Welcome to the eighth season of American Ninja Warrior, where muscular people perform amazing feats of upper-body strength and yet they mostly fall into pools anyway. New cities! New obstacles! New faces! Also, old faces! Oh, my friends, Matt Iseman and I are so excited we can barely contain ourselves.
We begin our latest American Ninja odyssey at Universal Studios Hollywood, where there are not one, not two, not three, but four brand-new obstacles! This season, our old pal Kristine Leahy explains, the ninjas will kick off the course by running across a series of precarious wedges called the Floating Steps. Then, they will swing on a rope! From there, they will swing on a trapeze bar! This will give them the necessary momentum to throw themselves at the brand new Tick Tock, which is pendulum shaped like a very threatening traffic barrel. Upon successful dismount, they will move on to another new and sinister obstacle called the Escalator, which is a series of six swinging steps and not actually an escalator at all. Should they survive that, they will have the opportunity to partake in the also new Ring Jump, where they must maneuver three rings over a series of pegs. After that, it's the return of the I-Beam Cross, and finally, they'll face the Warped Wall, which is taller and warped-er than ever. I respect what they are doing here, but haven't these people ever heard of jogging?
The first competitor of the season is 25-year-old actor Brennan Mejia, also known as the Red Power Ranger. "Tonight, I'm definitely going to crush this course and make sure I show that Power Rangers can do it, too!" he enthuses attractively. But there is a problem — they cannot. Mighty Morphin' Brennan miscalculates the Tick Tock and into the water he goes, never to be heard from again.
There is no time to mourn his loss, though, because returning competitor Tory Garcia, naval officer and mother is up next. "You can be a working mom and also fulfill your goals," Tory informs us. Oh good, this is my favorite reality TV narrative! I find it very empowering. Anyway, she has a strong start, but she is felled by the Ring Jump. Splash! It is true, what they say. Women really can't have it all.
Boy, howdy, who could it be but America's favorite Boy Scout, Jackson Meyer! His goal is to combat the dangerous stereotype that Boy Scouts cannot be also ninja warriors. Can they, though? I worry. Jackson cruises through the first four obstacles, but loses his grip climbing up the I-Beam. Poor Jackson. No merit badge this year!
After skipping a whole bunch of contestants, it is time for us to meet strapping young buck Chad Sorrells. "I love waking up early, saddling the horses, and doing dirty, hard work," Chad Sorrells drawls as soft-core porn music plays in the background. "The way I communicate with the horses, they really do understand me, and it's cool." One gets the impression that he and the horses may indeed share an entire vocabulary. While in his own assessment, Chad has got both "the abs" and "the hair," he does not have the skills, and falls immediately. Hubris! It will be the death of us all.
There are truly a staggering number of people on this show! It is exhausting just watching them, and yet I, too, feel fitter, in a way.
Tiana Webberley is a former pole-vaulter, current Outback Steakhouse waitress, and protégé of American Ninja legend, Flip Rodriguez. Everything is going great for our girl Sweet-T, until she makes the risky decision to try to land the I-Beam feet-first, and is pulled backwards into the water by physics. Next up: Steve Seiver, a sensitive military vet who struggled with alcoholism after his wife left him, but then got sober and became a yoga instructor. If Seiver were my teacher, I would totally do yoga. (Maybe.) "That boy is strong!" coos Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, speaking for both of us. But as I like to remind myself, strength is not everything, and Seiver is no match for the extra-warpedness of this year's Wall.
Will Clifton Graves, my favorite bespectacled pharmaceutical sales rep, be the first to complete the course? Nope.
Alaska's own Nick Hanson came in 31st place last year in Venice, but his ninja skills have "inspired an entire nation." He attacks the course with quiet confidence, and though it seems a little touch-and-go on the I-Beam, the "Eskimo Ninja" climbs the Wailing Wall and buzzes the buzzer of triumph. "American Ninja Warrior brings together all walks of life!" Matt Iseman cheers. "Wooooooooooooo!" Nick bellows victoriously, amid a wild eruption of festive white smoke.
Nolan Gardner is a special-ed teacher who was born deaf and reminds me a lot of Jonathan Groff. (This is a compliment.) But alas, Nolan-Jonathan is quickly crushed by the Ring Jump and is promptly devoured by the sea. I am devastated. I can't even imagine how Nolan-Jonathan feels.
Not only is Natalie Duran a "YouTube sensation," but also she is a professional rock climber and a UCLA researcher. As a "hobby," she likes to crash parties. I have some questions about Natalie's definition of "hobbies," but who am I to quibble with greatness? "You know what I'm gonna say, Matt — Duran, Duran!" Akbar announces as she crushes the I-Beam. "Oh, she is hungry like the wolf!" And then tragedy strikes: Natalie misses the top of the Warped Wall by mere inches. Just imagine if she'd scaled it! She could have had a view to a kill!
You know who is great? Grant McCartney. He is a flight attendant and general life enthusiast who is very excited to be back on the course. "The whole aviation community has been backing me!" he claims. Thank God, I say. I have always gotten the impression that the aviation community could use some cheering up. Grant gets off to a bit of a rough start, probably because he is used to training on Hawaiian vines, but he hit his stride by the Escalator, uses the strength of his jawline on the I-Beam, and runs up the Warped Wall like it's the Flat Floor. And he's having so much fun! It is almost like endorphins are real.
Former gymnast Sean Bryan planned to be a priest, so he moved in with a bunch of friars. Then he decided not to become a priest after all, but kept his living situation. Now, he helps them with all the IT stuff, and also trains in their garage. Obviously, they are praying for him. The Papal Ninja has never actually done an obstacle course before, but he is racing through this thing. And he masters the Warped Wall on the first try! "Perhaps a puff of white smoke," Matt muses, "because we've got a new papal ninja here!" This isn't really a sentence, but it is a really good joke!
More people we don't see! Some of them make it, though, so I suppose we will get to know them later. It is good to have something to look forward to.
Mike Burke is a 42-year-old, animal-loving zookeeper. "I met my beautiful wife Karen at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park," he confesses, as we mysteriously zoom in on a picture of a leopard. But last year, Karen died after a long battle with cancer, and Mike is competing to celebrate her warrior spirit. He doesn't make it very far, but that doesn't even matter, because, as Matt wisely intones, "victory comes in many forms."
Onward! Wizened 26-year-old ninja Flip Rodriguez is up next, cheered on by his squad of miniature 6-to-8-year-old warriors. It is his most mature performance yet, Matt and Akbar agree, and as expected, he makes it to the top of the Wonky Wall with the fastest time yet and gets his celebratory smoke-puff.
And then, the moment we have all been waiting for: Stuntwoman Jessie Graff is back and better than ever, because she has been working out with her mom, who recently decided to spent her retirement strength training, as one does. Whatever Jessie is doing, it is working; she glides from obstacle to obstacle with the strength of a collegiate ex-pole vaulter, the elegance of a gazelle, and the outfit of a cartoon character. Success! She is the first woman to complete this course! It is a historic moment for all of us.
Last but not least is the one and only Kevin Bull, who is accompanied by a bunch of kids from the Children's Alopecia Project. They love the guy — truly, who can resist him? "So smooth on the course," Matt notes, admiringly. "He looks like a ninja!" Akbar agrees. What I love about Akbar is his passion. What I love about Kevin Bull is that he dominates this course in record time.
And so it begins! Who is your favorite warrior so far? More importantly, who do you feel had the most adorable brigade of children?