Quintuple Steps, the very first challenge that everyone must pass to advance. It takes out a surprising number of competitors, more than you might imagine. I needed all the help I could get, so I turned to veteran Ninja Brent Steffensen for advice. "Just focus on one thing at a time," Steffensen tells me from the sidelines. As one of the only Americans to get within spitting distance of Mt. Midoriyama, Steffensen has been a fixture on the competition series since Season 2. Now, heading into Season 6, he's something of a legend. "Don't be thinking about the Warped Wall while you're doing the Quint Steps," he says. "Definitely just be in the moment and knock them down one at a time."
Besides focus, another key to tackling the course is strength, since all of the challenges are designed to push the Ninjas to new limits even if they're already in peak physical condition. "I strength train about an hour to an hour a day for four to six days a week," Steffensen says. "Then I train, whether it be obstacles, free-running or acrobatics, another three or four days a week for about two hours or so. You can't just be a rock climber or a gymnast or a parkour guy. You have to have a lot of different skills to come to the course because you're using a ton of different elements: grip strength, mini-tramps and length strength."
Suffice it to say, it takes a lot of hard work to become a Ninja, but that's not to say the average person can't make it. Former competitors whose skillset lies beyond the world of parkour and rock climbing include Harlem Globetrotter William "Bull" Bullard, Olympic gold medalist runners DeeDee Trotter and Lauryn Williams and NFL's Shawne Merriman. This year, Olympic luger Kate Hansen and rower Susan Francia will both take a shot at the course.
Even host Matt Iseman has given the course a whirl and calls it a "humbling" experience. "They make it look easy," he says of the Ninjas. "I tried the Jump-Hang in Miami last year [and] missed so badly that I went headfirst. They thought I was going to crack my neck, so they were like, 'Iseman, you're done!'"
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But it's that brief chance of accomplishing something amazing that makes American Ninja Warrior so compelling. Ninjas train over a year for what could turn out to be a blink-and-you-miss-it experience. "A lot of people say this course isn't doable," Steffensen says. "I've been almost there. I think it's going to happen this season. But it's such a touchy sport. Even the best athletes have gone down on the Quint Steps, so anything could happen."
Let's all just remember that when you take a look at our special American Ninja Warrior photos here to see how far I made it through the Quint Steps. Do my Ninja Warrior dreams come true? After that, get more tips by checking out a first-person perspective video below of how to really get through the course:
American Ninja Warrior returns Monday at 9/8c on NBC. Will you be watching?
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