In a life filled with extraordinary feats, one in particular landed 70-year-old Richard Talavera a spot in the “American Ninja Warrior” competition in Kansas City.
“I can do a handstand on a skateboard,” he says calmly.
Talavera, who lives in Prairie Village, admits he has always thought about competing on “Ninja Warrior.” When the show came to Kansas City two years ago, he didn’t know about it until it was over. But about two months ago, a co-worker at Hy-Vee told him the show was returning to Union Station April 24-25. “I thought, ‘What the heck,’ and I filled out an application,” he says.
Only problem was, Talavera was too late. The show’s entry deadline had passed.
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So it was peculiar, he thought, when an NBC producer in Los Angeles called just to tell him that his application was ineligible.
“But then the guy asked me if I could really do a handstand on a skateboard,” Talavera says, laughing. “I told him yes, so he told me to send a three-minute audition video showing my athletic ability and telling a little bit about myself.”
“And of course the handstand.”
So Talavera enlisted his son to help him whip up a quick audition video and sent it to NBC. Three weeks later, Talavera got the phone call: Though he had virtually no familiarity with obstacle course training, “American Ninja Warrior” offered him a slot in Monday’s qualifying round outside Union Station.
The show uses two major factors to select competitors, says executive producer Kent Weed: “their physical ability and their story. We are always looking for competitors that share something unique, special and inspirational.”
But don’t think this is just a reality TV gimmick. Talavera, who is also a personal trainer, has mounds of athletic experience that translates well to “Ninja Warrior.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Talavera was an all-state gymnast in high school and state champion at the college level. He moved to Kansas City in 1969 and planned to stay for just a year. “Eight kids later, I’m still here,” he says with a laugh.
In the ’70s, Talavera says, he qualified for Olympic trials but was ineligible because he had previously been paid as a coach, a violation of Olympic amateur guidelines at the time. (Two gymnasts Talavera defeated at nationals ended up making the team, he says.)
“That was kind of bittersweet,” he says. Still, he stayed active and awesome. Talavera would continue to compete in gymnastics at the club level until he was 40.
“That’s when I took up softball,” he says.
Then at 50, the Senior Olympics track and field. At 60, he became a decathlete. In 2013 at the Sunflower Games, Talavera entered 10 events, earning nine golds, one bronze and the event’s top overall competitor award. He also taught martial arts for 25 years, served in the Army in Southeast Asia and represented the military in the Iron Man swimming and diving competition.
“I’ve always been a pretty active guy,” Talavera says.
He says the age difference has him a little nervous, but he still has the confidence to compete on “Ninja Warrior”: “I’ve only had about a month and a half to train for this, but I plan to pull from my experience as a gymnast and decathlete to get through this.”
Perhaps it was this spirit of perseverance that helped Talavera secure a spot on the show.
He has already been through plenty. Nine years ago he suffered a stroke that took away 30 percent of the feeling on his body’s left side. Last August he underwent hip replacement surgery. Last month his ex-wife, with whom he had remained close, died after being diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer some weeks before. They had two daughters together.
Still, throughout it all, Talavera has maintained a cheery demeanor sure to delight the audience.
“I’m probably going to be the oldest guy out there. I’m competing against 30- and 20-year-olds,” he says.
“But I’m going to have some fun.”