A 4'11" woman versus a 14-foot warped wall. It hardly seems a fair fight, but when you stand at the base of it on the “American Ninja Warrior” (ANW) course in Los Angeles and remember that Kacy Catanzaro effortlessly sped up its face and into a life of athletic stardom, the wall becomes the unlikely and definitive loser.
In person, Catanzaro is all energy and light and every bit the champion in both personality and performance. Her prowess is not brassy but rather latent and modest, and she comes across as real rather than really self-important.
Though if she were a bit smug about her track record, she would be well within her rights. In 2014, Catanzaro made ANW history four times over: She was the first woman to conquer the warped wall and complete a qualifying ANW course, plus the first and only woman to both complete an ANW City Finals course and earn a spot in the ANW finals.
She became a household name practically overnight as millions watched her scamper up the intractable wall and complete the course on YouTube. Women and girls around the world imagined that they themselves could also conquer an obstacle nearly three times their height. Soon a slew of new female competitors, inspired by their pint-sized predecessor, followed suit and began to defeat the warped wall. And Catanzaro was elated.
“It’s funny: People were like, That girl got up the wall, too, are you pissed? And I was like, are you kidding me? Why do you think I wanted to get up that wall so badly? To show other women that we could do it!” says Catanzaro. “I couldn’t be more excited that I opened up the floodgates and these awesome women came out to compete. The more women who get out there and break down those barriers, the closer we will get to the podium.”
Constructing a Ninja
Catanzaro’s journey toward that podium began much like any other competitor’s; no one thus far has begun his or her athletic career intending to become a Ninja Warrior. Rather, they happened into it much the same way as Catanzaro, who was seeking a new athletic outlet after her career as a Division I gymnast ended with college graduation. She and her father used to watch a Japanese game show called “Sasuke,” which followed 100 competitors as they attempted to complete a four-stage course of epic proportions, featuring obstacles with names such as Devil Swing, Salmon Ladder, Rolling Escargot and the Hedgehog. While most people laughed along with the contestants as they failed miserably at the Curtain Cling, Catanzaro saw opportunity.
But how exactly did one train to become a Ninja? Catanzaro didn’t have a TV-worthy obstacle course in her backyard (who does?), so instead she studied previous ANW episodes to decide which skills she needed to develop: speed, upper-body strength, agility, balance and grip. She then designed her own custom bodyweight circuits, which included moves such as air squats, fingertip pull-ups, lunge jumps and plyometric push-ups, and did them religiously.
“You need to stay light for the course, so doing high-rep bodyweight circuits is best to maintain that lightness, while also developing the body awareness and agility you need to tackle the obstacles,” she says.
Eventually her Internet trolling led to a number of key connections and Catanzaro got plugged into what she calls the “Ninja Community:” a group of people who help one another online with tips, training and workout suggestions. She connected with groups who had built obstacles on which she could practice, and after a year of training she had perfected her ninjalike techniques. Finally, in 2014, she felt ready to tackle the course.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Mental Game
Though she sounds very much like an overcaffeinated cheerleader today, it’s only recently that Catanzaro has recovered her exuberance.
“When I finished the course in 2014, I was on top of the world and beyond excited, but I didn’t realize how excited everybody else would be,” she says. “Everywhere I went, people recognized me and I didn’t expect that. I always wanted to inspire and empower people, but the fame was never something I was striving for; it was a surprise.”
Another surprise for Catanzaro was the ugly side of fame: the haters, the pressure, the expectations. After a disappointing “wet exit” in a 2015 qualifier that eliminated her from the rest of the season, Catanzaro had doubts about continuing.
“I grew up competing in gymnastics, so I understand the pressure of competition, but this was really different,” she says. “Everyone was expecting so much from me, [there were] millions of people watching and I felt like I let them down. I went through a phase where I wasn’t training hard, I wasn’t excited and I was letting my failure really get in the way of moving forward.”
Social media also became a toothy bitch, and nasty comments from cyberbullies threatened to beat her down. “It’s weird to me that people hide behind their computers and purposefully make other people feel bad,” she says. “I had to remind myself not to let that negativity get me down. People are constantly trying to make me doubt myself, but it only makes me that much stronger.”
And for every hater Catanzaro encountered, she had 10 more supporters who stood beside her, even through her loss. “My fans really supported and loved me, and some of them even liked that I failed because it made me more real,” she says. “It’s a mental struggle, and I have to remind myself that whatever happens [on the course] does not define me. I always tell people not to let their failures stop them, so I decided to follow my own advice and come back from my own failure this year.”
Training Strategy, 2016
Armed with her new mental armor, Catanzaro is gunning for victory in the Oklahoma qualifier this summer, hoping to mow down whatever obstacles the evil geniuses at the network design for the course. Her cool head is apparent here in Los Angeles as she carefully scrutinizes a crazy contraption being modified by the ANW staff for TV perfection behind her. Put on by A. Smith & Co. Productions for NBC, this crew has given life to “Spartan Race,” “Pros vs. Joes” and “I Survived a Japanese Game Show.” It’s apparent from their innovative tweaks to the set today — including a “bonus” 6 inches on the warped wall — and the grunts and splashes of missed obstacles that the new season of ANW (NBC, Wednesdays, 8/7 Central) promises to be one to watch.
Though she’s just a spectator this week, Catanzaro came to lend support to her Ninja Community while also getting an eyeful of the obstacles she might herself have to conquer in a few short months.
“You can never be fully prepared, and that’s the excitement of it,” says Catanzaro about the ever-changing course construction. “You will never watch 50 people run through it and succeed; it’s not designed for that. And I have never looked at a course and was like, Cool, I got this. I always believe I’m capable of doing it, but I’m never going to underestimate it. You have to best prepare your body for anything they throw at you, and you have to be able to adapt quickly.”
And though you might think her training has changed drastically over the last few years with the burgeoning popularity of the ANW series and her co-ownership of the Alpha Warrior (alphawarrior.com) training facility in Texas, it actually remains comfortably the same: regular practice of her patented bodyweight circuits peppered with actual obstacle training as her competition date draws near.
Only time will tell how Catanzaro will fare in her upcoming qualifying race, but she feels confident that even if she isn’t the first, a woman will soon top the ANW podium as the champion in Las Vegas.
“I think the women are really sneaking up on the men out there, and I love it,” she says. “Look out for Jessie Graff, Meagan Martin and Erica Cook. They are so good, and I can’t wait to see what they do! When they’re competing I feel like I’m competing, I get so excited.
“You know, I remember that day I finished the course in 2014 and people said, You did well for a girl! And I was like, what the heck is that supposed to mean?” Catanzaro says. “The day when gender does not matter on ANW will be a great day, and it’s getting close! We just have to believe it’ll happen, and it will.”
5 things you probably don’t know about “American Ninja Warrior”
- This year marks its eighth season in the U.S.
- Contestants run the course in the middle of the night. This helps in the editing process so the background always looks the same.
- The contestants don’t get a chance to see or touch anything on the course until their actual race heat. They do get to watch a “tester” run the course and learn the rules of each obstacle, but that’s it.
- It’s best to have a spot in the middle of the pack when racing. That way, you get to watch other people and learn from their mistakes and successes.
- In 2016, the warped wall is 6 inches higher than in previous competitions.
ANW By the Numbers
- 600 » Total number of competitors who run per season
- 50,000 » Number of casting submissions for those spots
- 1 » Number of women who have completed a City Finals course (Kacy Catanzaro)
- 2 » Number of athletes who have completed all four stages in the Las Vegas finals over seven seasons
- $1,000,000 » Cash award for the winner in 2016
- 200 » Number of people it takes to set up and maintain the obstacle course
- 30 » Total number of cameras used to shoot one episode
- 1 » Number of streakers who have hit the course running in their birthday finest
- 21 » Minimum age you have to be to apply for ANW
- 70 » Age of the oldest competitor, a Vietnam vet
Be a Backyard Ninja
No course? No problem. These moves, designed by Brian Orosco, nine-time Ninja Warrior veteran and manager of Tempest Freerunning Academy - South Bay in Hawthorne, Calif. (tempestacademy.com), trains the basic elements needed to conquer any obstacle: grip, pulling strength, agility, balance and technique.
Find a flat, 4- to 8-foot wall and grasp the top of the ledge with your fingers. Jump up so you’re flush, suspended along the flat of the wall with your elbows and knees bent and your body and hips close to the wall. Maintain this position as you traverse back and forth across the wall using your fingers to support your weight. “Start with your whole hand on top and progress to fingertips only,” suggests Orosco. “You can also find a lower wall where you can offset some of your weight with your feet and progress by using less and less of your legs to assist.”
Protocol: Do three sets of maximum traversing distance back and forth.
Fingertip Static Hold
Using that same 4- to 8-foot wall, hang from your fingertips for as long as you can to build endurance and strength. “Experiment with different surfaces such as bars, rounded surfaces and flats,” says Orosco.
Protocol: Three sets for max hold time.
Find a tree with a large trunk diameter. Ideally, it should be large enough that your hands and feet don’t meet when you hug it. Wrap your legs and arms around it and squeeze for as long as you can as hard as you can with your entire body (or until the neighbors start snapping pics with their iPhones). “Obstacles like this are harder than you’d think, and a lot of people lose out because they don’t consider how violent the drop will be if the object is going down a ladder or series of bumps,” says Orosco.
Protocol: Three sets of six- to 10-second holds (full clamping effort).
Hang from a pull-up bar with your hands shoulder-width apart. Kip upward to bring your hips toward the bar, then drive your elbows down and back, generating enough upward force to catch some air and leave the bar momentarily. Grab the bar on the way back down and repeat. “Keep your kip as vertical as possible, more like a piston pumping as opposed to a swinging motion,” says Orosco. To scale, do strict pull-ups.
Protocol: Five sets of six reps.
Find a rope or several ropes in a row and work on climbing vertically, dead-hanging for extended periods or traversing from one rope to another like Tarzan. “On a course you could be asked to go in any direction, so be prepared for it,” says Orosco.
Protocol: Four 15-foot rope climbs (legless for upper-body strength development).
Begin with small, bouncy pogo-hops on the balls of your feet, never letting your heels touch down. Turn those into smaller two-footed jumps, then medium two-footed jumps and finally jumping knee tucks or box jumps. “Make your jumps bouncy and reactive,” says Orosco. “Don’t land flat-footed, which is hard on your joints.”
Protocol: One set of each jump for a distance of 25 feet.
Find a large open area and practice leaping forward, striding as far as you can by taking long, light steps in quick succession. Progress to leaping side to side in the same manner. “Think of yourself as landing on lily pads: If you spend too much time on one, it sinks,” says Orosco. “When training laterally, keep your body as close to the centerline as possible.”
Protocol: Three sets of 25-foot bounds; five sets of 20-foot lateral bounds.
Find a horizontal railing or narrow, flat surface such as a beam and practice standing still, then progress to walking slowly and smoothly backward and forward along it. For best balance, bend your knees and ankles and extend your arms to the sides to lower your center of gravity. “Don’t stare at your feet,” advises Orosco. “Look where you’re going, not where you’ve been.”
Protocol: Five minutes stationary balance practice; five minutes rail walking.
Stemming, aka Jumping Spider
Find two walls that are close together, such as in an alleyway or in your home (hallways or door jambs work well), and support yourself between these walls with your hands and feet. The trick: Place your hands at shoulder level and your feet as high on the wall as you can in comparison to your hips. “You need to direct the force pushing into the wall outward, not downward, in order to stay up,” says Orosco. One warning note: “Don’t jump into this position in your home, since you might kick a hole in your drywall!”
Protocol: 30-second static hold.