What It Takes To Be a Ninja

A local businessman competes for the fifth year on American Ninja Warrior.

Austin's Matt Laessig has competed alongside Olympic medalists, personal trainers, and professional athletes on America Ninja Warrior.

Photo by Peter Larsen/NBC

Matt Laessig isn’t your typical Austin businessman. While this father of three and Internet executive at Home Away may seem like your average guy, Laessig has a secret identity. At 43 years old, Laessig is one of the oldest competitors on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” a TV show in which participants must use their strength and agility to complete an obstacle course challenging enough to defy Olympians.

This year marks Laessig’s fifth of competition in the show and the program’s sixth season overall. Brought to America in 2009, the show was based off a similar Japanese program called “Sasuke,” which boasts an obstacle course so difficult, only three people have completed it in 15 years. Laessig was first introduced to the idea of a ninja warrior by watching “Sasuke” at a friend's house and immediately predicted the show coming to America.

“It appealed to certain American sensibilities of competition,” Laessig said. “In fact, any guy or girl off the street could theoretically have the chance to compete against Olympians or other professional athletes.”

When Leassig saw the first episodes of “American Ninja Warrior” on TV, the then-38-year-old immediately decided that he would begin training for the next season. He began rock climbing and doing parkour to develop the balance, agility, and upper body strength he would need to complete a ninja warrior course. Since then, Laessig has competed in each season of the show alongside Olympic medalists, personal trainers, and professional athletes 15 years younger than him.

Laessig admits that he requires a different training regimen than most other competitors. Unlike many other ninjas who devote themselves fully to obstacle course training, Laessig has to get creative to fit his workouts into his busy day. To obtain the strength and integrated movement exercises he needs to be at the peak of his game, Laessig pulls a page from the ninja playbook and sneaks his workouts into his daily life. He’ll often take his children to the playground and run around with them, use the monkey bars, or play a game he calls “Catch Daddy for a Dollar.” In addition, he and his oldest son visit the parkour gym together.

“I don’t carve out time to just go to the gym,” Laessig said. “I try to find ways…at home I can sneak in a little bit of a workout. I’ve always liked my exercise to feel like play…and this type of stuff absolutely feels like play.”

In the Dallas Regional Qualifying Episode of this season, Laessig qualified for the national finals by being one of the 21 ninjas to successfully complete the course. This was the first year that Laessig managed to scale the warped wall—a tall, nearly vertical wall that competitors must leap up and climb over. Two years ago, this obstacle stopped Laessig from advancing in the competition, but this season, Laessig was able to ascend the wall and finish 15th in the competition.

“The pursuit of competing is bit of a…metaphor for life,” said Laessig. “There’s the pursuit of continuous improvement and the harsh reality that you’re going to fail, too, no matter how hard you try. Your goal is to go as far as you possibly can to the best of your ability and live up to your potential.”

Laessig admits that it is getting harder each year to be invited back to compete. This season, 30,000 people sent submission videos to fill 600 run spots, and the show is still growing in popularity. In addition, at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Laessig’s body type is far from that of the average ninja, who usually has a small, gymnast-like frame. Many of his peers can’t believe he competes and are even more incredulous that he continues to do so every year. However, Laessig enjoys participating in the show and hopes to continue being a part of the American Ninja community.

“You would think there would be outward competition because only so many people advance, but people are incredibly supportive of each other,” Laessig said. “In a lot of ways, some of these people that I know only through the competition have become some of my closer friends in recent years.”

This season, NBC has significantly increased the broadcast time dedicated to “American Ninja Warrior” from its original allotment when NBC took the show over from G4 three years ago. The newly extended May to September season features two-hour episodes each Monday night with reruns every Sunday. While Laessig looks forward to the airing of the season finale on Sept. 15, he’s already excited for next year, when he can once again show what it means to be an American ninja.

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