Many have come and few have succeeded on American Ninja Warrior (ANW), which is currently enjoying its fourth season on G4, and first season on network television, also airing on NBC. The reality competition show, which pits challengers against a series of physics-defying obstacle courses, is currently narrowing down the field to 100 hopefuls, who will compete in Las Vegas for a $500,000 prize and the honor of being—you guessed it—the American Ninja Warrior.
This year, just over 900 people tried out for the competition, a modest total compared to, say, American Idol, which draws roughly 100,000 aspiring singers a year.
The reason for the disparity? While you need only a karaoke machine to prepare for AI (as the cool kids call it), ANW is a totally different kind of animal. The multifaceted courses you see on the show cannot be found in your average gym, and no matter how hard you train, nothing can quite compare you for the real thing.
For David Campbell of Scotts Valley, California, a rock-climbing and martial arts enthusiast, that meant taking the matter into his own hands—literally. Back in 2006, Campbell first caught wind of Sasuke, the original Ninja Warrior incarnation from Japan. It was in that year when G4 began accepting audition videos for the original American Ninja Challenge, which sent aspiring U.S. ninjas to Japan to face Mount Midoriyama; the final and greatest test of the Sasuke.
“When I started, it was all about making videos to get chosen,” says Campbell, who is coming off back-to-back runs as a finalist on ANW. “Most of the people who got voted in were parkour practitioners who had these crazy videos. If you wanted to compete with the parkour guys, you needed some flashy tricks that would get people to vote for you.”
Since Campbell wasn’t a parkour pro, he needed another route to gain some onlookers. (According to him, simply hanging off bars for a long time to show off grip strength doesn’t come across very well on video).
So Campbell, inspired by the DIY (do-it-yourself) attitude of the new millennium, did just that; he built his own homemade obstacle course in the backyard of his California home. The project killed two birds with one stone; it gave Campbell a selling point to be chosen for ANW, while providing him the perfect training ground for the course-crazed competition.
Campbell kept expanding on the course, with the help of nephew and fellow ANW veteran Travis Furlanic, to the point where construction was shifted to a larger property in Santa Cruz owned by Campbell’s brother. It was there where things really took off, and three years of hard work culminated into the ultimate backyard creation.
“We basically have close to a carbon copy of the course in Japan,” says Campbell, who took some measurements while at Mt. Midoriyama, and extrapolated the dimensions. “It’s the biggest and most elaborate replica in the country. There’s some other pretty good ones, just not quite as sophisticated in the design.” Campbell and Furlanic also received help from Brian Kretsch, another ANW vet.
Building his own homemade course allows Campbell to train for ANW’s most brutal obstacles, including the Ultimate Cliffhanger, which sealed his fate at the past two Sasuke events.
“Physically, it’s one of the most difficult obstacles in the course,” says Campbell. “It requires such a specific type of strength. You’re hanging from your arms for a long time, having to do very large jumps with precision catches [to the next ledge]. Plus every obstacle in itself is very challenging, because you don’t have any time to rest in between them.”
Angela Sun, ANW’s sideline correspondent, has seen her fair share of competitors this year, all with their own unique stories. “It takes a lot of dedication and time to do this, just the training in general,” said Sun. “One of the most unique things about ANW is that you literally have to build the course yourself to train. But that’s what the passion and competitive spirit is all about. That’s what makes these people tick, they love challenging themselves.”
As helpful as it is to train on a homemade course, Sun did not discount the experience of doing it live, in front of a crowd of people, and the millions who will be watching on TV. “It’s such a different feeling on the platform having all the eyeballs on you,” said Sun. “You’re on a stage with lights and music; not just competing but performing. It may look easy on TV, but in person, it’s a whole different ballgame. You have to be so prepared both physically and mentally.”
The mental aspect is one of great significance for Campbell, who has his own method of preparation before every course run. “I do deep, Japanese meditative breathing to gain focus,” he explains. “More than the physical side, I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve had consistent success on the show. There’s guys with better cardio and comparable grip strength, but the mental aspect is huge for your technique.”
Furlanic (who likes to let out a big yawn before each course) also appreciates the level of mental acuity needed to succeed on ANW. “I like to visualize going through each obstacle; get it down in my head, so I know exactly what I need to do,” says Furlanic. “I don’t like to watch other competitors; you tend to see them mess up and it freaks you out. Failure isn’t an option,” he laughs.
Both Campbell and Furlanic will try to avoid failure as they strive for ANW’s top prize. As the show grows in popularity, more and more Americans view the obstacles as something they can do, albeit with some proper training and serious dedication. Furlanic got nostalgic when describing just why ANW is ingrained in the hearts of many.
“Everyone is a monkey inside,” says Furlanic, referring to the bars of the same name. “We all grew up on playgrounds, climbing trees. ANW gives people a realistic goal that, with training and dedication, they can really go after.”