In the summer of 2014 I watched a viral video of Kacy Katanzaro’s completing the American Ninja Warrior City Finals course. In December of 2014 I decided I was going to audition for the show. In March of 2015 I got my call from the producers that I was cast (!). On Memorial day weekend of 2014 I competed on Season 7 of American Ninja Warrior in Pittsburgh, PA.
So, this is how it works…
To get on American Ninja Warrior you have to fill out a written application and submit a 3 minute video on the ANW casting website (www.ANWcasting.com). The deadline is announced in late summer, and is usually at the end of December-mid January. The questions revolve around your backstory in sports, work, family, personal characteristics and things you’ve overcome. I tried to hi-light things that would make me stand out to talk about: being an engineer, being a twin, volunteer work and my athletic background. The video is the trickier part; I filmed mine using an iPhone turned horizontal and edited it in iMovie. I used a song I liked from the top40 at the time – Uptown Funk, which ended up being super overplayed, but still good.
So, in my video I did all my talking in my apartment, and the lighting was not great. I focused on what I do as an engineer and all the different athletic things I do. That was probably 3 or 4 shots 10-15 seconds each. The rest was actual athletic things: rock climbing, pull ups, running outdoors, tumbling outdoors, a talent show video and myself on a volunteer project abroad. The video quality was a bit amateur because of my phone and the lighting, but I got in! I’m not sure what the magic formula is for getting in or not, but it is a TV show so it has to be a combination of actual physical talent and whether or not the person will make good TV. I know when I see a backstory I connect with I am more invested in watching to see how an athlete does.
So it took 3 months to hear back, as the Northeast Region was one of the later cities filmed. There was about 3 weeks between when I found out I got on the show and when I had to compete. What people may or may not know is that these shows are filmed as early as March all the way to May, with City Qualifying and City Finals filmed in two days, back to back, overnight. The show is not live, although it has the feeling of a live show when it airs, and the participants are not supposed to reveal any information on how they did prior to the show airing.
Last Minute Preparation
So in the three weeks leading up to the show I was kind of freaking out! I thought I had a really small chance of getting in, and at least I had been keeping up with rock climbing and circus training, but I did not go to a “Ninja gym” regularly since the closest one was over an hour away at the time. I wasn’t worried about being strong enough, so much as the technique for all the common obstacles: quintuple steps, salmon ladder, warped wall. I got to three ninja gyms in those three weeks and did as many pull ups as I could every day up until the week of. I ran a few days a week to work on endurance and cleaned up my diet so I could be as lean as possible.
In the weeks leading up to the big days I got calls and emails from producers, which made it feel really real. I had to come up with a hashtag/tagline for myself, #IncredibleEllie is what I went with..the producer suggested #thelittleEngineerthatcould, which I’ll have to hold on to for the future. I had to provide a few more pictures and video clips of me doing engineering stuff, tell my story in a little more detail and book flights according to my interview “b-roll” schedule.
Competing on the Show
So the whole thing went down in 2 days, I flew into Pittsburgh, rented a car and drove straight from the Airport to the filming sight which was in Carrie Furnace. It took probably 4 hours to finish all the different shots which included interviews, an action shot, a hero shot where you kind of look tough and some social media clips. So then I was done and had hours to kill before coming back for my call back time at 11pm. I bought a bunch of snacks, my boyfriend’s flight came in and I picked him up and we headed to the Steel City Parkour gym so I could warm up and get my jitters out. I ended up doing the warped wall a bunch of times thinking that I would master it right before the show. I also obsessed over the quintuple steps because my biggest fear was falling on the first obstacle.
So cut to 11pm, we drove to the pick up site where they van pooled us over to the actual competition. I got to skip all the long lines my friends had to wait in to get into the make-shift arena. I was 3rd to last in the entire line up. By the time I got there maybe 20 or 30 people had gone. It was freezing cold and there was condensation building up on the obstacles. Things took much longer than they planned, and I was jittery and trying to stay warm the whole night, and suddenly the sun came up and I found out they would squeeze the end of the line up that hadn’t gone on the second night.
Now, the obstacles in Pittsburgh Season 7 City Qualifiers/Finals were as follows:
- Quintuple Steps
- Log Grip
- Snake Crossing
- Wind Chimes
- Devil Steps
- Warped Wall (end of Qualifier round)
- Salmon Ladder
- Floating Monkey Bars
- Doorknob Arch
- Invisible Ladder (end of Finals round)
I got to stare at these for a whole day while filming the interviews and watching people go before me. I knew what the problem was going to be: Snake Crossing. This evil concoction of a balance obstacle was taking everyone out! It even one of the guys who owned a Ninja gym I went to, I knew I was in for it when I saw him fall.
So I did my run around midnight the second night. It was freezing and I was wearing shorts and a tank top for my run. Since the obstacles require you to hold on it’s helpful to have your skin exposed as grip. When I got up to the starting podium the lights were so bright and looking down the entire course it all looked larger than life. All of a sudden it was time to go.
I was most nervous about the very first obstacle. I decided to “cat leap” the steps because it seemed like the safest bet. Something about the steps being above water adds to how difficult it seems. Woo! I got past the steps, even if a bit slow using the cat leap technique. Next, I climbed up about 10 feet to a higher platform where you jump on the log grip. I saw maybe a dozen people fall on this obstacle, many of the women I had met earlier in the day. There were two sets of hand blocks on the log and I made the decision earlier I would hold onto the closer grips so I could get a good squeeze. I saw a lot of girls about my size choose the further ones, maybe thinking holding more of the log would help, but it didn’t work out well. I grabbed the blocks jumped up, squeezed harder than I ever had in my life and didn’t even budge when the log jostled around on the track. When it hit the end I just flew off and landed straight on my hands and knees. I saw a guy get hit in the head by this giant log, so glad that didn’t happen to me. Also glad I didn’t fall in the water underneath it, although I would have gotten a free POM wonderful towel out of it, so I guess there’s a upside to everything.
Next up, Snake Crossing. I watched some girls testing this obstacle during the day (non-competitors test the obstacles during the day, and the engineers make small adjustments to the course based off what they do well/poorly on). A few of them didn’t make it to the first mushroom, because it is a bit of a jump if you have short legs. No one missed this (that I saw) the night of the competition, so I did not want to be the first. I jumped to the first mushroom and made it, the first beam was stationary, shaped like an S going up and down. Then there was a wobbly mushroom in between the first and second beams, I stood on that and did a tricky pistol squat down to the second beam, also shaped like an S, but it looped from right to left and tilted. I made it half way across the beam to the tilting point and sooner than I could blink, I felt my chest swinging down trying to compensate and I hopped right off the beam onto the mat underneath. No water, no epic fall, just a little dismount. Being a former gymnast, falling on this beam-like obstacle was something I did not feel great about.
After I fell the camera people asked me some questions about how I was feeling, and I got directed back to the “Ninja holding area”, a.k.a. the empty spot of grass where we all hung out all night. I had mixed feelings about how it was awesome I did some legit cool things, but such a bummer I fell on an obstacle that I could have done given a little luck. Balance obstacles always get me though, it’s kind of a tradition. I got to watch the city finals, and eventually left and took a well deserved nap. All in all, I was proud of what I did on the course and I met an eclectic group of highly motivated super supportive athletes that I’ve gotten to keep in touch with since.
Life Post Competing
I’ve taken on the identity “ninja” a bit reluctantly since in my mind it’s more related to martial arts than obstacle course racing, but I’ve gotten used to it. Ninja has come to cover the full span of activities that the people I’ve met through the show get excited about. Ninja includes: obstacles, mud runs, rock climbing, acrobatics, circus, parkour, yoga, stunts, etc. Since the show I feel like I’ve joined this widespread community that has been a constant source of inspiration. My social media feed is now filled with amazing human feats daily thanks to the ninja community.
It’s been about 11 months since the show and I submitted my video about 3 months ago for Season 8. Since competing on the show I’ve trained regularly in “ninja gyms” near me, doing a few local competitions. I’ve gotten down some of the obstacles I couldn’t do a year ago like the salmon ladder, floating boards, and warped wall. I’m crossing my fingers I’ll get a call sometime in April for the Northeast City Qualifiers/Finals in Philadelphia, PA which tentatively scheduled for 5/26-5/27. I’ll be really excited to do it again if I get the chance, and if not, I’ll be cheering on the friends I’ve made. Training for ninja warrior is fun in itself, and I’ve enjoyed every second of it.
To see more of my ninja antics follow me on Instagram @eliannah 🙂