Here we are in Philadelphia, the final stop on this tour of our ninja nation, and there is not a moment to waste. As noted Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin once said, time is money. Let us begin!
First, our faithful guide Kristine Leahy must give us the lay of the land. The course begins, as always, with the trusty Floating Steps. Then, it’s on to the Log Grip, where competitors will cling on to a barrel and plummet down a 25-foot slide with jolting bumps. From there, they face the Paddle Boards, a run of swiftly tilting paddles, and then they’ll go head-to-head with the new and improved Wall Drop, which requires them to mount a suspended wall, jump off a trampoline, grab on to a pendulous tube, and swing to safety. Should they survive, they’ll move on to the debut of Rolling Thunder, a metal wheel on a track, before confronting our old friend, the Warped Wall.
And so it begins! Clint Sarion survived a brain tumor, but now he is the Smiling Ninja. He smiles over the Floating Steps, beams down the Log Grip, and grins across the Paddle Boards, but doesn’t get enough height on the Wall Drop trampoline. He goes down smiling, though, and that is what matters.
Occupational therapist Rachel Goldstein just started training four months ago, but she competes with the strength and agility of 10,000 ripped mountain goats. She rockets through the first several obstacles like a champion. She loses her grip on Rolling Thunder, but it is a breathtaking performance, for her and also for me.
Keegan O’Brien is a ballet dancer who’s here to prove that dancers can be warriors too, okay? “People think that ballet is girly,” he says. “I want to show that dance really isn’t effeminate, it’s masculine. It’s probably one of the most manly things you can do out there.” I feel that perhaps Keegan O’Brien has an overly gendered view of the world, but I agree that his pectoral isolations are very impressive. Unfortunately, our dancing man is no match for the precarious Paddle Boards, and he jetés right into the water. It is a very virile splash, though.
A hometown boy! Philly native Najee Richardson grew up in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, but then he discovered competitive gymnastics. Then he blew out his knee and everything was terrible, but then he discovered this show, and a sense of hope. “It was almost like through Ninja Warrior, I was reborn again,” he reflects. He skips across the Floating Steps and barrels down the Log Grip, skims over the Paddle Boards, and catapults through the Wall Drop. Will he survive the ruthless Rolling Thunder and climb the Warped Wall to victory? He will! The Phoenix of Philadelphia rises once again!
Let us take a moment to remember the fallen. We did not see them, but that does not mean they did not fight.
Logan Broadbent is a boomerang champion, which makes sense, because “a lot of the same skills that it takes to be a ninja are involved in boomerang throwing,” such as speed and hand-eye coordination. Probably other things, too! “Without pushing your limits,” he philosophizes, “you never know what you can achieve.” I agree wholeheartedly. Today, for example, I spent 30 minutes on the elliptical. Logan gets off to a strong start, but he is felled by Rolling Thunder. He’ll be back, though. That is the thing about the Boomerang Ninja. He always comes back.
Allyssa Beird is a former gymnast and current fifth-grade teacher who wants to teach this course a developmentally appropriate lesson. “Give this girl an apple because she is teacher of the year!” Akbar Gbaja-Biamila marvels as she dominates the Wall Drop. “What body control!” Matt Iseman adds. “What power!” But alas, it is not enough power to get through Rolling Thunder, and down into the watery depths she goes.
Queens rabbinical student Akiva Neuman is here because being a rabbi and being in shape is “not a contradiction.” Also, he has a cute baby, whom he uses for deadlifts. “If I didn’t train for American Ninja Warrior, I’d be on shpilkes!” he beams. (Shpilkes: a state of agitation or impatience.) Although Akiva attacks the course with valiant determination and impressive rabbinical strength, he finds himself stuck on the Wall Drop’s pendulum (“like a fly on a glue stick,” offers Akbar, noted American poet) and cannot regain his momentum. It is a tragedy, really. Just think of all the religious puns Matt and Akbar never got to use!
More people! They all fall down. One of them is a hula-hoop instructor, which is a profession that exists.
Anita Daniel is a New York City firefighter and single mom who wants to help women “see they can do what they want to do.” She pushes through the first two obstacles with firefighting grit, but after hesitating on the Paddle Boards, she’s swallowed up by the ravenous waves below. In honor of her efforts, I will do what I want to do, which is eat several handfuls of granola. Next up: John Gowder Jr., a third-generation industrial electrician running in honor of his dad, who has MS and loves American Ninja Warrior. He gets off to a glowing start, but his spark begins to flicker on Rolling Thunder. Into the water he goes. Fizz.
Are you ready to witness American Ninja history? At 64, Tennessee car-tools salesman John Loobey could be the oldest ninja to finish a single obstacle. And he does it! And he does it again! The Geriatric Ninja crushes the Floating Steps and then he triumphs over the Log Grip. Then he falls into a pit of poisonous snakes on the Paddle Boards, but whatever. Victory!
Speaking of history, American Ninja legend Geoff Britten is one of only two American Ninja Warriors and the first man to climb the final stage in Vegas. Still, he does not let fame go to his sandy head. “This is the world’s greatest playground,” he says with the kind of unsettling positivity I have come to expect from all ninjas. “I’m here to have fun.” He leaps, he swings, he scrambles, he rolls, he climbs, he buzzes. We have ourselves a winner! “Wow, that was hard,” he bubbles. Fun!
For a change of pace, some more people. None of them make it past the Rolling Thunder, because it is impossible. “Sha-na-na,” Akbar announces, and truly, I could not have said it better myself.
Jesse “Flex” Labreck is a former track star, which makes her a force on the course. “There’s a new kid on the block,” Matt says, noting her perfect technique on the Wall Drop trampoline. “Yeah, Labreck, she’s a Labreck house!” Akbar adds, helpfully. But the champion high jumper flails on Rolling Thunder, and like so many warriors before her, she is defeated by the wheel of death. “Flex Labreck is a staaaar,” Akbar declares, channeling his inner Gypsy Rose.
Jon Alexis Jr. is six-foot-six and had the fastest time in the Orlando qualifiers last year. True to his legacy, the gentle giant flies through the course in record time, taking full advantage of his much-discussed height. In celebration, he vigorously dances the cat daddy.
Honestly, I am a little bit worried about eight-time competitor Ryan Stratis. He had major shoulder surgery four months ago and wants to do something called the “Log Grip.” He careens through the first three obstacles, patting his shoulder periodically, and fights through the Wall Drop in obvious and excruciating pain. He grimaces down Rolling Thunder … and he’s up the Warped Wall! “RHWAAAAAAA!” he yells, in triumph and in agony. Frankly, I’m still a little worried about Ryan Stratis, but I am happy he is happy, and also that I am not his doctor.
Three more people! Seven-time vet Chris Wilczewski crashes on the Rolling Thunder but makes the finals, returning ninja Jamie Rahn buzzes the buzzer of victory, and cancer-surviving math teacher Greg Smith flounders on the Paddle Boards. And then, a twist! Greg’s training partner, Anthony DeFranco, is also competing, and he’s aiming to win it for both of them. The former pole vaulter zips through the course like he’s running out of time, the third finisher of the night, and the fastest finisher of them all. “Are you crazy? Are you crazy?” Akbar muses. This is what I wonder about everyone on this show.
Something has changed since meteorologist Joe Moravsky last competed. He has a baby! Also, a Shih Tzu! Is the Shih Tzu similarly new, I wonder? Anyway, mazel tov to all. Joe says it was very hard to get back into the ninja mentality, because fatherhood is very tiring, but now he sees that American Ninja Warrior isn’t just about him. He flies through the first three obstacles, rolls through the thunder at a blistering pace, and up the wall he goes. “Yeah, baby!” he screams, presumably to his baby.
We’re down to the final runs of the night, which will decide the fate of Jesse, Rachel, and Allyssa, who are currently in the last spots of the top 30. Criminology student Sami Newton falls on the Log Grip, which means that Jesse Lebreck is in! American Ninja golf club salesman Brian Keane also falls on the Log Grip. Rachel Goldstein is in, too! When veteran competitor Abel Gonzalez unexpectedly trips on the Paddle Boards, Allyssa Beard also gets a slot in the finals! Three women are in the top 30 for the first time ever. I feel victorious by association.
And wait! Crowd favorite Michelle Warnky has yet to run. Might there be four? Michelle is a businesswoman as well as an athlete, which apparently distracted her from training, but now she says she’s back on track and ready for victory. She falls on the death wheel, but it doesn’t even matter: She’s on to the finals! It is an even more historic night than it was two minutes ago!
In two weeks, the city finals begin. How do you feel about having indirectly participated in American Ninja history? What was Akbar’s best pun of the night?