My warrior friends, we meet again! This time, we find ourselves in Oklahoma City, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. Could the next American Ninja Warrior be hiding amongst the fields of winter wheat? Matt Iseman certainly thinks so.
You would be forgiven for suggesting that tonight’s course looks very similar to the season’s previous courses — but oh-ho-ho, how wrong you’d be, as trusty sidekick Kristine Leahy explains. The Oklahoma ninjas will kick off their American Ninja Warrior journey with a classic run on the Floating Steps, before moving on to the never-before-seen Ring Swing. Should they successfully swing on all the appropriate rings, they will have the opportunity to sprint across the free-spinning logs of the Log Runner, which promises to test their physical and mental agility, as well as their powers of levitation. Next, they’ll face the Tire Swing, a series of three tires suspended at bizarre angles, and then it’s on to the brand-new Bar Hop, which is exactly like a set of monkey bars, except you have to take the bars with you and also it is impossible. Last but not least, the ninjas will come head-to-head with our old foe, the Warped Wall.
There is no time to waste! The first aspiring ninja of the night is Michael Ray Garvin, but you may also know him as “The World’s Most Jacked Athlete.” (I did not. But you might.) Anyway, he is very strong, he has played for assorted NFL teams, and he can broad jump 10 feet and 8 inches. Of course, American Ninja Warrior is about more than sheer strength, and indeed, the World’s Most Jacked Athlete bumbles his release on the Ring Swing. Splash! It was a mental error, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila suggests. The problem was that he held on just a second too long. Oh, Michael Ray Garvin, I know what it’s like! I try never to let go of anything, especially grudges.
Major Doom is a 39-year-old Air Force tanker pilot whose name is technically Brian. “Basically, I’m a flying gas station,” he brags. He flies through the first four obstacles, probably because of all his aerial experience, but disaster strikes on the Bar Hop, and Major Doom is forced to make an emergency water landing in the Bay of Failure.
More people! Let us skip them.
Matt Stringer is a safety specialist raising seven daughters under the age of 12. For convenient monogramming purposes, their names all begin with “S.” A year ago, he was just sitting around with his S-daughters, watching American Ninja Warrior, and now look at him! “If I win a million dollars, it’s all going to college and weddings,” he says, being the dad that he is. Unfortunately for the Stringer Sisters’ future nuptials, Matt Stringer will not be winning a million dollars. Like so many before him, he is felled by the Tire Swing and into the water he goes.
Skip. Skip. Skip. It is amazing, really. There are so many American ninja warriors in this world that we will never know.
Nate Burkhalter is an oil and gas engineer, but this ray of Houston sunshine spends his free time traveling around the world, using his expertise to help people in poverty drill water wells. And it pays off! Thanks to the power of engineering, Nate scales the steps, swings the rings, rolls across the logs, zips through the tires, stays steady through the bars, and becomes the first competitor of the night to reach the top of the Warped Wall and buzz the buzzer of triumph. “This is karma!” marvels Akbar, admiringly. It is almost as if we should all do something to combat global poverty.
Now, everything is about to get really inspiring! Allison Toepperwein is a divorced single mom battling Parkinson’s disease who started ninja training because exercise is the only thing that’s been proven to slow the progression of Parkinson’s. “Just because you have a disease, it does not mean that you are out for the count,” she chirps between casual backflips. Allison does not make it past the Floating Steps, but oh, she goes down fighting. Matt, Akbar, and I are very impressed.
Texas Tech law student Brian Burkhardt’s dream is to be president of his law-school class. He ran last year and lost, but as Brian Burkhardt likes to say, “Great leaders aren’t set back by failures.” His new campaign strategy is to become a ninja warrior, thus leaving his fellow law students no choice but to elect him as their leader, but his plan is foiled by the Tire Swing, and he is swallowed by the gentle waves of disappointment.
Yet another Brian! On the outside, Brian Beckstrand is an ordinary big-box hardware store employee and dad, but on the inside beats the heart of a champion. As he explains, Brian has built his family a course with more 40 different American Ninja Obstacles and counting. His wife is despondent. His many children are thrilled. Brian springs through the course with the grace of a very lanky antelope, and bounds up the Warped Wall to victory. What would you do if you had an enormous backyard, I wonder? I would get a Goldendoodle.
Adima Cope is an IT specialist from Missouri who designs clothes and roller skates, but the most important role in his life is being a dad. Adima’s son has spina bifida and needs a lot of physical help, he explains, so fitness is very important. “Destiny calls, so here I am,” he says. But alas, he loses his grip on the Tire Swing, and so it is the end of Adima Cope. He will be missed. Returning crowd favorite and resident cowboy Lance Pekus is up next, attacking the course with classic wrangler pluck, but he slips on the Log Runner, then crashes violently into the pool below. Even the greats can be undone by the Log Runner, Matt notes. Ah, it is that element of excitement that keeps us young.
Artis Thompson III’s older brother was killed in a motorcycle accident, and later lost his own leg in another motorcycle accident, but now he is here to show that “whoever’s missing from your life, you can do anything and everything you put your mind to.” Artis gives a truly spectacular performance, bear-crawling over the Log Runner with death-defying intensity, but he, too, loses his grasp on the Tire Swing. And so, it is the end of the road for Artis. But what a run!
Finally, good news: At 54, Jon Stewart (the construction manager, not the former host of The Daily Show) is already the oldest competitor to make it up the Warped Wall, and he will break his own record tonight. “Jon Stewart is a legend!” Matt cheers. “Jon Stewart is a rock star!” Akbar roars. “This is a man who’s used to making history,” they agree, as Jon Stewart buzzes his buzzer. Oh, this is all very confusing. Wouldn’t it be better if it were the other Jon Stewart?
Video-game stunt person and rubber-shark collector Scott Stoddard seems like a delightful individual, but despite his traditional Ninja Warrior shoes, he is devoured by the fatal Log Runner, never to be seen again. Beloved ninja legend fares Sam Sann slightly better: He recovers from a slip on the Log Runner with yogic elegance, but his grip gives out on the Tire Swing and into the water he goes. The crowd is stunned; no one saw it coming.
Kyle Mendoza is a FedEx driver and viral parkour sensation. “Whether in my life or in my job, I am all about efficiency and speed,” Kyle says, outlining one way in which we are different. Once, he did 44 FedEx stops in two-and-a-half hours! On the course, he is every bit as efficient and speedy as promised. He skips over the logs, swings past the tires, and scampers up the wall, flipping decoratively along the way. He is so adorable, our Kyle Mendoza. He makes me feel very good about FedEx.
I have something very sad to tell you: Brent Steffensen and Kacy Catanzaro, the royal couple of American Ninja Warrior, broke up. I know. It has been hard for them, too. Still, they work and train together. “Just because we’re not a couple anymore doesn’t mean we aren’t a team,” Brent says, sadly. I hear what he is saying, but I might also suggest that this is, on some level, exactly what “breakup” means. Brent is up first. Perhaps it is the difficulty of the course, or his lingering sadness, but after sailing through the first half of the course, he loses his grip on the Bar Jump and plummets into the sea of tears. Things do not go any better for his platonic teammate; tonight will not be the long-awaited rebound that Mighty Kacy has been waiting for. She is down on the Log Runner. I was worried for a moment, but I feel like she’s in a good place.
More people! The gym owner makes it. Have you ever considered becoming a gym owner? I have not, but it seems to be a very popular profession.
Thomas Stillings is a 22-year-old parkour teacher in whimsical harem pants. He zips through the course with staggering speed. Not only does he have the fastest time of the night, he also has the most original style! (The pants were a gift from his fiancé. Thank you, Kristine Leahy, for asking.)
There is but one question left: Can lush-locked worship leader and reigning rookie sensation Daniel Gil beat tonight’s record time? Nope! He flies through the course with ease, but he is a half-second too slow. He will have to settle for second-best. If only he’d had better pants.
And there you have it! Next week: Philadelphia, city of liberty and soft pretzels. Does love even exist anymore? Is parkour the new pole vaulting? Let us discuss.