TACOMA — As I bounced around to get loose at the start of the “American Ninja Warrior” course at the Tacoma Dome, the spotlight in my eyes seemed brighter than it had been seconds earlier, and it felt as if everyone was staring at me.
Of course that was ridiculous. I was part of a media group invited to run the course for the Seattle/Tacoma leg of “American Ninja Warrior.” The live taping at the Tacoma Dome on May 11-12 marked the show’s first time in the Pacific Northwest (the city qualifier episode airs Monday, June 24, from 8 to 10 p.m. on NBC) and hundreds of excited fans packed the sideline bleachers over two days.
But on that Saturday morning, fans had just started trickling into the arena. They sure weren’t paying attention to the small huddle of media gathered at one end of the course.
Yet I was nervous, as I stared down the first of five obstacles. Called the “Shrinking Steps,” it was a series of five platforms of increasing height and decreasing surface area that were set into a pool of water. A red rope hung over one end of the pool, and the objective was to hop from platform to platform, jump, catch the rope and swing to the ramp at the pool’s edge … where the next obstacle awaited.
As a cast member started counting down from five, I decided on a strategy: I would go slow and steady to get as far as I could on the course.
“Three, two, one, GO!”
I jogged to the edge of the pool and carefully stepped out onto the first platform. This isn’t so hard, I thought. Finding solid footing on platform two, I reached out for platform three.
I thought I hit that third platform dead on. But the steps have slanted edges to them, and as I brought my second foot up, I felt myself tilting backward. My arms flailed wildly as I tried desperately to shift my body weight. I tipped anyway, back, back, back until the cold water engulfed me as I splashed clumsily into the pool.
Wisdom gained later in the day from watching dozens of “ninjas” — as the show calls its competitors — run the course showed that slow-and-steady was a terrible strategy. Speed brings momentum, and momentum matters when you’re trying to hop, skip, jump and swing your way through five different obstacles before you try to literally run up a wall — the 14 ½-foot Warped Wall that’s the final obstacle standing between the competitors and the victory buzzer (more on that later).
We got to try that obstacle too. The take-away? It’s harder than it looks. If you don’t go fast and hard from the very first step and take a big enough leap at just the right moment, your failure is punctuated by loud skidding noises as you slide down the smooth, black surface.
The show clearly plays up entertainment value, but the course demands an incredible level of athleticism. The 13 competitors with Washington state ties who competed at the Tacoma Dome (of 100-plus total competitors) included an Olympic decathlete and a former Mariners pitcher.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek at all that was involved in “American Ninja Warrior’s” first foray into the Pacific Northwest.
First time in the Pacific Northwest, first time indoors
With its outdoorsy community, active parkour population and wide variety of climbing gyms, the Pacific Northwest has long been on the list of promising destinations for “American Ninja Warrior” show runners.
But there was one issue. The show has always built its courses outdoors and held the competition at night, which makes it susceptible to rainouts.
Taking the show indoors to the Tacoma Dome solved this conundrum and “allowed us to come to an area where, not only do we have great athletes, but we have a rabid fan base, and people have been turning out in droves,” says Matt Iseman, who has co-hosted “American Ninja Warrior” since its fifth season.
Iseman and his partner Akbar Gbajabiamila have worked together for the past five seasons, narrating the action with energetic banter from the play-by-play box next to the Warped Wall. This year, they’re joined by newcomer Zuri Hall, in her first season as sideline reporter.
For the hosts and crew, bringing things indoors also comes with another perk: regular work hours.
“Normally, we shoot sundown to sunrise — overnight. This is the first time we’re shooting in the day like normal humans,” Hall says.
It’s not easy to get on “American Ninja Warrior.” More than 70,000 people applied to be on the show for this season, a process that involved submission of a lengthy form and an application video.
Some competitors stand out because they’re accomplished athletes — like former Mariners pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith and Seattle native and 2016 Olympic decathlete Jeremy Taiwo.
Others, like Seattle resident Ben Yeh, call attention to their motivation. Yeh, a 27-year-old Microsoft software engineer, centered his application video on his lack of an athletic background.
“I tried out for sports teams and I never made it, I’d be picked last for sports and stuff like that,” says Yeh.
His pitch worked. This winter, Yeh was invited to compete on the show.
He’ll run the same course as guys like Rowland-Smith and Taiwo, who’s currently training for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics but wanted to try and top his first Ninja Warrior appearance — season nine’s Kansas City regional (2017) — where he fell on the third obstacle.
Maple Valley native Justin Gielski might be the most accomplished of the Seattle/Tacoma regional ninjas with Washington ties.
Gielski, a 34-year-old Air Force veteran, made it to the national finals in Las Vegas in season seven (2015) but has never managed to scale the Warped Wall and hit the buzzer. (You don’t have to hit the finish buzzer to qualify for the national finals: the top 12 competitors from each city finals are chosen based on time and how far they got in the course.)
Gielski’s upper body strength is his biggest asset, and he’s good at lacheying — “ninjaspeak” for using your body’s momentum to swing and launch off an object and onto another obstacle.
“This is my redemption tour,” he says, grinning.
While the field of competitors skews predominantly male, many women compete too.
Nostalgia washes over Sandy Zimmerman as she stands by the obstacle course at the Tacoma Dome, waiting her turn to compete.
Thirty years ago, Zimmerman, a 42-year-old physical-education teacher, won a national judo title in the Tacoma Dome. “That was the moment that was a turning point in my life.”
Zimmerman grew up in Tacoma “poor and on welfare” and spent some time in the foster-care system. Winning that title marked the first time that she dared to raise her expectations of future.
“My sensei said afterward, ‘Sandy, you could go to the Olympics,’ ” Zimmerman says. “And I remembered being almost embarrassed (because) kids like me don’t get (to) dream those sorts of dreams. But that’s where it started.”
As a teen, she picked up basketball instead of judo and earned a full athletic scholarship to Gonzaga University.
Zimmerman, her husband and their three children (aged 8, 10 and 13) all compete in ninja leagues (yes, this is a thing). Zimmerman was on seasons eight and nine of “American Ninja Warrior,” but has never completed the course. She hopes that being back in the Tacoma Dome will pay dividends for her again.
The Seattle/Tacoma regional brought out close to 1,000 spectators, a record for any city, according to an NBC spokesperson.
There were many families, including the Nelsons, who traveled from Tigard, Oregon, after hearing about the taping at their local Ninja Warrior gym, Skyhook Ninja Fitness.
The Nelsons have been fans of “American Ninja Warrior” for years, but only started going to Skyhook two years ago. Christian, 12, and Kyra, 10, hope to one day compete on “American Ninja Warrior Junior,” a spinoff.
A local family from Kirkland came to the taping after hearing about it from friends. Mom Karen Wood likes watching clips of the show on YouTube with her two kids.
“It’s encouraging to see my kids get excited about getting stronger and working hard,” Wood says. “And especially seeing the women competitors show how strong they can be.”
The keepers of the course
The Seattle/Tacoma “American Ninja Warrior” course starts out with those deceptively easy-looking Shrinking Steps.
Only after the competitors make it through a gantlet of five obstacles do they get a shot — three, actually — at the Warped Wall. You decide whether to scale the regular 14½-foot wall or the new 18-foot version. Get to the top of the 18-foot wall on your first attempt and you get a $10,000 bonus. That drops to $5,000 on second attempt, and $2,500 on the third.
Ever wonder who comes up with these impossible-looking obstacles?
That would be the ATS Team. (ATS stands for Alpine Training Services, the name of the company that’s contracted with the show since season four, but everyone calls them “the ATS Team.”)
The ATS course designers are based in Los Angeles, and they take inspiration for new obstacles from just about anywhere.
“What’s really cool is that anyone in the company can come up with anything, which is super fun for us,” says Morgan McNeil, an ATS project manager who was a rock-climbing guide before a friend asked him to help him test custom-designed obstacle courses.
On the set, the 15 to 20 members of the ATS team wear black T-shirts — usually bulging at the sleeves because these people are very fit! — and they are responsible for anything related to the course, including: design, testing, monitoring the course for safety standards, and resetting it after each run.
During a taping, they frequently knock out seemingly random sets of calisthenics.
Why? There’s no bet at play, nothing on the line.
“Usually we’re filming at nighttime until sun up, and usually on a filming night it’s 14- to 15-hour shifts. So it’s taxing,” says ATS rigger Michael Hecht. “To keep us awake and keep us healthy on the road, we try to stay motivated with calisthenics.”
So what’s the most difficult obstacle from the qualifying round of the Seattle/Tacoma course?
“Probably No. 3 (the Barrel Roll) and the last one (Lightning Bolts),” Hecht says. “The barrel is probably one of the harder ones in this city because they’re used to lacheying when they swing from bar to bar — and you can do that, but that one has the roll effect as well. So if you’re just used to regular lacheying, it’ll definitely throw you off.”
How will the Washington state competitors fare on that tricky barrel roll? Who will move onto the national finals? Tune in Monday night to find out what happens when the cameras are rolling and the pressure’s on.
The Seattle/Tacoma city qualifier episode of “American Ninja Warrior” airs Monday, June 24, from 8 to 10 p.m. on NBC.
Seattle Times features producer Amy Wong contributed to this story.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated ATS Project Manager Morgan McNeil’s name.