Everything looks so much easier on TV. Baldness is cured with the simple spray of a can. A methamphetamine empire can be built in an RV with school supplies. A sponge can live in a pineapple under the sea without being contaminated by off-shore drilling.
American Ninja Warrior, the NBC athletic obstacle series, kicked off another season earlier last week with athletes who make being a ninja look ridiculously easy. They can leap off platforms like spring-loaded cats and hang from ropes and bars with just the top halves of their fingers.
Of course, the reason they make it look ridiculously easy is because they’ve worked ridiculously hard to get there. Any armchair ninja can say they can do that while he stuffs a handful of Pringles into his mouth and and washes it down with a soda from the comfort of his Lovesac.
A local collection of American Ninja Warrior contenders (Karsten Williams, Tyson Faifer, Trevor Parks, Max Grocki and Michael Groselle) known as the Legion of Zoom decided to give those armchair warriors a chance to put their money where their mayonnaise stained mouths are by erecting a replica of the obstacle course to train future TV champions. The Obstacle Warriors gym in Farmers Branch houses challenging replicas of the show’s most famous obstacles, such as the Salmon Ladder, the Devil Steps and even the daunting Warped Wall, and they let all 300-plus pounds of yours truly try to tackle every one of them.
The first time I see the course, I think I might have a chance of being able to walk out of the advanced class with my head held high or at least with my head still attached to my spine. Faifer, a local comedian and Legion of Zoom member who competes regularly on the NBC show, informs me that what I am seeing is the kids’ obstacle course for their Lil’ Ninjas program. They use it to warm up their adult students for the real course located in the back of their space.
The class begins and I couldn't look or feel more out of place if I were on fire. Everyone looks trim and cut as if they’ve been doing high-rise parkour since they were fetuses. Faifer is very reassuring and encouraging despite my doughy physique.
“Some of our obstacles are harder than the show and some are easier than the show,” he says before setting us loose on the course. “Even when we do a session, we’re still sore the next day.”
The course consists of 90 minutes of intense training designed to test strength and endurance. My first attempt wasn’t successful. I stared down a hanging cargo net over a vat of foam blocks to cushion my inevitable fall.
“Is there a weight limit?” I ask the instructors just before my jump. “You’re about to find out."
I leap at the net and my hands make the connection but I tumble towards the foam block pool. As I struggle to pull myself out of it, I realize that getting out of the sea of foam is a bigger challenge than the actual challenge. I would have preferred falling into an empty pool of hard concrete. Sure I’d risk a compound fracture, but at least the paramedics could pull me out so I wouldn’t have to.
And mind you, this is the KIDS’ section.
Everyone else gets across with varying degrees of struggle but they seem to breeze through the smaller section before stepping up to the big kids’ playground. The red and black obstacles loom over us like lords of fitness egging us to challenge them. Even though I know I can’t keep up with the rest, the adrenaline coursing through my veins gets me amped enough to want to tackle most of them.
All of the instructors are extremely patient and go out of their way to be helpful to anyone who steps on to their course. Parks, another instructor who also competes on the NBC show, tried to give me some tips on tackling the most daunting challenge of the course: a 14-foot-tall concave obelisk known as the Warped Wall.
“If you’ve got long legs, take three steps up and then jump,” Parks said. “If you’re short, take four steps. If you’re extremely short, take even more.”
Jeri D’Aurelio, another student in the class, tries to tackle the wall before me, and even though she doesn’t physically overcome it, she comes very close by getting a couple of knuckles over the 4/5th-inch wide bar on its upper lip.
“I got my hand over it twice but I didn’t expect to go that high,” she said. “So when I got my hand over it, I was shocked.”
My attempts were far from coming that close.
Of course, it’s not about completing the challenge but the attempt.
“This is more fun,” said class member Michel Longacre who said he’ll be trying out for the show in June. “It’s more challenging. You burn more calories and it ain’t on TV. It’s a physical challenge and a mental challenge.”
My last attempt at an obstacle for the day is some kind of hanging garden of random ropes and spheres, something I know I’ll never attempt because I could never do a pull-up even when my body wasn’t made entirely out of cheese and beer. Faifer takes a run at the course that finishes halfway with a climb up another cargo net and ringing a cowbell, turning around and making another run back without touching my true nemesis, the foam pit. He works up a sweat, but he again makes it look easy.
I again convince myself to give it my best try.
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My muscles may have not gotten bigger, but my confidence did. The fact that I was able to walk out of the place with the feeling still in my legs made me want to go back and tackle it again, but not before taking a long bath in ice cold Shiner Boch.
“Some just take one look and run around and leave,” Parks said as I exit the gym covered in sweat and glowing confidence, neither of which I've experienced in quite a while in a gym.