The ninjas are coming, the ninjas are coming!
More than 100 climbing, jumping, tumbling, high-flying super-athletes will once again descend upon Union Station for “American Ninja Warrior,” the NBC sports reality show.
They’ll compete on Monday, April 24, in the qualifying round on a massive obstacle course currently under construction in the station’s south parking lot with the hopes of placing in the top 30 in the finals the following night. Then the top 15 will move on to compete in the national finals in Las Vegas for the elusive title of American Ninja Warrior.
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The KC competition is drawing contenders from around the country. When the show came to town for the first time two years ago, none of the KC-area contestants made it past the first round. The Star caught up with a few returning contestants and some first timers, who have set their sights on Vegas.
In addition to 70-year-old Rich Talavera of Prairie Village (see accompanying story), we met:
A mom on the mend
At this point, Annie Dudek is a “Ninja Warrior” veteran. She’s returning for the third straight year, but this go-round just might be her most challenging, physically and mentally:
As the 37-year-old elementary school PE teacher from Independence was training for this year’s competition, she tore an ACL. “It was my first time getting hurt and experiencing anything like that,” Dudek says. “I’d never had stitches or even sprained anything, so it was pretty intense.”
The injury forced the former college pentathlete away from training and into “more mom things.” (It was her young sons who persuaded her to try obstacle course training in the first place.) But then Dudek learned the show would be returning to KC. It was all she needed to hear: “I thought, you know what? I need to give this one more try,” she says.
Fast forward just seven months after her injury and Dudek was back in the gym preparing for her third stab at Ninja-dom, with a little extra support. “I’ve had a few moms reach out to me from social media to tell me I’ve inspired them,” Dudek says. “That inspires me.”
Dudek says she’s also inspired by her students and by showing her sons the importance of bouncing back after a setback: “I’m stronger now than I was in college,” she says. “It’s like I tell all of my kids: ‘You never know if you don’t try.’ ”
Lars Hanson, 23, can pinpoint the exact moment when he began dedicating his life to becoming an elite-level athlete: “When I was in fourth grade I was cut from a team for lacking speed and agility,” says Hanson, of Olathe.
He immediately decided to learn how to properly train, and he caught on quickly. By fifth grade he had improved to such a degree that he began coaching his brother. By seventh grade his brother’s teammates had joined in on the lessons.
Today, Hanson, through his “Ignite Your Game” strength training camp, works with more than 300 school-age kids annually to improve their speed, power and overall athletic prowess. Those are the kids who told Hanson two years ago to try out for “Ninja Warrior” when the show came to Kansas City — a good gamble, as Hanson was one of the lucky few to have his obstacle course runs shown on the NBC broadcast.
“I was able to compete in front of the kids that I coached. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
The first time, the goal was simple: “Don’t embarrass yourself, Lars.” But now, after intensifying his obstacle course training at gyms and in his own garage, he thinks Vegas “is a real possibility.”
That, as well as the bonus of continuing to be a role model to the kids he trains:
“With weight training we traditionally train kids to lift until they fail. With ‘Ninja Warrior’ it’s the complete opposite. You do something until you fail over and over and over until you learn something new and take baby steps to conquering that thing. It’s a good analogy for life: you’re going to fail; just keep on going until you get it right.”
New height, same heart
You’d never know it looking at his athletic 6-foot-2 frame, but once upon a time, Alex Carson, 30, was an overlooked runt.
He remembers going with his parents and little sister to enroll in high school: “She’s 5-foot-5 and two grades beneath me, and they thought she was enrolling because she was actually the taller one,” Carson says, laughing.
Carson, who was 5-foot-2 then, was always underestimated because of his slight stature. That’s part of the reason why in fifth grade he chose the most unlikely band instrument, one that was bigger than he was: “I chose the tuba. I’ve always liked a challenge. Plus, the tuba, with it being so big, it helped me stand out a bit.”
But by the end of his sophomore year, he began sprouting into his current frame and athleticism. Now, ask around the Chaos Course gym in Belton where many of the competitors train, and it’s Carson’s name that comes up among the top athletes. “Alex is a machine,” says gym owner Liz Babcock.
Carson, a Kansas City native, has competed twice before but this time was not officially chosen for the KC rounds; he hopes to compete as one of the 20 walk-ons. The slight, he says, inspired him to train even harder:
“My goal is to make it through the city qualifiers,” he says. “If I can make it through the qualifiers, that will drive me to the next level. If I narrow it down to 30, I know I can narrow it down to 15.”
Carson’s voice is soft but assured, carrying a quiet confidence. “This isn’t about you against other people, it’s about you against the course,” he says. “You pull from how much self-worth you have and how much you believe. It’s a mindset I take through the obstacle course and life in general.”
“I’m the one you call when you get a call from ‘Ninja Warrior.’ ”
Elizabeth Babcock, 31, and her husband, Russ, found their love for obstacle course training the same way they discovered their love for each other: through martial arts. The duo, owners of the Chaos Course gym in Belton, the first ninja warrior gym in the area, met through karate and have been training and teaching together for more than a decade. They opened Chaos initially as a martial arts gym three years ago but soon began exploring alternative forms of fitness.
“In order for our martial arts students to get better we couldn’t have them doing static movements like lifting weights that would impede their movement,” she says. The Babcocks transformed half of their gym into an obstacle course space. With parallel bars, adult jungle gyms and a rock climbing wall, the ninja warrior side of Chaos looks like an adult Discovery Zone, just how she likes it: “You have to kind of be a big kid at heart still to do obstacles as an adult,” she says. “There’s a bigheartedness involved.” Being the first gym to embrace obstacle course training has given Chaos Course and the Babcocks name recognition:
“We’re the first line to get you ready for the show if you haven’t been on it,” Liz Babock says. “You call our number, you get me and you say, ‘Hey Liz, I just got a call for “American Ninja Warrior,” I’ve never been on an obstacle course, can you train me?’ Most of the faces on ‘American Ninja Warrior’ from Kansas City, they’ve been through here at some point in time.”
Despite her considerable skills, she wasn’t chosen for this round of “Ninja Warrior.” This is, after all, reality TV. Oftentimes superior athletes are passed over for contestants with compelling backstories or better luck.
Like Carson, she hopes to compete as a walk-on.
“I didn’t get it easy with a call back. I’ve got to do this the hard way, but that’s OK, that’s how I’ve done things my whole life,” she says. “Bring it on.”
Where to watch
“American Ninja Warrior” will film before a live audience outside Union Station on April 24-25:
▪ Monday night, the 8 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. shows are sold out, but tickets are still available for 2 a.m.
▪ Tuesday night, the 8 and 10:30 p.m. shows are sold out, but tickets remain for 12:30 a.m.
Get tickets or join the waiting list for sold-out shows at on-camera-audiences.com/shows/American_Ninja_Warrior.
Kansas City is one of six cities hosting qualifying events, along with Los Angeles, Denver, San Antonio, Cleveland and Daytona Beach, Fla.
Season 9 will premiere at 7 p.m. June 12 on NBC.