With sights set high on hitting the buzzer on top of the recreated Mt. Midoriyama in Las Vegas, competitors on NBC’s hit television show American Ninja Warrior are aiming to accomplish Kanzenseiha—or “total victory” in Japanese.
American Ninja Warrior is rooted in Japan. It started out as the Japanese television show, Sasuke, with a similar format that included a four-stage obstacle course which got progressively harder with each stage. When NBC brought the concept to America in 2009, it quickly became the hit reality show and athletic competition that it is today.
To compete, contestants must submit a video showcasing their skills and personality in addition to filling out a questionnaire in which they share their story. If a contestant is selected, they get invited to compete in one of a few regions across the U.S., with finals culminating in Las Vegas. Competitors all have a common goal: to conquer stage four and achieve total victory. To date, no American has beaten the course.
One of the interview questions competitors are asked to answer in the application process is what hitting the buzzer on top of Mt. Midoriyama would mean to them. The answers they give are as diverse as their athletic backgrounds.
Now in its seventh season, the American Ninja Warrior competition has developed into way more than just a television show. For many, it has become a lifestyle. Backyards and garages have been transformed into obstacle courses and Ninja Warrior training facilities can now be found nationwide. They house obstacles like the Warped Wall, Salmon Ladder, and Quad Steps. For athletes looking to try out new obstacles, Ninja Warrior competitions are held year-round across the country, giving anyone a chance to train with ANW veterans. Many veteran competitors have had to shape their life around the show during the off-season.
Sam Sann has always loved building things—whether that be a sense of community or obstacles. Sann is the owner of Iron Sports gym in Houston, the largest and most comprehensive obstacle training facility in the country. Each week, he brings in record numbers of students interested in training for American Ninja Warrior. A Las Vegas finalist on the show, Sann came to the United States after four long years of running and hiding during the Cambodian Communist Revolution. After escaping to the U.S., he and his family decided to settle down in Houston. Known to many as “the survivor,” he is one of the most creative and entertaining characters to watch on American Ninja Warrior.
People come from all over the nation to train at Iron Sports. “It’s like a family here at the gym. Everyone is working on the same goal, thinking ‘maybe one day I can get on the show,’” Sann said. “American Ninja Warrior has inspired a lot of people, but at the same time [Iron Sports gym has] created a community outside of the television show that people live for. It’s fun to train when you have a group of 40 people trying out obstacles. You can feel the energy. We all support each other.”
Like so many other competitors, Sann aspires toward Kanzenseiha. Even when he’s not competing, Ninja Warrior still influences his life. He lives to inspire others to set goals, dream big, and train hard. “The best advice I give to people is to respect one another. We are one unit. We can’t survive in this world by ourselves,” Sann said.
Abel Gonzalez is also no stranger to overcoming obstacles. At the age of 23, he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and was told he would end up in a wheelchair. Seven years later, he quit his job at an oil refinery, drove seven hours, and waited in line for five days to try out for American Ninja Warrior. Today, he is one of the top competitors on the show. Now a publicly recognized face, he spends his days training, giving motivational speeches, and inspiring others with his #WeAreAllAbel hashtag campaign. He has even opened his own training facility in Edinburg, Texas called Ground Zero Gym. It’s a place where aspiring ninjas are invited to play, train, and find a sense of community.
One thing the American Ninja Warrior TV show gives competitors like Sann and Gonzalez is visibility. Being on the show enabled Gonzalez to create his #WeAreAllAbel platform, which opened the door for him to share his story and inspire others to live their dreams. “When people see me at the gym or on TV going fluidly and easily through the obstacles, they sometimes say things to me like, ‘Oh I could never do that because I’ve had a serious injury,’ or ‘It’s because you’re so young [that you can do that]. Just wait until you get older.’” Then I tell them my story about how I’ve had a dislocation in my left shoulder that left me with partial tears in my bicep, tricep, and shoulder, that I once couldn’t move without taking pain killers every day, that I have broken over four bones in my body, and that I have an incurable auto-immune disease. When I tell them I’m 31 years old and in the best shape of my life, they are in awe,” Gonzalez said.
“We are all able to overcome obstacles and make life whatever we choose," he added.
More often than not, what brings us to something is not what keeps us there. In Gonzalez's case, he initially wanted to win the competition so he could use the $500,000 prize money to make a better life for him and his brothers. That goal has since evolved. "I feel a responsibility now to help motivate people to do right and to live a positive life. I know there is a lifelong and everlasting worthiness in inspiring others. I want to be remembered for the greatness I leave behind, for the change I influence,” he said.
Today, Ninja Warrior gyms continue to sprout up in almost every state and entries to ninja events are heavily sought after. What started out as a reality TV show for some is now a lifestyle for others. It’s a way for contestants to build community, help inspire others, and find a gateway into more forms of movement and fitness. While their athletic backgrounds may differ, all competitors are united by the same quest: to hit the buzzer on top of Mt. Midoriyama in Las Vegas and achieve total victory.