And so the saga continues! Tonight, we return to Oklahoma City for a night of stoic glory in the Great Plains, and a meditation on our shared mortality. “I’m jacked to be back here in OKC!” exclaims Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, and it is safe to say he speaks for both of us.
In keeping with warrior tradition, Kristine Leahy kicks us off with a tour of tonight’s course. It begins, like all of life’s challenges, with the Floating Steps, followed by the Ring Swing, the Log Runner, the Tire Swing, the Bar Hop, and, finally, our old standby, the Warped Wall. Then — oh then! — it’s on to the Salmon Ladder (another classic), which feeds directly into Bungee Road. Should the competitors successfully swing through that gauntlet of springy tassels, they’ll move on to the all-new Window Hang, which requires the athletes to maneuver through a series of very tiny ledges using only the power of their hands and feet. You know who would be good at this obstacle? Cats. Any remaining survivors will then have to pump their way up the Invisible Ladder toward victory, and a ticket to the promised land, which is Las Vegas.
Geoff Lancaster is a strapping young software developer, but all anybody cares about is his ninja sister Jill, who has won over fans with her athleticism, and her face. “Tonight, I’m going to make you remember my name — Geoff Lancaster,” says Geoff Lancaster. To punctuate this point, there is a close-up of his sister. Poor Geoff Lancaster! He struggles on the Ring Swing before meeting his untimely end on the Log Runner. I promise never to forget him.
For years, Nate Burkhalter has waited for his chance on the course, and finally the moment has arrived. “Nothing can stop me,” chirps No-Limits Ninja Nate, with the naked exuberance of a child, or an Irish setter. And it is true, kind of! He prances over the Log Runner, fights through the Tire Swing, jumps his way through the Bar Hop, and scrambles up the Warped Wall before falling on the Salmon Ladder. He’ll be back next year, though; he is excited about it already.
Speaking of falling, Brian “Major” Doom crashes on the Log Runner! Not to be outdone, Alex Moran also crashes on the Log Runner! Let me tell you something: If I am ever faced with a Log Runner, I plan to go around it.
Reid Pletcher used to be a professional skier, but after sustaining a serious head injury while rock climbing (he is also a rock climber), he became a paralympic ski guide for visually impaired athletes. In qualifying, he hurt his shoulder, but Reid cannot be stopped by what is surely excruciating pain. He makes it through the first leg of the course! He hoists himself up the Salmon Ladder! It seems like he could go all the way, but then he loses his grip on Bungee Road and is swallowed by the abyss. “The secret is, you want to grab high up on the bungees,” says Akbar. I hope you will keep this information in mind.
Brian Beckstrand is undone by Log Runner! Chris Moore goes down on the Ring Swing! Andrew Lowes loses his grip on Bungee Road! Will it be enough? Can this course be completed by a human? Some questions can only be answered by the shifting sands of time.
Jessell Boseman makes the first half of the course look startlingly easy, but Matt is very worried about his upper-body strength because Jessell is only a tumbling coach and not the Terminator. And indeed, he’s down on the Salmon Ladder. A strong performance, though (especially in the lower body).
Mitch VeDepo is a medical researcher who develops heart valves for children, as one does. He is a force on the course, dancing over the Log Runner, through the Bar Hop, and up the malicious Salmon Ladder. “I see you, Science Ninja!” Akbar squeals, and it is true — I also see him. Although Mitch grabs high on the bungees, his grip gives out on the merciless Window Hang, and down he goes into the sea. Still, it is empirically the best run of the night, and in a way, a victory for science is a victory for us all.
More people! Jared Bandy is felled by the Bar Hop! James Wyatt goes out on Bungee Road! An Ly makes it all the way to the Window Hang! All in all, an impressive showing, for people we do not see.
Does Thomas Stillings look a little different to you? That is because he proposed to his girlfriend, and now his life is “on the fast track to happiness.” He is a gorgeous performer, our Thomas. He is graceful. He has flair. Frankly, his ease is a little unsettling. I prefer to see my ninjas visibly struggling. I find their agony relatable. Thomas hoists himself up the Salmon Ladder, down Bungee Road, and through the Window Hang! It is possible after all! His arms give out 20 feet up the Invisible Ladder, but it doesn’t even matter, except maybe psychologically. It is enough. We will see him and his genie pants in Vegas.
Now it is time for a somber moment to contemplate the fragility of life. Six months ago, Grant Clinton had a stroke at the gym and almost died, and yet he is here, in American Ninja city finals! “Going into this competition, I’ve got a lot to show to people that have overcome different obstacles,” reflects Grant. I know what he means. Six months ago, I had a mild flu, and honestly, I still feel a little off sometimes. Grant has a minor fumble on the Log Runner, but he has survived much worse. He bounces through the Bar Hop, scales the Salmon Ladder, swings down Bungee Road, and climbs through the Window Hang! Can this 38-year-old rookie make it up the Invisible Ladder? He can, and he does! It is a special moment, says Matt Iseman. Grant buzzes; his wife weeps.
Andrew Potter is a former Army ranger who helps veterans with PTSD. Everyone on this show is just so nice! It is overwhelming, in a way. Unfortunately, he takes a deadly tumble on the Log Runner and down he goes. Ah, well. It was so nice while it lasted.
David Campbell has been on every season of American Ninja Warrior, and he has made it to Vegas every time. But no pressure! “Campbell’s been one of the greats for a long time,” muses Matt, as David soldiers through the Tire Swing. “But he’s pushing 40 years old, and the new generation of warriors is putting pressure on the veterans.” As though on cue, he slips on the Bar Hop. The problem with age is that it comes for us all.
More unseen ninjas! Kyle Mendoza falls on the Bar Hop. Sudul Diahkah also falls on the Bar Hop. Clayton Wolf goes down on the Salmon Ladder. Variety truly is the spice of life.
When we catch up with Brent Steffensen, gym owner, Ninja legend, and ex-boyfriend of Kacy Catanzaro, he is swinging through the Tire Swing like a pro, which he is. He keeps it real tight on the Salmon Ladder, if you know what I mean, but his grip gives out on Bungee Road and down he goes into a pool of tears. Grip strength was the problem. It always is.
Good news! Tremayne Dortch’s wife, who is also a ninja warrior, is pregnant, and they’re having a girl! He is so excited! Also, look at his abs! I would call their definition “startling.” Anyway, Tremayne has some trouble on the first half of the course, but he presses on, past the Bar Hop and over the Warped Wall. In a cruel twist of fate, he misses a rung of the Salmon Ladder, and just like that, Matt says, his ninja future is in jeopardy. Akbar is shocked. I am also shocked. In this moment, I have never felt closer to anyone.
Diron Jones trips on the Log Runner! Hamidullah Khazi slips on the Bar Hop! Thomas Doweidt is no match for the Window Hang! Still, I feel like this is an especially good course tonight. It is a very pleasant level of impossible.
American Ninja prodigy Daniel Gil has switched up his training this year to include more grip strength and more dance, and I would say it shows. “The question is, how much better can he get?” Akbar wonders, as he waltzes through the first part of the course and tangos through the second, swinging past bungees and windows with the grace of Fred Astaire and the strength of an ox. And he’s up the Invisible Ladder! You get the impression he could even do another obstacle if he had to. Kristine Leahy is very impressed.
At 54, Jon Stewart (still not the comedian) is in a position to break his own record as the oldest athlete ever to qualify for Vegas. His 7-year-old daughter keeps him young, that’s the secret. Jon Stewart shoots over the Log Runner, fights his way through the Tire Swing, and swings down Bungee Road, faster than ever. May we all have a 7-year-old, I say! Jon’s strength gives out on the Window Hang, but who cares? He secures himself a slot in Vegas, knocking David Campbell out of the top 15.
Things are getting stressful! Tremayne Dortch is currently in 15th place, but there is one runner left, and that runner is his friend Karsten Williams. Only one of them can move on to Vegas. It is Sophie’s Choice, but for ninja warriors. Karsten powers through the Bar Hop and up the Warped Wall, beating out Tremayne and officially securing himself a spot in Vegas. Still, he presses on, making it all the way to the Window Hang for fun.
And that’s that! For the next three weeks, we must make do with the Olympics, but after that, it’s back to Philadelphia for the final city finals. It will be historic. Mark your calendars.