The Ultimate Ninja Experience – My Run on American Ninja Warrior
American Ninja Warrior. I can remember when that name first registered in my brain — a similar feeling as the first time I heard American Idol and The Voice. All are Olympics of their own kinds. I watched American Ninja Warrior (ANW) in awe, marveling at the seemingly impossible obstacles the competitors were tackling, and somehow able to accomplish.
I remember walking in to a ninja warrior gym for the first time, petrified by the size and scale of the apparatuses. I was quickly humbled by my inability to complete many of the obstacles; some I didn’t even come close to finishing. I thought I was in shape, but I quickly realized how far off “ninja fit” I was. I really just showed up to try it out but discovered it was fun and challenging, so I kept coming back. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, and progress began to have a snowball effect. By summer 2018, I was training on a ninja team with coaches that competed in the ANW Vegas Finals, and we all had the same goal: American Ninja Warrior Season 11. In the midst of racing season and the holidays, I pulled together my audition video and application.
When my phone rang the first week of April, and I saw the famous 818 area code of Los Angeles, I freaked out. On the phone, the ANW Senior Casting Producer was telling me “McKenna, you’re headed to Tacoma, Washington for ANW 11.” Talk about excited! And, then, the whirlwind schedule began. The next few weeks I worked with all of the different producers and staff, not to mention training as hard as possible, plus the 2019 racing season was kicking off. A whirlwind? More like a tornado. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Behind the Scenes of American Ninja Warrior
The morning of May 10, I was in Tacoma for the casting call. I felt like I was going to the first day of school with my backpack on my back and my dad dropping me off with the other ninjas. They marched us into the dome in a group and directed us to a waiting area for our interviews. It was fun to get to meet the other ninjas and hear their stories. One of my favorite moments was when we stood on a spinning platform doing cool flex and slow mo shots as part of our interviews. On our way out, I could see the spectacular lights shining from the course and hear the sounds of water splashing as testers came in to run through the obstacles. Chills — “I’ll be out there tomorrow,” I thought.
The next day kicked off with getting my “mug shot” where I held up a sign with my name on it in the outfit I was planning on running the course in. After we handed in paper work, they gave us goodie bags and and herded us into the ninja holding pen. I mean literally a pen with some snacks, a practice bar, a little section of an obstacle, and a small TV where we could watch the action … and waited. We did a course walk through where they showed us each obstacle and ensured that we all understood the rules of the competition. It was also the first time we got to see the obstacles up close, which was a relief but also intimidating at the same time. I sat in the pen for six hours waiting to go and was worried I wouldn’t get to run before the lunch break. When they called my name, I grabbed my racing firesuit and helmet before heading to the platform to determine my fate. After a few warm-up pushups, they told me to go and stand behind the platform. It was so crazy being below the stage. The smoke machines were hissing like dragons while the crowd chanted my name. I peeked over the stage, trying to see family and my eyes connected with my dad’s. Finally, it was MY TIME. I strode down the platform, turned around and flexed, and then ripped off my firesuit. I figured a little theatrics couldn’t hurt to get the crowd going, right?
Go time. That course; it’s so bright and crazy! I flew through the steps on the first obstacle and then ran and grabbed the door on the second obstacle and flew off of it in one swing. I landed on the other door and the crowd went crazy as I flipped to the back side and jumped off onto the mat. I went to the next obstacle and hit the tramp as hard as I could and then grabbed the bars and told myself to start swinging. My heart was beating so fast. I flew and grabbed the rung on the next barrel and climbed to the top, stopped, turned — and smiled at my family. I’ll never forget that moment. I got my mixed grip set and then kicked off and dismounted. And, the next thing I knew … I was upside down, staring at the water in absolute shock. The icy water engulfed me and filled my lungs, and I came up struggling to breathe. In fact, I think I lost my breath even before I hit the water. I was in shock more than anything. My run was over. Cut short on such a simple dismount similar to ones I’ve completed tons of times in practice. I was crushed. But unpredictability is a big part of what makes ANW so competitive. I watched some of the best ninjas in the world go down on some of the “easiest” obstacles. I prayed that I would make the show, have fun, and make it past the first obstacle. God answered all of those prayers. Drew Drechsel, one of the top American Ninja Warriors, even came and shook my hand and told me how strong I looked. That was really cool. Even though I didn’t hit the buzzer, I was grateful just to be there and to make it halfway through the course. You can see my run here.
Hard Work, Sweat, and Belief
When I think of the term American Ninja Warrior today, it’s a little bitter sweet because what was once a name that used to be so powerful and high profile, is now a part of who I am and what I do. My ninja family is quite simply that – one big happy family that I love dearly. I don’t know who I’d be or where I’d be without them, not only in ninja, but in life and racing as well. I’m grateful for the life-long memories I’ve made with my ninja teammates, coaches, and competitors on the show — their encouragement, advice and belief in me helped make this dream possible. The American Ninja Warrior producers, film crew, and staff made this Iowa girl feel welcome and a part of this special fitness media phenomenon that’s captivated so many. It’s another platform to showcase Iowa pride and hopefully inspire others that hard work, sweat and belief can lead to some pretty great opportunities and friendships.
When I think of ANW, I think of the countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears shed, wondering when and if it would ever pay off. I think of all the ripped up and calloused hands, in pain trying to hold the steering wheel driving home. I think of the hours spent crushing vitamin E pills on my palms and taping them to try and heal my hands in time to train the next night. I think of all the times I got in the shower after practice, waiting for the stings from all the cuts and ‘obstacle’ burns. I think of all the times I left every ounce of strength I had out on the training course and all the fun times my teammates and I have had just lounging on the obstacles talking and laughing. But most of all, I think of all the times I slid down the dreaded warped wall, over and over and over again, before finally getting on top. Sometimes I would crawl back down and do it again and again. Other times, I would just sit up there, all hot and sweaty and smiling, and just soak in the view, dreaming of the same view with lights, cameras, a crowd, the announcers…and a buzzer.