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James Gross stands high above the crowd at Ninja Nation and reaches out for an apple-sized object suspended in the air in front of him. Grasping it between his palms, he hangs on as the bar above him slides down a U-shaped track.
At the end of the track, the momentum bucks and launches him through the air to a cargo tube net filled with kickballs. He clings on in a bear hug and in no time at all has maneuvered to a thick vertical climbing rope. Like a soldier in basic training, he quickly scales to the horizontal bar at the top.
“Just a little farther,” he tells himself.
Swinging his body forward and back beneath the bar, Gross eyes another bar six feet in front of him as he plans his transfer. He kicks his legs back quickly one more time.
A well-timed release and he is there, easily dropping down to the finish. The timer clicks off and the other competitors turn to look at his time — 3 minutes, 31 seconds, an impressive run — enough to win him first place. He flips backward in celebration onto the giant airbag below.
If you haven’t heard of Ninja Warrior by now, you might actually be alone. With 10 seasons behind it, NBC’s hit show American Ninja Warrior has amassed a cult following in its Wednesday evening time slot. Contestants are pushed to their limits as they try to complete a demanding obstacle course in the quickest time possible.
It sounds simple enough, but elite athletes train year-round only to be eliminated a few obstacles in. Rock climbers, gymnasts and free-runners have been among the most successful, making use of their grip strength and spatial awareness.
Starting in 2009, the show originally aired on G4, a former cable and satellite channel partially owned by NBC. Structured much like American Idol, each season starts with city qualifiers and follows contestants as they progress through several rounds of competition. Only the top 30 advance to the finals on the Las Vegas Strip.
Also just like American Idol, the show features a personal profile before athlete’s appearances. These often play up themes of adversity such as financial difficulty, military deployment, health issues or injury.
You can’t help but root for each contestant after their bio hooks you. When someone is losing their grip and hanging by only a couple of fingers, you are hanging there with them. When they fail on the same obstacle as last year, you fail too. It’s gut-wrenching.
The course becomes a metaphor for life and trying to find a way through it.
Most contestants are unable to complete all the obstacles in the later rounds. In that case they are ranked by the furthest point reached and the time spent getting there.
Only those who complete all the obstacles are given the title Ninja Warrior. Since the show’s inception, only two contestants have earned this distinction. Gross hopes to add his name to that list.
Hoping to provide a home for local ninjas in training, Ninja Nation opened Oct. 13, becoming the first Ninja Warrior gym in Frisco. The Denver-based company scouted several possible locations in North Texas before settling on a move-in-ready warehouse space in Frisco.
If you're looking for treadmills and barbells, look elsewhere. But if you're hoping to earn the title Ninja Warrior or train in an unconventional way, this gym just might be your new home.
Located in a nondescript warehouse on North County Road near El Dorado, the 17,000-square-foot space brings all the wow of the TV show from the moment you step inside. In keeping with the “American” Ninja Warrior theme, everything is red, white and blue. Colorful LED spotlights add to the electric ambiance.
For gym manager Brittany Rodriguez, opening the location required “such a learning curve.” A former physics teacher and head volleyball coach at Plano West Senior High School for 14 years, Rodriguez had no prior business experience. But she’s thankful for the position and learning every day.
The gym’s busy schedule keeps her on her toes. Kids’ birthday parties are a big draw on the weekends. On weekdays, daytime high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes offer a more generalized workout. Group Ninja Warrior classes are offered Tuesday through Thursday evening, with a family class on Saturday morning.
Coaching at the gym is led by Karsten Williams, a Plano East Senior High School grad and five-time Ninja Warrior finalist, and Jonathan Bange, a personal trainer who competed as a rookie in season 10 of the show.
During open gym times and parties, a number of young employees with the title of “area host” stand near obstacles offering advice and encouragement. They also keep a watchful eye out to prevent any collisions or misuse.
Only a year into his training now, James Gross has been a regular at Ninja Nation since it opened in October. The easy commute from his home in McKinney to the gym in Frisco enables him to work out almost every other day.
For Ninjas-in-training like Gross, having the opportunity to practice on replicas of the actual obstacles is invaluable. There’s a tactical element to each that can only be mastered by hands-on experience. This gives members a huge advantage over those practicing on DIY obstacles at home.
“Just going into each season, if I can conquer the obstacles in there it helps me to feel like at least that I can conquer the obstacles on the show,” Gross says.
An Aspiring Ninja
Perhaps his father had some idea of what was ahead, since he wanted to name his son Bruce Lee. Instead, he ended up passing down his own name, James.
Gross has always been athletic. His dream was to play for the Dallas Cowboys. In high school, he sported No. 22 in honor of his favorite player, Emmitt Smith. He later played semipro football for five years, at one point for the Collin County Rattlers.
Gross has since refocused his athleticism on Ninja Warrior as of December 2017, when his wife, Madison, knowing how much he loved the show, gifted him a membership to a Ninja gym.
He began training aggressively after work and on weekends. He even dropped weight to reach 185 pounds, down from the 205 pounds of his football days. At 5 feet, 11 inches, the leaner build helps to lighten the load on his arms and his legs throughout the course.
“It’s easier to fly when you’re lighter,” Gross says.
In March 2018, he competed in the Dallas City Qualifiers at Fair Park. Competing as a walk-on contestant, he had to drive there every day for a month to “check in” and let show producers know he was around and ready to compete.
He got his shot but was eliminated on the fourth of six obstacles. He fell on the tricky tuning forks, which require extreme balance as you navigate the tiny tops of rotating Y-shaped posts.
“That was the new obstacle, and nobody had ever seen it,” he says. “That was the exact reason why so many people failed. These new obstacles that they throw at you each and every year — you’re just unaware of and you have to focus and kill it in the moment or else you have to wait for next year.”
In the moment, the excitement got to him.
“When you’re up there with the lights in your face and the adrenaline rushing ... I don’t know what happened,” he says. “That plan went totally out the window, and I just did 1-2-3 and tried to go across it. And that is probably why I failed, because I didn’t stick with the plan.”
His finish left him two spots away from advancing to city finals. Eager for another try, he has been preparing his video reel for his season 11 application, which NBC recently made available.
Only a year into his training now, he can often be seen tackling the hardest obstacles with his trademark confidence. Area hosts Andy Sorensen and Trent Litzen watch him train and say he “won’t back down from anything” and has a “fearless” style.
Others at the gym benefit from Gross’ outgoing personality and willingness to help. Thanks to daughters Maleah, 8, Zailyn, 6, and son Kysen, 3, he is an expert at encouraging hesitant kids. Rodriguez notes that James “has a huge heart and wants to see others succeed.”
While some Ninja gyms are split into adult and children’s areas, at Ninja Nation everyone shares the same space.
Kids seem to love training beside impressive athletes like they see on TV. It shows them what is possible and gives them ideas for what to try. Gross sees this as an opportunity to mentor the next generation.
“Life is all about transcending yourself, so every obstacle that they face, I look at it as an opportunity to help them conquer something they have never done before. Those are good moments I get to share,” he says.
The fact that everyone can train in one place makes spending family time together easy. Gross and his wife Madeline bring Zailyn and Kysen every Sunday.
“My kids they just love this stuff. It’s like playground to them.”
Gross says his deepest wish is for them to be healthy and have a healthy lifestyle.
Not even fatigued after traversing the bouldering wall up, down, up, and down again using only his arms, Gross approaches a Ninja’s most formidable foe — the salmon ladder.
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Twelve feet tall, it is a rigorous test of upper-body strength and coordination. Contestants must use their arms and core strength to maneuver an unattached metal bar directly up a series of angled rungs a foot apart.
Biceps bulging, body flailing for momentum, Gross makes quick work of the obstacle. Clink. Clink. Clink. He is to the top and back down again without ever breaking rhythm.
Other gym patrons watch in admiration of the command he has of his body and the obstacle.
It is this absolute confidence and mastery he will need to find success on the show. With his patent optimism, Gross says, “It’s all good signs pointing in the right direction for next year.”