Tonight, we return to sweet home Indianapolis, where the warriors have never been stronger, or more adorable. An entomologist! A free spirit! A man who jumps off of buildings! A man who likes dogs! And yet, despite their many differences, they are all united by one thing: a raging thirst for victory.
In honor of our return, Kristine Leahy explains the course. In keeping with tradition, we begin with our constant companion, the Floating Steps. After that, it's time for the Rolling Log (a disaster waiting to happen, if you ask me), the Fly Wheels (now with fewer wheels!), the Disc Runner (but the pole is half as tall!), the Swinging Spikes (fewer spikes, further apart!), and finally, the canonical Warped Wall (still warped, still a wall). Then, they'll face four extra-special obstacles, designed push the ninjas to their physical and mental limits, and possibly induce cardiac arrest. First, a good old-fashioned Salmon Ladder! Next, the Hourglass Drop, which requires competitors to bounce off a trampoline, grab a board, and shimmy across it using the strength of their hands, and also their minds. Survivors then get a chance to tackle the all-new Circuit Board, which is a maze you must solve while hanging from your arms. Last but not least, the Invisible Ladder, which is a cross between an Olympic event and an illusion.
As a side note, I like Kristine Leahy's getup tonight. It is very Nancy Kerrigan.
The first ninja of the night is Drew Knapp, whose brother survived childhood leukemia. Did you know that when Drew's brother was in the hospital, none other than Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, brother of Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, came to visit him? He did! Unfortunately, this connection does not do much for Drew, who slips off the Rolling Log and is swallowed by the hungry waves below. "That may be an omen for how tonight is going to unfold!" Matt Iseman says with unsettling cheer.
At five-foot-one, former gymnast Tyler Yamauchi almost didn't compete because he thought he was too short to make it up the Warped Wall. And now look at him! He zips through the first half of the course. "Oh my goodness!" Matt offers. "Yamauchi was Gucci!" Akbar raves. But then tragedy strikes: Gucci Yamauchi loses his grip on the Hourglass Drop, and into the water he goes. I get it. I am constantly losing my grip, but in a more figurative way.
Three more warriors! Biochemistry student Zack Kemmerer trips on the Floating Steps! Tax accountant Kevin Hogan goes down on the log! Teacher Alex Bienz crashes on the Fly Wheels! The great thing about American Ninja Warrior is that there are so many ways to fail. It is just like real life.
Eric Middleton is an entomology student who draws his ninja inspiration from the secret lives of bugs. "When I need to jump, I think of being like a flea," he explains, "When think of climbing, I think of an ant." His passion is very persuasive; momentarily, I feel bad about all the bugs I have murdered. He catapults himself through the first half of the course with the speed of a cockroach and the grace of a moth, but "the Human Dung Beetle" runs into trouble on the Hourglass Drop and flips backwards into the water. Still, I feel we have learned something tonight.
Moving on! In qualifiers, optometrist John Murray Adams fell on the Swinging Spikes, but tonight, he gets another chance to show the world that optometrists are the true warriors of the medical field. Can he do it? He cannot. Yet again, the spikes do him in. Honestly, I admire his consistency. It is an underrated virtue.
Next up: small-town boy P.J. Granger, who made it all the way to Vegas last year. He floats over the steps, rolls down the log, and flies through the wheels, but alas, he loses his balance dismounting the Disc Runner and slides off the course with a sickening thud. Don't worry, though, P.J. Granger is just fine. It is my heart that may never recover.
Bryce Foley crashes on the Fly Wheel! Fred Thorne is undone by the Swinging Spikes! Tyler Smith is no match for the Hourglass Drop! I had such hopes for all of them, and yet all three were disappointing. It is how I imagine parenthood must feel.
Lab technician Andrew "Roo" Yori is here not for himself, but for the many rescue dogs that need forever homes. "The further I go in this competition," he says, "The more exposure I can get for the dogs that are in the shelters that really need it." To prove this point, he has brought along Angus, a geriatric Labrador. Roo attacks the course with determination, but he cannot get a hold on the Hourglass Drop, and crashes down into the waves. In solidarity, Angus pants. That is the thing about Angus: He always comes through when you need him.
Even more ninjas! Ben Jackson falls on the Hourglass Drop! Dan Banura also falls on the Hourglass Drop! Dan Yager probably would have fallen on the Hourglass Drop, except he falls on the Rolling Log first.
By day, Ethan Swanson analyzes data. By night, he jumps off buildings, climbs up pipes, and slides down roofs. Ethan and I are different in many ways. On the course, he has all the confidence of a man who willingly leaps from buildings. He glides through the Fly Wheels, scrambles up the Warped Wall, and hoists himself up the Salmon Ladder with preternatural calm. Could Ethan Swanson be the first to beat the Hourglass Drop? "I think he's going to do it!" Akbar predicts, as Ethan does it. And he's through the Circuit Board! It is almost as though we should all climb skyscrapers for fun. But by the time Ethan hits the Invisible Ladder, our urban billy goat is running out of steam. Fifteen feet! Twenty feet! Twenty-five feet! And he's down, just mere feet short of victory. It is the saddest thing I have ever seen, except for the Republican National Convention.
Climbing machine Ian Dory flies through the course until he reaches the Disc Runner, but he manages to save himself, which Matt says is a testament to the magic of American Ninja Warrior. Ian over the wall. He's up the Salmon Ladder. He's through the Hourglass Drop! He's past Circuit Board! And though his exhaustion on the Invisible Ladder is palpable, he pushes through to victory. The buzzer buzzes. Ian yelps. Truly, it is a historic moment.
Two more ninjas! Jonathan Cooley is felled by the Swinging Spikes! Then, firefighter Brandon Mears, one half of the "Towers of Power," takes a tumble on the Salmon Ladder.
But it's not over yet! Fellow power tower Dan Polizzi is running next. "Being a bro, there's someone who's got your back," Dan explains. "I think our bro-tons combine," Brandon muses, drinking a bro-tein shake. He hurls himself through the first half of the course, hoists himself over the wall, up the Salmon Ladder, and maneuvers through the Hourglass Drop before his strength gives out on the Circuit Board. It is not what he hoped for, but it is enough: Dan is going to Vegas. "It's not the same without my bro, though," he says, mournfully. In spite of myself, I am moved.
Meaghan Martin has had no luck in past city finals, but Akbar believes that 2016 is her year. "History is about to be made here, I can smell it," he announces with a certainty I have never felt about anything. And indeed, she crushes the first half of the course. But disaster strikes on the Warped Wall. She's down once! She's down twice! The third try is the charm: She climbs over the wall, up the Salmon Ladder, and through the lethal Hourglass Drop. Her strength is staggering; I am staggered. She falls on the Circuit Board, but who cares? She's going to Vegas, the third woman ever to win a guaranteed slot in the finals.
On that note, more ninjas! They all fall down.
Another legend! Fan-favorite Brian Arnold is so confident, we don't even need to see the first half of his run. He clicks and clacks his way up the Salmon Ladder, slithers along the Hourglass Drop, and weaves down the Circuit Board. Now, all he must do is climb up a 30-foot invisible ladder using only his arms and his moxie. And he does it! "Aaaaoooooo!" he howls, buzzing the buzzer of triumph.
Free-spirited mountain imp Jake Murray tumbles through the first leg with sprightly grace, whimsically back flips over the Warped Wall, and somersaults onto the second half with the puckish delight. He hits his head on the Hourglass Drop, but one gets the impression that Jake Murray cannot be thrown by such setbacks. He zips up the Invisible Ladder, and, beaming angelically, unseats Brian Arnold as fastest competitor of the night.
Two more ninjas meet their untimely ends! T.C. Tronquet is impaled by the Swinging Spikes, while Matt Wilder is yet another casualty of the murderous Hourglass Drop. My condolences to all.
We are down to the wire, my friends. Last year's walk-on hero Adam Arnold careens through the course at lightning speed. He's past the Hourglass Drop and past the Circuit Board. Though fatigue is clearly setting in, our Adam cannot be stopped. It is, hands down, the fastest performance of the night!
That is the good news. The bad news is that poor Roo Yori, friend of the dogs, is now in the 15th spot, and speed-demon Lorin Ball is still to run. Oh, I am worried! I really love dogs.
The moment of truth has arrived. To commemorate this occasion, Lorin performs an interpretative solo while sitting in a folding chair. I'm not totally sure what this is supposed to signify, though I agree that sitting down is great. I try to do it early and often. And he's down on the Rolling Log! Matt is speechless. Roo Yori is stunned. But that is the thing about American Ninja Warrior, and also life: It is full of surprises.