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Maxim Takes On American Ninja Warrior

Can the right workout transform you from a No-hope zero into a ninja hero? We’d answer that, but someone just shot a poisonous blow dart into our neck. Avenge us!

"Five, four…”
I’m standing on the starting platform for the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course as a guy just off-camera counts down the seconds until my go time. I look toward the nearby staging area crammed with fellow contestants—a motley crew of costumed fame-seekers, kooks, and some of the most freakishly fit athletes I’ve ever seen—and a thought begins to cross my mind.

Photos by Brandon Hickman / G4 | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012

“…three, two…”
The thought fully forms as my eyes fall on a group of Parkour guys practicing high-flying flips: I am a magazine editor whose chief qualifications for competing on this course involve a casually used gym membership and a passing knowledge of Chuck Norris jokes. The smart thing to do would be to bow out now before I injure myself on national television.

Photos by Brandon Hickman / G4 | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012

“…one. Go!”
I take a deep breath, and take a flying leap. For the uninitiated, American Ninja Warrior is a Japanese import that, since 1997, has featured a stream of lemming-like con­tes­tants attempting to tackle a nearly impossible gauntlet in a quest for glory and numerous groin pulls. Think Wipeout but much more difficult and with serious athletes. While a cadre of regular contestants train year-round, and some go so far as to construct ramshackle replicas of the show’s famous obstacles in their backyards, only 23 out of 2,700 total contestants have made it to the show’s final round, and just three have ever achieved what the Japanese call “complete domination.” Jeopardy! has a different winner almost every night; Ninja Warrior can go years without anybody even getting close to victory and the current $500,000 grand prize.

Photos by Brandon Hickman / G4 | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012

“As competitors move through the course, the intensity of the aerobic and muscular abuse grows to the point where they sim­ply cannot complete it,” explains Holly Wollford, an executive producer, “unless they have the perfect recipe of will, strength, aerobic capacity, and general fitness.”

American Ninja Warrior also holds a certain nostalgic appeal for adults of a certain generation, who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s watching kids who looked just like them compete on ridiculously fun-looking slime- and water-filled obstacle-course game shows on Nickelodeon.

Photos by Brandon Hickman / G4 | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012

“It’s like when we used to watch Double Dare, Guts, or Legends of the Hidden Temple,” says free runner and American Ninja Warrior veteran Brian Orosco. “We always looked enviously at the contestants, thinking, ‘I could totally kick their asses if I only had a chance!’ Well, friendo, that time is now, and American Ninja Warrior is your ticket!”

In previous years G4 has held competitions to find America’s best budding ninjas to send off to Japan to compete. (I’m told
the Japanese audiences really, really love seeing American contestants fall on their faces.) But this is the first year G4, along with sister network NBC (which is airing some episodes in prime time), is staging the entire multi-round production in the U. S. of A. Roughly 750 competitors in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami are giving a go at making it to the finals in Las Vegas, where the ultimate winner (if there is one) will take home the half-mil cash prize.

But for the 125 or so competitors who have spent all day with me waiting their turn in the SoCal sun, it isn’t just about the money. Some came to prove something.

“It’s about redemption,” says Ryoga Vee, a four-time ANW veteran wearing a red and black robe that makes him look like a character from Mortal Kombat and who would eventually fall on the fifth obstacle. “I keep coming so close and yet so short.”

Photos by Brandon Hickman / G4 | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012

Others came for fame.

“I just want to be on TV. I have no skills whatsoever,” says Kevin “Frog Dude” Zeeff, a 26-year-old in a cobbled-together frog outfit who admitted to “zero” training and who would wind up in the water on the second obstacle. Still others came to defend the honor of costumed critters worldwide.
“Mascots get a bad rap,” says Todd

Maroldo, who dons the fur as Slamson the Lion for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and who would later fall on the fourth obstacle. “I’m trying to dispel the myth that we’re just the funny guys. Plus, I’m doing this out of costume. And anything out of costume is a lot easier because I’m not wearing a 30-pound suit and sweating my butt off.”

Me? I came for the cash, and the op­por­tunity to—nah, really just for the cash.

Photos by Brandon Hickman / G4 | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012

Of course, to have any shot at not completely embarrassing myself and the entire Maxim family, I would need a full-on Rocky-grade training montage sequence. The one problem: I had put off any sort of preparation until a week before the competition, and so I frantically called up Orosco and his trainer, Carl Paoli, begging for last-minute training tips. They obliged (I don’t think Orosco felt like I was a threat in his race for the prize) and also gave me the ultimate

Ninja Warrior workout—a ball-busting routine they said would sculpt me into an American Ninja Warrior–ready competitor by next year (see page 95).
Back to the race: At the crack of the starter gun, I explode out of the gate and jump onto the Quad Steps, the first of six obstacles laid before me. On TV these angled platforms look like they’re right next to each other. But up close, the watery gulf between them is massive—four to eight feet, depending on where you’re standing.

Photos by Brandon Hickman / G4 | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012

I immediately abandon Plan A (hopping between them with carefree nonchalance) and pivot to Plan B (grabbing on to each platform for dear life). After a few near slips, I make it to the end, successfully accomplishing my goal of not getting soaked in the first five seconds.

Next up is the Log Grip. Contestants hold on to a massive wooden cylinder as it careens down a track pockmarked with a series of foot-deep bumps designed to shake them off into a pool of water. With a Four Loko case’s worth of adrenaline pumping through my body, I wrap my arms around the log and launch off the starting platform. My eyes are closed as the log rolls down the track to a platform at the other end.

Success! With two obstacles down, I’m a third of the way through this thing. Who knows? Maybe I can do it after all! I look out at the bleachers full of sunburned onlookers, throw my arms triumphantly in the air, and let out a primal “Arghhh!” It’s possible that a few members of the audience cheered back, but they could have just been wondering who the hell let the nearly translucent ginger in the sleeveless shirt onto the course.

Photos by Brandon Hickman / G4 | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012

I know the third obstacle, a cylindrical, revolving balance beam called the Spinning Log, will be a doozy—I’ve spent all day watching it vanquish contestants more ninja-looking than me—so my initial strategy is a conservative one: I’ll crawl across it. But the second I bend down to straddle the thing, I hear the crowd let out groans of annoyance at my cowardly maneuver. I have no choice but to run across the obstacle. If I fall, at least I’ll have fallen with dignity.

Photos by Brandon Hickman / G4 | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012

Seconds later I fall. Without the dignity. I try to grab the log on my way down. It slips from my grip, and I plummet headfirst onto the crash pad below. So just like that, after approximately 30 seconds, my stint on American Ninja Warrior is over. In the end, I didn’t win the half-million-dollar prize (or get minutely close). But I wasn’t too disappointed: Only 26 people in my group finished the first-round course, and I at least got further than the guy in the frog suit. And they can never take that away from me.

Catch American Ninja Warrior Sundays at 9 p.m. EDT on G4 and Mondays at 9 p.m. on NBC.