Millions around America watched Monday’s Kansas City episode of “American Ninja Warrior,” but perhaps nowhere was the excitement greater than at a particular Overland Park Hy-Vee, where more than 100 relatives, friends and fans gathered for a watch party to support 70-year-old contestant Richard Talavera as he set out to make “Ninja Warrior” history.
“In KC, they love their Chiefs, their Royals, their barbecue and their Ninjas,” host (and former Oakland Raider) Akbar Gbajabiamila said as the hit NBC reality competition show kicked off its “Kansas City Qualifiers” episode. For the next two hours, with Union Station aglow in the background, Ninja Warrior hopefuls raced through obstacles for the chance to move on to the KC Finals round of competition.
In addition to competitors from around the nation, the episode briefly featured a number of local athletes from Wichita, Mission, Fairway and the Ozarks— as well as Independence schoolteacher, mother of three and three-time Ninja Warrior alumna Annie Dudek. But the show, and this Hy-Vee bar, made it clear that tonight belonged to Talavera.
From early on, NBC producers had been in awe of Talavera, a Hy-Vee pharmacy tech who can do a handstand on a skateboard; it’s why they decided to give Talavera a spotlight during the show.
“I guess you would say I’m not the average pharmacy technician that you would meet,” Talavera said during his special segment, which included footage of him doing gymnastics, swimming and diving and track and field. “Whatever it is that I’m doing, I want to be the best I can be.”
These wunderkind feats were also the reason that the Market Grille bar at the Valley View HyVee in Overland Park was loaded to the brim with supporters.
They came in an array of uniforms — some family and friends donned their rose-red “Never Stop Ninja” shirts created by Talavera’s wife, Brenda Talavera. A few of his softball buddies wore their team uniforms. His “Ninja Warrior” trainer, gym owner John Brown, came in his Revolution Gym T-shirt. Others, fresh off work or the day’s errands, sported their everyday duds. “We’re all wearing different stuff, but we’re here for the same reason,” one onlooker said.
“We’re all so proud of him,” said Brenda Talavera. “But we’ve also known this is what he’s about. This is Rich. Everybody kind of expected this, in a way.”
Despite being less than a year removed from hip surgery, and a few years removed from a debilitating stroke that stole 30 percent of the feeling on the left side of his body, Talavera wowed “Ninja Warrior” hosts as he not only competed, but made history.
A week prior at the Daytona Beach qualifiers, 65-year old John Loobey became the oldest competitor to complete a “Ninja Warrior” obstacle. But just after 7:25 p.m. Monday, when Talavera conquered the Floating Steps — five sloped landing pads suspended over water — co-host Matt Iseman announced, “History has been made by a 70-year-old. Rich Talavera, the oldest athlete ever to complete an obstacle on ‘American Ninja Warrior,’” to the roars of the Hy-Vee bar.
Talavera wiped out soon after, splashing into the water below the next obstacle, the Hang Glider. But by then the deed, and history, had been recorded:
“I hope you’re not disappointed by how far I didn’t get,” Talavera said with a smile to the crowd as he stood atop a set of bar chairs after his segment ended to applause and shouts of “We love you, Rich!”
Because of his early fall, Talavera didn’t make the Top 30 moving on to the Kansas City finals round, which was filmed at Union Station the following April night but won’t air until Aug. 14. But for the “Never Stop Ninja,” the setback is only temporary.
“I will be back,” he told the crowd. “My goal is to go back and beat my own record.”
Dudek and one other local contestant, Alex Carson of Kansas City, did reach the Kansas City finals and will compete for one of 15 spots in the finals in Las Vegas. The ultimate prize: $1 million.
“What’s everybody else’s excuse?” Brown said after watching his run on TV. “Rich is 70 and working hard every day to be better not just as an athlete, but as a human in general. … He’s absolutely inspiring.”
“The fact that I’m out trying to do this, I want people to see that seniors, we can still come out here and compete,” Talavera said during his segment. “Age does not have to dictate what you do. You can keep on going.”