To be successful on the NBC summer hit “American Ninja Warrior,” it helps to have muscles everywhere — and don’t forget to work out your fingers.
It’s late afternoon at a gym in Belton, and the topic is the competition show’s super-tough Cliffhanger obstacle. This gym has a small-scale version: several harmless-looking boards affixed at various heights along a wall.
Problem is, there’s very little to grab onto — a 1-inch or so ledge — as you jump up and try to cross the wall from board to board.
On the Cliffhanger, you’re hanging by — supporting your entire body weight with — your fingertips, points out Stephen Young, a University of Kansas business and pre-med student. He’s one of the 125 or so aspiring Ninja Warriors who’ve learned they’ll compete on the show when it films in Kansas City starting Friday night.
It’s all about tendons, Young says.
Which puts the Cliffhanger in a league of its own. “Training the fingers to do that is completely different,” gym owner Russ Babcock says.
Their conversation then turns to competition footwear — Young prefers Asics Tiger shoes.
Jock talk can be heard at any gym, but this one, Chaos Course, is something different: Russ and his wife, Liz, opened their Ninja Warrior gym just last December, about a month before they heard the show would come to town.
Which is not to say that only ninjas can work out there, but the gym has attracted at least seven of the show’s Kansas City contestants. (So far we don’t know the exact number of local people who will compete on the KC course.)
Chaos Course is not, as you’d guess, a typical-looking gym. It’s a storefront in a little strip mall with inside space divided between the course itself — kind of like monkey bars on steroids, with poles and ropes and rings and a mini-trampoline — and a room for karate, kickboxing, yoga and other classes.
Before opening their own place, Liz and Russ, 29 and 31 respectively, taught karate in Belton’s community education program. Both have been fans of “Ninja Warrior” from way back, watching the original Japanese show, “Sasuke,” on cable.
Opening the gym “was an extension of our martial arts,” says Liz, because the couple found themselves working on movement, strength training and core gymnastics with their karate students. Plus they saw how passionate devotees are.
Russ, by the way, tried to get on “American Ninja Warrior” this season but wasn’t selected, and although the show typically takes several walk-ons, he will not be among them. Russ has a day job (designing plastic molds) and the gym and three kids. He couldn’t camp out in front of Union Station for several days in hopes of competing. (A few dozen would-be walk-ons did that last week, before folks from the show took their names and told them they could leave.)
What does the show look for in contestants? Young thinks he knows:
1. Ability to complete the famously difficult “Ninja Warrior” obstacle course. (The obstacles, with names like Spinning Log and Devil Steps, vary some from city to city, and any intel about them is quickly disseminated online.)
2. A compelling backstory.
3. Hotness. (It’s worth noting that “American Ninja Warrior” is reality TV, not all that different from, say, “The Bachelor,” except the ninjas don’t make out with each other or receive roses.)
“To get on the show I beat out several Olympians,” Young says modestly.
Which is possible, actually: Liz Babcock says the best athlete who works out at Chaos Course wasn’t chosen for the show.
As for Young’s backstory, he says he has held seven of the 10 most dangerous jobs, such as cellphone tower climber, tree trimmer and construction worker. He has also been a competitive rock climber, a group that does well on “Ninja Warrior.”
But these days Young, 32, who grew up in New York City and moved to Kansas City from Austin, Texas, in 2007, plans to go into emergency medicine or orthopedic surgery.
He has been working out four to six hours a day, including at the Cave Bouldering Gym in midtown (yes, it’s in a cave, 10 stories underground). He has also trained with a couple of “veterans,” previous “Ninja Warrior” competitors, at Warrior Sports in Springfield, which sounds similar to Chaos Course. Actually, that’s where Young heard about Chaos Course.
He says he’s fitter now than he has been in seven or eight years.
“I’d be ecstatic to make it to the city finals, which is pretty doable,” Young says. That means he’s hoping to survive the cut from around 125 on Friday night at Union Station to about 30 on Saturday night.
About 15 competitors from the shows in Kansas City, one of five cities this season, will then go on to the finals in Las Vegas, a course that no one has ever conquered. Days ago the Vegas grand prize was boosted from $500,000 to $1 million.
Liz and Russ met in a karate class in Pittsburg, Kan., and attended Pittsburg State University. Russ, being a design engineer, also created their gym’s obstacles — 16 and counting.
“As soon as we hear what an obstacle might be, we’re trying to create it for our competitors,” says Liz, a former children’s social worker.
She and Russ will also be among the show’s KC testers. They’ll get to run through the course a day before competition begins.
“I’m already nervous, and it’s not for anything,” she says.
But it’ll be great experience — she and Russ both hope to get on the show next year.
Russ started building “Ninja Warrior” obstacles in his Raymore backyard and basement even before the couple found a location for the business. (Lots of people do that, as evidenced by YouTube.) He attached an early version of the gym’s Salmon Ladder to the back deck. Imagine using hands on a steel pipe to jump up from notch to notch.
Every competitor or would-be competitor has strong suits and not-as-strong suits. Jesse Thomas of Lee’s Summit, for instance, another guy who got on the show, “rocks the Salmon Ladder out pretty good,” Russ says. Same for the Unstable Bridge, which involves hanging from planks suspended by chains. Oh, and managing to get across.
But for Thomas, a former college football player, the Cliffhanger is an obstacle in the obstacle sense. The reason: He weighs 185 pounds. Although he has dropped 20 pounds since February, lighter people tend to do better when hanging by their fingers.
Some who make the show have zero experience with a “Ninja”-style course. That was true of a young woman from Omaha who has driven down to practice at Chaos. It was also true of Alex Carson of south Kansas City, who arrived at this gym a week after he got the call from “Ninja Warrior.”
“Every year I watched it, I thought: ‘That’s easy. I can do that,’” says Carson, who’s best at “anything with rings or the nunchucks.”
The show’s challenges typically involve traversing something while hanging from your hands or bounding across something like a rolling log, says Russ, who keeps lists of each city’s obstacles in a notebook. Few obstacles let the athletes use both hands and feet.
The gym does not plan to be dependent on wannabe TV stars. The Babcocks offer a youth Ninja Warrior class called Battle Monkeys. They’ve heard from the Springfield gym that kids birthday parties there are a big hit. But adults in any shape can also benefit from a Chaos Course workout.
“Everyone always calls it alternative fitness,” Liz says, “but we’re doing what humans were designed to do.” Hang. Climb. Crawl. Jump.
For her, whether it’s watching on TV or witnessing acts of athleticism in her own gym, this kind of movement is a form of art. Beautiful. Crazy.
“I think we’re all still very primal,” she says. “We’re amazed by what human bodies can do.”
To reach Tim Engle, call 816-234-4779 or find him on Twitter @tim_engle
TWO ‘NINJA’ NIGHTS
“American Ninja Warrior” will film Friday and Saturday nights in the parking lot in front of Union Station. Start time should be about 8 p.m., but your best bet for getting tickets might be the 12:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. audience seatings. Register at on-camera-audiences.com.
The show’s Season 7 debuts May 25 on NBC.
About 125 contestants will try to complete the Kansas City course this weekend (including Tyler Brayton, a former NFL lineman).
Among the local competitors (in addition to KU student Stephen Young):
Alex Carson, 28, of south Kansas City is a graduate of Grandview High School and Kansas State University, where he played tuba in the marching band. He works as a manufacturing engineer for Continental Disc Corp. in Liberty. He’s also an enthusiast of woodworking and Dance Dance Revolution.
Annie Dudek, 35, is an elementary P.E. teacher in Independence. “I’m just doing it because my boys (Major and Kaicen) wanted me to do it,” she says. And her husband, Casey, “is an amazing supporter.” She interviewed some of her students for her “Ninja Warrior” application video.
Brad Lynn, 37, is a sergeant with the Kansas City Police Department. He grew up in the Northland and graduated from Oak Park High School. He has a wife and four kids. He likes to compete in 5K runs and mud runs. Oh, and he’s a magician!
Jesse Thomas, 28, of Lee’s Summit, attended Archbishop O’Hara High School and Benedictine College, where he played football. He later played arena football for the Salina Bombers. He works as an account manager for Enterprise Fleet Management in Merriam. He has four kids, including 4-year-old twins.
Know of others from the KC area who made the show? Let us know by emailing email@example.com.