My Failure On The American Ninja Warrior Obstacle Course, And The Introspection That Followed

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I am not an American Ninja Warrior.

I thought I was. I was an athlete for a long stretch of my life, and even a good one for spurts. But I ran the G4 American Ninja Warrior obstacle course during the show's South Central region competition Thursday at Fair Park, and as it turns out, I am not.

Jamie Laughlin and I walked past the Cotton Bowl and onto the set around lunch time. One wall of bleachers was packed with a loud crowd of fans screaming and gesturing wildly at what, at first glance, resembled a gutted, supine Transformer. (Optimus Prime, no doubt, judging from the color.)

Walking the length of it, we could see that it was an obstacle course. Straight and about 50 yards long, the course was divided into six main stations, five of which were suspended over pools of cloudy blue water. The first was a set of ramps, facing each other and staggered. Competitors had to jump from one ramp to the other like, well, a ninja. If they were able to do that, they climbed up to a wide log hanging from a steel track. Competitors were supposed to wrap their bodies around the log and ride it like a zip line to the next obstacle, which was essentially a modern-day flimsy rope bridge. If the would-be ninja warriors survived the sprint across they had to use a trampoline to jump and latch onto a net, climb to the top, flip over, and then roll down to the bottom. After that, all you had to do was swing like a monkey through a gauntlet of dangling ropes, drop to solid ground and then sprint to and then directly up a sheer 14-foot wall. Once you got to the top, you were a winner.

Dozens of athletes hung in a little ninja pen near the starting gate, stretching and posturing and jumping and talking and posturing some more. The women were by and large a little taller than average, and the men mostly a little shorter. Most were at least half-naked, if only to help with the posturing.

I hit my physical peak three years ago, and I deigned to keep my shirt on, but I was still feeling confident going in. Our host, David Welch, jokingly suggested I find some uppers to enhance my performance. I declined; didn't need them. When the show broke for lunch, I got my shot to prove it in front of a half-full crowd.

I failed. Three times. Didn't make it through the ramps.

I immediately came up with a litany of excuses. Blew out my knee in college. Didn't stretch out well enough. The ramp was wet. Thought it'd be better for my story. Didn't want to embarrass the producers.

None of them really mattered though. The point was, I failed. I could feel a lot of the athletes looking at me as I fished around for my glasses in the dirty water, as I dried off afterward. Let them look, because here's the thing; they all failed, too.

Welch told us about a national taekwondo champion who competed the day before, and got about as far as I did before eating shit.

There was a surgeon who looked like he might've played some small forward in college. He got all the way to the hanging ropes before he fell.

There was a Mexican wrestler, wearing a sombrero, mask and all. Never had a chance.

In the hour or so we watched, only two were able to traverse the course and scale the wall. They were both shortish men, about 5-9, and extremely toned, not overly muscle-bound. They looked like gymnasts. Welch said they were probably stuntmen, or did parkour. They were shockingly athletic, but they weren't athletes, not in the classical sense, not to a lifelong athlete like me. They were 21st-century ninjas.

Because overall, the course isn't actually hard, in that it doesn't take much physical exertion to complete. It's not the Iditarod, or the Ironman Competition. It's a Japanese game show that was hijacked to the United States because some rich white guy correctly estimated that we, as humans, have an infinite capacity for shows that involve young, vaguely to very good-looking men and women falling from man-made structures into pools of murky water.

You either can do the obstacle course, or you can't. In that sense, American Ninja Warrior is a prover rather than a maker. You are either born a ninja with few marketable skills beyond the ability to scale a 14-foot wall, or you're not. Maybe you're a regular guy, like most of us. Maybe you're an athlete, like I used to be. Maybe you're bitter, like I am now.

And that's okay. You can still carve out a decent living for yourself, like Denver Broncos wide receiver Matt Willis who failed last year. You just can't be a ninja.

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