At 5-foot flat and barely breaking 100 pounds, Kacy Catanzaro isn’t exactly who you imagine when you hear the nickname “Mighty Kacy.” But mighty she is.
A gifted athlete and Division 1 NCAA gymnast, Catanzaro took the world by storm when she became the first woman ever to complete NBC’s American Ninja Warrior obstacle course at the show’s city finals in Dallas 2014. The fiercely competitive show attracts elite athletes (many of whom are former Olympians) challenging them on a number of different obstacles, including scaling the infamous 14-foot tall “Warped Wall.” In its nine seasons, only a handful of women have completed the course.
So, how does a petite gymnast go from balance beams to crushing obstacles most men fail to complete?
Growing up, Catanzaro spent hours in the gym. She began tumbling at just four years old and advanced to a competitive team before her 10th birthday. Over the next decade through college, gymnastics was, for all intents and purposes, her full-time job.
After graduating from Towson University in 2013 and closing the chapter on a near life-long career as a competitive gymnast, Catanzaro felt a void. “At the time,” she explains, “gymnastics was all that I had ever known. When that was over, I was kind of lost.” Catanzaro was hungry for a new challenge. She quickly set her sights on a feat bigger than anything she had done before.
As a kid, she and her dad loved watching Sasuke, the Japanese show that inspired American Ninja Warrior. It didn’t take long for her to make conquering the ANW course her next objective. With tens of thousands of applicants, Catanzaro wasn’t even sure she’d make it on. “I figured ‘something like that would never happen to me,’ but I wanted to give it a try anyway and decided I wouldn’t let any doubt get in my way.”
A week after graduating college she was driving to Texas to join the Alpha Warrior team in San Antonio, where she began to train voraciously for the qualifying course.
Her training schedule included anywhere from one to four hours a day of high intensity training. “I would do body weight circuit training and high repetition body weight exercises as my main workout to stay strong and lean, and then add on any additional training, such as obstacle course or rock climbing.”
Her training became her world—a life she was well accustomed to. “My life as a gymnast taught me extreme discipline and a strong work ethic. I learned to work through failure, overcome defeat, and keep pushing when you think you have nothing left.”
Her gymnast mindset and small but mighty stature primed Catanzaro to be an unlikely course challenger. Going into the city finals, Catanzaro says, “I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I knew I was more than capable, but I also knew the chances of everything going according to plan were slim, coming in as a rookie.”
But Catanzaro didn’t let her size hold her back. Instead, she leaned in, using it to her advantage. “I have always had to approach things a little bit differently to make things work for me. I can’t make myself any taller, but I can do things differently to try and succeed.”
And succeed she did, gracefully conquering obstacle after obstacle, seeming to barely break a sweat and leaving audiences in total awe.
“I feel as though my size works both ways,” she says. “It’s good to be lean and light on obstacle courses because it is less weight to hold up when you are hanging from your fingertips, but it does cause problems when I am trying to reach for something far away.”
Audiences chanted and cheered for Catanzaro as she moved with calculated grace and precision, strategically working her petite frame to her advantage and at other times, putting all her force into propelling her body from one segment of an obstacle to the other to achieve the same results her taller male competitors could effortlessly reach.
As she closed down the course approaching the infamous Warped Wall, the crowd grew louder and louder. This was the moment she had been waiting for. “Being five feet tall makes the Warped Wall a lot taller,” she says. Audiences were shocked as she took off running, reaching the top of the wall within seconds. Once on top, she looked as stunned as the crowd. “I remember thinking how badly I wanted to get there, everything I had sacrificed to make it happen and, finally, here I was looking over the crowd exploding in excitement, and I just felt pure happiness.”
That day “Mighty Kacy” was immortalized as the first and, at the time, only woman on ANW to ever make it as far as she did. “I didn’t expect it, but I definitely wanted it! The show had made it a huge deal that no woman had completed the course, so I think it made the women competitors feel like it was impossible. I wanted to complete the course to show myself, but also, show everyone else, that it was possible. I wanted to empower the women to break through and not be afraid.”
Catanzaro has gone on to appear on several seasons of ANW and continues to be a fierce competitor.