No, really, I watched “American Ninja Warrior” and liked it…
So let me start by saying that just the name alone for this reality show made me cringe. And I honestly thought there was no possible way I would like it. But I hadn’t heard of it, read the description of the finale, and saw that it was competing in a Japanese game show around an obstacle course. I like watching the Wipeout! shows when they’re on, not so much for the actual wipeouts as just seeing the different obstacle courses and how people successfully approach them. It’s a couch potato fantasy to think it looks like fun, but I couldn’t possibly do them. American Ninja Warrior, or ANW as I found out the North American fans call it, is aimed at sending 10 competitors to a Japanese obstacle course called Sasuke. This game show has been on for a long time, now running its 27th “course”, and is the ultimate in obstacle courses — only three people in the entire history of the show have ever FINISHED the course (two fishermen and a shoe salesman). Just watching the athletes do it — or even train for it — is amazing. These are NOT couch potato athletes giving it a go, these are hard core extreme athletes expending every ounce of energy just to make it to the end.
The finale I watched was a two-hour finale and showed the 10 Americans competing. I don’t know if I would have watched the regular show (tryouts, boot camp training, etc.) and even the finale was driving me nuts with the boring profiles and interviews with the competitors — I had to fast-forward several times just to get to their actual attempt. But the competition itself was awesome.
Round 1 starts with a simple obstacle called the Step Slider — you bounce from one sloped slide to another for four sides and you’re done. They make it look simple.
Next up is the Rolling Escargot — if you’ve ever seen someone in a circus strapped to a spinning wheel while someone throws knifes at them, that’s basically the spinning concept without the knifes. There is a round disc with four hand and foot holds on it; you climb on, and then use your own body control to roll it along a track, doing about 5-6 loops to get to the other platform. Some people did 3 and then launched themselves to the platform. More impressive, but straightforward.
The third obstacle is the Giant Swing, and yes, it’s a giant swing. No problem.
Fourth is called the Jumping Spider, and this one is impressive. You jump off a trampoline / launch to wedge yourself between two high barrels — and by wedge I mean you jump into the gap and extend your arms and legs out to the side to pin yourself between the two walls. No ledges, no holds, no grips — just the force of the limbs pushing out to hold you in place. You then crawl forward like a spider, forcing your limbs out to maintain your height between the walls, and travel through the walls about 30 feet, adjusting your height upwards to go over an obstacle wall about half-way through.
Obstacle five is called the Half-pipe Attack, and the theory is incredibly simple. You run along a curved wall (a half-pipe like a skateboarder would use), grab onto a rope and swing to a small platform. Not particularly complicated but it is a VERY small platform you are landing on, while swinging, and with momentum. If
you stick the landing, you then just run along a little platform to complete the obstacle. This obstacle provided the first problem for the American competitors when one of them landed wrong on the platform — imagine he landed and planted one foot, but he was swinging in an arc at the time, so the knee kept turning while the foot stopped. Bye-bye knee cap. And the guy tried to keep going.
Obstacle six looks like the simplest obstacle in terms of design. It is basically a curved wall — think of it as a circle, with two thirds of it missing. So you run backwards a bit to get some momentum, and then you barrel through the bottom and up the wall…and just as it starts to curve back on itself, you jump up (i.e. LUNGE!), grab the top with your hands, and pull yourself up. All of them handled it easily, so it looks simple, but most people would never even come close to reaching the top edge.
Obstacle seven, the Spinning Bridge, was a new obstacle — four spinning balls suspended on rope. They look a bit like the Big Balls from a Wipeout! episode, but very close together and much smaller. In fact, they quickly realized the fastest way across was to run REALLY fast across, and even if you fall or stumble, your momentum carries you to the other platform.
Obstacle eight is relatively simple…You play Tarzan across a rope swing, grab on to a large rope mesh that serves as a rope ladder, and climb to the top where you can hit a buzzer to move on.
And oh, yeah, almost forgot. You have to do ALL OF THAT in 2 minutes, five seconds. 125 seconds. And with the exception of the guy who blew out his knee, the other nine competitors all made it. Some with 30-40 seconds to spare.
Round 2 makes the first round look like a warm-up, but there are only six obstacles in this one. You start with the Slider Drop…think of it as two slightly descending bars running parallel to each other for about 8 feet, and then they drop down about 3 feet and keep descending. Then you take a rod and put it across the top of the bars and hold on like you’re about to do a chin-up. The rod slides down the bars as they are angled down, but you have to keep your rod perpendicular to the bars as if one end slides off, down you drop — the rod isn’t attached, it is just sitting on top. When it hits the drop, you drop down too — ripping your arms out of the socket from the impact, and then you keep sliding. If you manage to keep balanced, you slide to the end and drop onto a platform.
Up until now, most people watching might think, hmm, maybe I could do that. Not technically complicated, so they think they might be able to do it. Then they hit obstacle 2, the Double-Salmon Ladder, and all doubt is removed from your mind. This one is physically impossible, and yet they do it. Picture a weightlifter lifting weight between two poles, and the poles have notches in them at various heights where you can rest the weight bar. Those are salmon ladders. Except that instead of the notches being at your ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, head, etc., they start at your head and go UP from there. And you’re the weight. So what you have to do is hold yourself on the rod going across like a weightlifter. And then, without your feet touching the ground or anywhere else for leverage, basically throw your body upwards so that the rod goes up in the air about 12 inches, and you can lodge it back in the next salmon ladder notch. Yep, you’re throwing yourself upwards through rocking / swinging momentum, climbing the ladder with just your upper body. Four rungs upwards. Then the “DOUBLE” part comes into play. You turn your body around, swing back and forth like a pendulum to build up momentum and then launch yourself forward to another salmon ladder about four feet in front of you. And you have to land the rod in the notches there. Some of the competitors managed to not only swing across the gap but also to swing themselves upward a level at the same time. Two more notches once you get there and you swing onto the next obstacle. I have to tell you, the Salmon Ladder totally blew my mind that anyone could do it at all. I’m sure they break at least two laws of physics with each jump.
The third obstacle is kind of simple in comparison, as is the fourth. Number 3 is the “unstable bridge” which is two boards about the size of doors lying flat and suspended from chains. Grab onto the first one with your hands (i.e. you hanging down underneath, a hand on each side) for the first board. It has four chains holding it in each corner, so pretty stable, but the second one is only suspended with two chains, so you have to jump your hands onto it from the previous board by grabbing both sides at the same time (i.e. again, rocking back and forth and then sliding your hands from the first board to the second board), and keeping them evenly distributed. Jump along with your hands (you can’t alternate or the board will tip) and then grab on to a platform at the end with your feet. Number 4, the Balance Tank, is a simple rolling metal log…you walk it down a sloped ramp, just keeping your balance and then grab onto a rope to pull you up to the start of obstacle 5.
Obstacle five is the great equalizer and is all about hand strength. For the Metal Spin, you run off a ledge, and leap outwards to grab onto one of several chains hanging down from a circle that will rotate from your added momentum and drop you onto the next platform. Here’s the problem — it is a BIG leap to that chain. And when you get there, you’re tired from the first obstacles. And you’re heavy and sweating. And you have to HOLD ON TO A METAL CHAIN WITH JUST YOUR HANDS! Absolutely brutal on the hands.
Up to this point, only 2 competitors were out — the blown knee guy from Round 1, and another guy who dropped off the slider drop obstacle as he didn’t keep his rod even on the sliders. So eight remained. Four more bit the dust on the chain, all of them failing to hang on and instead sliding off the end of the chain, most of them because there hands were too slick to hold on.
Obstacle six is relatively simple in format…there are three “walls” of wood that are on grooves, kind of like a guillotine after it has fallen. You run to the first wall, slide it up the groove out of your way, run underneath and drop it behind you. The first wall is 60+ pounds, the second 90+ pounds, and the third 120 pounds. Just all about brute strength, after you’ve done the other 5 obstacles and totally wrecked your upper body.
Again, I know what you are thinking. Okay, some of those are pretty difficult, but a lot of athletes could probably do them with some training. Sure. I don’t disagree. If they were tackled individually, or with multiple attempts. But these guys? The four who made it through? They had to do all six in a row, get it right on one attempt, and, oh yeah, it’s timed — they have to do it in under 90 seconds. NINETY seconds. That’s about the time it took you to READ my description of the round! And again, they had time to spare.
For Round 3, there are 7 obstacles, but at the risk of spoiling the outcome, we only got to see competitors try the first three. The only benefit to the round is there is no time limit — you just have to complete it.
The first obstacle is called the Arm Bike. It is really simple looking — you have a set of bicycle pedals attached to a groove, and you pedal them across to the next obstacle. Except this is an obstacle course of great reknown, so you are using your ARMS to pedal the bike while holding yourself up, dangling below the pedal bike.
You then move on to obstacle two which is a bit like the Salmon Ladder except you are throwing yourself forward instead of upwards — you are suspended from a rod that sits in two grooves. When you throw yourself forward about four or five feet, the rod can land in two more grooves. Do this three or four times and you are through; miss a groove, or have your arms fall off, and you’re out.
The third — and ultimately final — obstacle was introduced three courses back and has yet to be completed by anyone. It is called the Ultimate Cliffhanger, although perhaps it is best thought of as the ultimate rock-climbing ledge. You hang by your fingertips on ledges about an inch wide and move from ledge to ledge to ledge, moving from left to right. The first ledge is angled upward to the right and you move upwards along it; then you transition to the second ledge above it which is also angled up but to the left. These are angled at about 30 degrees.The third and fourth ledges are simple, just straight across. All of the competitors made it to the third ledge and three even made it to the fourth ledge.
The fifth ledge is really small though, and lower than the fourth. So small in fact that it is almost impossible for both hands to be fully on it at the same time. Plus they have to almost “hop” from the fourth ledge to get to it. This is where two more competitors dropped, trying to transition. The sixth ledge is much like the third and fourth, so if you can get to it, you are back in familiar territory — except by this time, you probably have almost no upper body strength left. And no competitor has made it off the sixth ledge yet. The best American managed to get to about half-way across this last ledge, and even put his feet on the side of the platform, before dropping.
The Rest of the Course
We didn’t get to see the rest of the course, although the level was more of the same — heavy on upper body strength, but much easier elements than the cliffhanger. The final Round, #4, is a complete mystery as no one knows what the level looks like because they haven’t finished round 3 to get to it.
I doubt I’ll watch the week to week series next year, but I am DEFINITELY going to look out for the finale again. It was just amazing to watch these athletes do the course. Now, if only they could change the name of the program.