Over 2,700 people have attempted to conquer Mount Midoriyama in Japan—only three have been successful. If the previous sentence didn’t make one lick of sense to you, don’t worry. In all likelihood, you are not a modern day ninja.
For those who are familiar, however, Mount Midoriyama is the pinnacle of Sasuke, a 15 years (and running) Japanese televised event that pits 100 competitors against each other in a series of obstacles. Mount Midoriyama, a towering 70-foot steel structure, is the definitive test for the Ninja Warrior, a term that also refers to the international version of Sasuke that airs in 18 countries worldwide.
This week kicks off the fourth season of American Ninja Warrior (ANW), which will begin airing on G4 (the preliminary rounds), eventually culminating on NBC (the preliminary finals and grand finale). Following a successful third season, the show is primed to take the national spotlight this summer amidst a TV schedule flooded with reality singing competitions. It’s time for a reality show that, quite frankly, kicks some ass.
ANW is co-hosted by stand-up comedian Matt Iseman and former Olympic gold medal skier Jonny Moseley. For both guys, it’s been a pleasure and a thrill to watch a wide array of unconventional athletes put their skills on display.
“We’ve seen some world class athletes,” says Iseman, who enters his third season as co-host. “I honestly think it may be the most demanding athletic challenge; I cant think of anything that tests you in terms of strength, agility, endurance, but also, the mental aspect of it. It’s an incredibly demanding sport.”
Moseley, who is no stranger to competition thanks to his experiences in the Olympics and X Games, has been equally impressed.
“It’s so hard to train for; the guys with experience know what to expect, but the obstacles are constantly changing, so you can’t always prepare for it,” Moseley explains. “It’s gotten to the point where people are building obstacles in their backyards, trying to mimic what they see. I’ve been blown away with how obsessed these guys are with their training. They are consumed with trying to defeat the course.”
Brent Steffensen is what you’d consider a seasoned vet on ANW, with a couple of years of experience under his belt (including two trips to Japan for Sasuke). A former gymnast, stuntman and snowboarder, Steffensen acknowledged another physical discipline that prepared him for the rigors of being a modern day Ninja Warrior.
“For about seven years or so, I’ve been doing a lot of free reign parkour,” says Steffensen, referring to the YouTube sensation of running, rolling, jumping and vaulting your body through urban obstacle courses. “ANW really attracts the parkour crowd, and has given me and others the opportunity to put all that stuff to use in a new way. It’s definitely an advantage, as far as training and learning all the disciplines.”
When it comes to preparing for ANW, Steffensen focuses on functional circuit training to get his body into the type of shape required for the grueling, multifaceted obstacle courses on the show. “Lots of chin-ups, variations of chin-ups, core exercises, lunges, push-ups,” Steffensen elaborates. “Circuit training comes in handy, because when you’re doing the course, it’s basically like you’re doing circuits. You’re expending all your energy on one obstacle, and then you get a little bit of rest before the next one. Functional body weight exercising really comes into play; you need to be familiar with how to balance your body weight.”
Another huge part of the preparation is diet, and Steffensen makes sure to keep healthy eating habits. “To get the best performance out of your body, you have to put some good fuel in it,” said Steffensen. “I try to eat as healthy as I can, lots of salads, stay away from processed foods and sugars. If it comes from the ground, I’ll eat it.”
Steffensen will be one of many eager competitors this season with hopes of becoming the first “true” American Ninja Warrior, now that the show will conclude on U.S. soil for the first time. At stake is $500,000 when the show’s finale airs this summer in Las Vegas. Iseman noted that while there are a lot of reality-based competition shows out there (i.e., Survivor, The Amazing Race), nothing quite compares to ANW.
“It’s in the reality genre, but there’s more of a sporting element to it,” he says. “Survivor and those shows are all about devious personalities and the gamesmanship of that. This show isn’t as much about people competing against each other as it is competing against the course and competing against themselves. We do a good job of not only presenting the athletic angle, but also telling the stories behind these competitors. You get attached to them, and attached to their journey, from the qualifying rounds all the way to Mount Midoriyama.”
The hosts have seen their fair share of wide ranging athletes and personalities on the show, including one guy in his 50s who thoroughly impressed Moseley. “This course can basically eat you alive, but this guy was in crazy shape,” Moseley recalls. “He was really fired up. To see a guy like that push himself to the limit, while guys half his age tried and didn’t have a shot; it was probably the most impressive thing I’ve seen.”
With the popularity of ANW growing, the youth of America is picking up another unconventional way to get active, as the obstacle courses continue to catch on in communities. “There are gyms that have cropped up all over America,” says Iseman. “The younger generations, that have grown up on extreme sports and the X Games are always looking for different ways to challenge themselves. That’s what I love about this course; it’s a great way to measure your true athleticism.”
One thing is for certain, being a true Nina Warrior takes hard work and isn’t easily attained. Just ask Iseman, who tried out some obstacles and, well, wiped out. “I have [tried the course], unfortunately, and there’s video of it,” says Iseman of his run. “I hit the water so hard they had to refill the pool. This course will humble you and it will break you.”
With the new season on the horizon, the goal to emerge victorious on ANW will be sought after by many, including Steffensen, who still has dreams of completing the elusive Mount Midoriyama.
“No American has ever conquered it, and I definitely plan on changing that this year,” says Steffensen. “It’s going to be a huge season for the sport, with the finals being held in Vegas, and I’m ready for whatever they can throw at me.”