And we're back to Atlanta, where the peaches are sweet and the pressure is on. Tonight, we will winnow our Southern field from 30 startlingly athletic men to 15 specimens of agility and fitness. James McGrath is "ready to beast it," which also happens to be my natural resting state. Let us begin!
But first, Kristine Leahy must do her patriotic duty and walk us through tonight's course. It is just like the Atlanta qualifying course, except more impossible. As always, we begin with a ritual run on the Floating Steps, followed by a violent swing down the Big Dipper (longer, and without a net). Then, it's on to the Block Run (four blocks now, instead of five), the Spin Cycle (same), the Pipefitter (taller and less swingy), and our old friend, the Warped Wall (a true classic). But there's more! Ninjas who survive the first half of the course will get the unique opportunity to move on to the second half of the course, designed to test their upper-body strength and drain them of their life force. First, the Salmon Ladder! Then, they'll maneuver through the Floating Monkey Bars, which require they fit each bar into a floating tray before using it to swing onto the next. After that, it's time to face the all-new Clacker, which is a "series of arcing levers," and also used as a torture device in some countries. Finally, they'll hoist themselves up the Invisible Ladder, like the world's most athletic mimes.
To kick us off, firefighter Eddy Stewart takes the course. "Wow, that's a swole ninja right there!" Akbar Gbaja-Biamila observes, as Eddy warms up with some sensual pectoral isolations. He climbs the Floating Steps, flies down the Big Dipper, and scrambles over the Block Run. But my favorite firefighter cannot control his momentum on the Spin Cycle, and dives head first into the ravenous waves below. To cheer us up, Kristine Leahy suggests he "take us out with a pec flex," because she says that is what women want. I do not like to quibble with Kristine Leahy, but I am going to level with you. I find it very unsettling.
It is now time for my first sob of the evening! Missile defense contractor Joey Greene fought to become his nephew's foster dad, even though he is only 27. "You know I'm going to call him Mean Joe Greene," Akbar announces. (I did not know that.) He flings himself through the first part of the course, down the Big Dipper, through the Spin Cycle, and past the Pipefitter, but the effort does him in. By the time he hits the Warped Wall, Joey has lost the will to go on. Oh, Joey! I know what it is like. I frequently lose the will to go on. Usually, it means that I am hungry.
Two more athletes! Wedding photographer Bobby Bohannon is destroyed by the Big Dipper of doom! Chris Moore is eviscerated by the Pipefitter of death! Their efforts are a testament to the human spirit, and a reminder of the futility of life.
Bow-hunting country boy Brent Ruffin is a halftime performer for the Memphis Grizzlies. As a general fan of bears, grizzly and otherwise, I am very optimistic about him. Also, he's a newlywed! "A trip to Vegas would be a nice honeymoon," chirps Akbar, who is now experimenting with a new career as a travel agent. He's through the steps, down the dipper, and past the blocks, and eeks through the Spin Cycle, though Matt Iseman is very disappointed with his inefficiency. But tragedy strikes on the Pipefitter! His fatigue catches up with him, and the Redneck Ninja plummets into the watery depths below. Probably, it was all the inefficiency that did it. He will have to honeymoon somewhere else.
Last season, general contractor Chad Hohn hit his head in city finals and finished the course bleeding, which made him feel "like a warrior, like an animal," and made me feel like a person who is queasy. Will he make it through this season unscathed? Sort of! On the one hand, he gets through the first half of the course, only to fall immediately on the Salmon Ladder. On the other hand, no open wounds! Truly, there are pros and cons to everything. Up next: soulful gymnastics coach Tyler Martin, who discovered parkour shortly after his mother's death. Tonight, he will be running for her. Tyler has the strength and agility of an Alpine mountain goat and flies through the first half of course with superhuman ease. But while he bounces up the Salmon Ladder, fatigue catches up with him on the Floating Monkey Bars, and splash he goes.
More fallen heroes! Jeff Harvey went down on the Salmon Ladder! Todd Bourgeois fell on the monkey bars! Will it be enough? This is the uncertainty we must live with.
Lucas and Alexio Gomes are "the Brazi Bros," because they are from Brazil, and also they are brothers. Last year, Alexio made it and Lucas didn't, but this year, Lucas is ready for redemption. (Or revenge.) He zips through the first half of the course, but alas, he loses his rhythm on the monkey bars, and he cannot get it back. I worry for Lucas. Brotherhood seems difficult.
After waiting three weeks in the walk-on line, Alabama engineering student Casey Suchocki finished the course thanks to his supportive and charming granddad. "Look what he done!" his granddad says, beaming. "I love him as much as it's possible to love another person." Oh, I am moved! Casey runs the course with the skill of an engineer and the ease of a flying squirrel. He's up the Salmon Ladder. He's past the Floating Monkey Bars. He falls on the Clacker, but who even cares? His granddad is proud of him, and I had a nice cathartic weep.
Sad news! Chef Danny Adair fell and optician Jonathan Ruiz also fell. It is almost as though there is no hope left in the world.
Things are heating up! Travis Rosen is a 41-year-old stock trader, a six-time Vegas vet, and a former gymnast with three kids. "Is age ever going to slow him down?" Akbar wonders. Nope! Despite having injured most of his body parts, he fights through the course. Pain is temporary. Victory is forever. He flies through the Spin Cycle with the hunger of a falcon and swings through the monkey bars with the elegance of a marmoset. And he's through the Clacker! He is unstoppable, our Travis. The Ageless Wonder is up the Invisible Ladder, and for the first time tonight, we hear the sweet buzz of victory! It is almost as though experience is worth something after all!
Three more people! Kenneth Niemitalo is down on the dipper! Mike Chick is out on the monkey bars! Reko Rivera is no match for the Salmon Ladder!
For a moment, it seems that software engineer and Ninja vet Jo Jo Bynum might not make it up the Warped Wall, but third try's the charm, and up he goes. Energized by success, he wills himself up the Salmon Ladder, through the Floating Monkey Bars, and onto the Clacker, where he clacks as he's never clacked before. But alas, Jo Jo comes up one clacker short, and is swallowed by the merciless waves below.
And the warriors keep coming! Mack "King of Obstacles" Roesch is felled by the Floating Monkey Bars! Brazi Bro Alexio Gomes is also felled by the bars, but he was fast enough to guarantee a spot in Vegas anyway! Was Lucas fast enough, I wonder? Frankly, I have concerns.
Parkour instructor Brett Sims is a six-time Ninja alum who has never made it to Vegas, but the difference this year is that he just got married to fellow competitor. As the old saying goes, the couple that ninja trains together, ninja stays together! He attacks the first leg of the course with the control and efficiency of the blissfully wedded. And it's on to part two! He's up the Salmon Ladder, past the monkey bars, and through the Clacker. It is clear he is hurting on the Invisible Ladder, but he refuses to quit, despite the overwhelming agony. And he's through! It is a momentous moment for Brett Sims, and a powerful argument for marriage.
Actor Shawn Richardson claws his way up the Salmon Ladder and swings through the monkey bars with the easy confidence of a star in the making. By the time he reaches the Clacker, though, his suffering is palpable. "He can feel the devastating strain on his deltoids," Akbar says. It is true. My own deltoids hurt in sympathy. Ultimately, the devastation is too much, and so it is the end of Shawn Richardson. "Sha-na-na!" Akbar cries. "Sha-na-na indeed," agrees Matt, sadly.
Oh, Caleb Watson! We all had high hopes for the dairy farmer, who trains amongst the cows, but he is not prepared for the Big Dipper, and he plummets into the puddle of tears below. Athleticism can't make up for technique, that's the problem. I learned that from Matt.
Neil Craver is down! Chris Boehm is down! On the bright side, they both get slots in Vegas anyway.
It is all happening. We are down to the crème de la ninja crème. Dynamic duo James "the Beast" McGrath and Drew Drechsel are about to take the course, and history may never be the same. First up: McGrath, whose hair has been artfully braided for the occasion (courtesy of Kacy Catanzaro). He catapults through the course with startling speed. He's up the Salmon Ladder. He rocks the monkey bars like a renegade orangutan. He clicks through the Clacker, and he's up the mythological ladder with the best time of the night! "If you don't know what domination looks like, that's what it is," Akbar offers, ever helpful.
Can Drew Drechsel beat him? No one is more stressed out about this question than Drew Drechsel himself. "My entire life depends on me doing well this season," he reflects. And he does! He is a force of nature, exploding through the first half of the course and conquering the second. He's just short of James's time, but whatever. He is going to Vegas, and he gets to keep his job! "You have no idea what I'm actually capable of yet," he tells Kristine Leahy. I am proud of him, and also terrified.
Alas, Drew's victory means that poor Lucas Gomes is out yet again. Every rose has its thorn, or something.
And there we are! What was your greatest disappointment of the evening? How are your deltoids holding up?