Welcome back to the City of Angels! It feels like we were just here, and yet look how far we’ve come. We are down to the top 30 ninjas of Los Angeles and surrounding environs. The obstacles are harder. The stakes are higher. Kevin Bull is going to “smash this course.” Oh, my friends! I am inspired already. I, too, feel that I could smash a course right now, metaphorically speaking.
How is this course different from all other courses? Kristine Leahy is glad you asked! Although it may look suspiciously like the course from city qualifiers, it is secretly much more difficult. As always, we begin with the Floating Steps, followed by the Tick Tock (but the log is farther away!), the Escalator (with a step removed!), the Ring Jump (bigger rings!), the I-Beam Cross (same), and our perennial favorite, the Warped Wall (also the same). But that’s not all! Should the athletes survive the initial culling, they will move on to four more obstacles, added specially for the finals. First, they will use their hulking upper-body strength to hoist themselves up four rungs of the Salmon Ladder. Then, they’ll move on to the Wedge, where they’ll have to jump a bar between two angled walls. After that, it’s time for the Helix Hang, where they’ll swing through a series of rotating bars, and finally, they’ll tackle the Invisible Ladder, which is like a ladder except it does not exist. The top 15 move onto Vegas! The bottom 15 are devoured by wild boars!
First up: Ben Antoine, a charming aerospace engineer and former Junior Olympic gymnast whom I have never seen before in my life. He is here now, though, and that is what’s important. “Working for Boeing, he certainly understands the problem of lift!” Akbar Gbaja-Biamila notes as Ben tackles the Tick Tock. But alas, his understanding falters on the Escalator, and into the water he goes. “Wooo!” cheers his sister, undaunted by his immediate failure. Truly, it is a lesson for us all.
Gym owner Alan Connealy has become an American Ninja Father Figure, but he is still a “goofball” at heart. He attacks the course with aggressive vigor, zipping through the rings, but he loses his grip on the I-Beam and falls into the puddle of failure below. “I gotta start climbing more,” he mutters. Me too! I almost never climb, except sometimes the stairs.
Three more athletes! One of them is Steve Seiver! One of them is Bryan the Papal Ninja! One of them is someone I have never heard of before! They all fall down. Nobody can do this course, it turns out! This makes me feel better about myself, in a way. It is a testament to our shared humanity.
Scott Willson is the Chess Ninja, because his job is to teach children how to play chess. “Sometimes, they’ve never played a game of chess in their lives,” he says, stunned. I must confess something: I have never played a game of chess in my life. Scott loves it, though, because it is a puzzle, just like American Ninja Warrior. He solves the first half of the course like a champion, but he runs out of steam on the Salmon Ladder and drops down, down into the watery depths. It was an error of strategy, he says. It always is.
Natalie Duran, fun-loving YouTube personality and clinical researcher, just got back from Europe, where she found that people did not like it when she spontaneously swung on things. “Training in Europe is different. People are not so responsive to athletic people in public,” she explains, doing a handstand in a jet engine. Much like a European, I am also not responsive to athletic people in public, but Natalie Duran is one of two women competing tonight so I am rooting for her. Unfortunately for us both, she falls almost immediately. Her feet were too far forward on the Tick Tock. It happens to the best of us.
Moving on! Adam Rayl works in the family concrete business and waited in the ninja walk-on line for two-and-a-half weeks, during which he subsisted exclusively on peanut-butter sandwiches and Bikram yoga. He tackles the course with the speed and intensity of a jaguar, making it up the wall and past the Salmon Ladder with no problem, but he comes up just short on the Wedge and that is the end of Adam Rayl. I was shocked, but then again, I always am.
More people! Beekeeper Liam Buell fell on the Wedge. Then, for a change of pace, Ben Melick also fell on the Wedge.
Acrobat Nicholas Coolridge lives in a van and dumpster dives. He also has many followers on Instagram. Additionally, he is extremely fast. But while he speeds through the first half of the course like a sexy house spider, he, too, is no match for the Wedge. Is the Wedge possible, do you think? It is something for us all to ponder.
Poor Brian Kretsch! Last year, he was wheeled out of the competition on a stretcher after he fractured his leg in three places, and then he had to go to rehab, and also his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. But now he is back, his mother just finished chemo, and maybe things are looking up for everyone. He bounces through the Floating Steps and swings past the Tick Tock, but tragedy strikes on the Escalator and he crashes hard into the water. Physically, he is okay; emotionally, he is devastated. Kristine Leahy, perceptive as ever, can see the failure is hard on him. “I’m so grateful to everyone,” he says through tears. “I don’t want to feel that I let them down.” This display of genuine emotion seems to make Kristine Leahy uncomfortable.
On a brighter note, three more ninjas! In keeping with tradition, Jonathan Cunanan and Jesse Cargill both fall on the Wedge. To spice things up, Jesse La Flair falls on the Salmon Ladder.
App developer and single dad Chris Workman just moved back to Las Vegas to be closer to his son, which will also be very convenient if he makes it to the finals. And things look promising! The rookie is through the first half of the course and up the Warped Wall. Will he be the first to make it past the Wedge? No, no he will not. “The ninjas are just not learning,” Matt Iseman complains, offering no suggestions in particular.
Who is that effervescent presence in the Hawaiian shorts? Why, it is America’s favorite dancing flight attendant and human Golden Retriever, Grant McCartney! It is a delight to see him, as always. Like so many before him, he grooves through the first half of the course, but he, too, is a victim of the deadly Wedge. Then Jerod Warf falls on The Wedge. And Ryan Robinson falls on the Wedge. I have some questions about the Wedge. Did anyone, like, test it?
Now, the moment we have all been waiting for: It is time for American Ninja phenomenon Jessie Graff to take the course. She is elegant, controlled, and confident. It is almost like she performs feats of physical strength for a living. She’s past the I-Beam! She’s up Warped Wall! She’s up the Salmon Ladder! And she’s through the Wedge! The impossible is now possible! It is a historic moment for us all. She loses her grip halfway through the Helix Hang, but it doesn’t even matter; she is a hero and a scholar. “I believe in Jessie Graff,” Akbar cheers. Matt would now like to take a moment to celebrate.
Okay. Fresno shoe salesman Gabe Hurtado and his family lost everything in a fire this past winter, but they fought through it all — now Gabe is going to be a warrior. He catapults himself through the first stretch of the course and recovers from a rocky moment on the Salmon Ladder, but he is felled by the Wedge, like everyone else. His youngest daughter dissolves into tears. The good news, though, is that no one else can get through the Wedge either, so he’s going the finals anyway! Nick “the Eskimo Ninja” Hanson is up next. Like Gabe, he is undone by the doom Wedge, but also like Gabe, he’s going to Vegas. Mazel tov to all!
Then things take a serious turn. For years, American Ninja legend Flip Rodriguez has worn a mask to compete, and now he is ready to tell “what the mask was really about.” From ages nine to 15, he explains, he was sexually abused. “How do you tell somebody that’s going on?” he asks. “I’m older now, so I finally understand that what happened is not my fault.” Now, he hopes to show other victims to know that they are not alone, and that there is help. On the course, he is quick and confident, but even Flip Rodriguez can’t get past the Wedge. Still, it is enough. Onward to Vegas!
More people! Boy Scout Jackson Meyer is down on the Wedge! Justin Hillsten is down on the Wedge!
Engineering student Josh Levin in a national rock-climbing champion whose beloved mentor needs a double lung transplant, so tonight, he will be running for her. He races across the first part of the course, up the Salmon Ladder … and through the Wedge! It is shocking to all of us. But there’s more! He swings through the Helix Hang, and then up the Invisible Ladder. He buzzes the buzzer of victory! Honestly, it is startling. I had forgotten what it sounded like.
Closing out the night is fan favorite Kevin Bull, who stumbled last year on the Invisible Ladder. He is here for redemption, or perhaps for vengeance. He attacks the course with lightning speed, past the Ring Jump, up the Warped Wall, and up the Salmon Ladder. But the Wedge, it is merciless. Into the abyss he goes. Luckily for us all, he gets to go to Vegas anyway, so the world may continue to spin.
And there we have it! Did you cry one time, or many times? Who is your favorite ninja at this juncture? Let us discuss.