If you’re keeping up with the news, it’s tough to pursue joy right now.
So when I’m feeling low, and it happens often enough, I need something to pick me back up again in those small hours of rest and relaxation. In this time of prestige TV and dramas vying for recreational sadness, I need a hero.
My friends, that hero is American Ninja Warrior. This show, now in its 11th season, makes me happy to be alive.
I watch these talented people from every corner of America, running and jumping and spinning through obstacles both literal and personal.
Even if they fall, the victory comes in the attempt. For this is a game in which total victory – climbing the fabled Mount Midoriyama after a Super Mario Bros. final castle-style gauntlet of multiple stages – has been completed just twice in the show’s decade on the air. Therefore, the only true failure is not trying.
I’m supposed to not feel good about that? C’mon, man.
One of the things that sets American Ninja Warrior apart is that many of the contestants come off as ordinary people that you could know, but they also can do this extraordinary thing. Hell, I used to live around the corner from ANW superstar Drew Dreschel’s gym!
Not everyone is a trained gymnast, stuntwoman or ex-NFL player. Not everyone is filled with bulging muscles. Many kinds of people compete. Sure, they’re all fit, but the heights, muscle tones and builds still vary.
Players’ personal stories – a suburban dad’s aw-shucks determination, a veteran mom overcoming homelessness, a young man searching for the younger sister he was separated from as a child, or the heavy metal bass player with personal demons – are they really that remarkable? People go through tough things every day, if we only knew.
But there’s one thing I know for sure about American Ninja Warrior after watching it all this time. A fact that hits home for yours truly.
Take in all the competitors’ (often self-imposed) nicknames such as “Cake Ninja,” “Real Life Ninja,” “Papal Ninja,” “Captain NBC,” “Sparkly Ninja,” “Towers of Power,” and even “Grandpa Ninja” and “Naptime Ninja.”
Look at how they keep the local print shops and Vistaprints of the nation busy with all those custom T-shirts. Or how these competitors dress in literal superhero costumes, bestowing power to their fans by invoking power for themselves.
Breathe deep the abundance of headbands. Oh, so many headbands.
Feast upon a game that rewards moving through mazes of obstacles heretofore unseen outside of old Nintendo games, with all the swinging handles, rope nets, poles, trampolines, and steps that will drop you to your death if you stay on them too long.
A game that features levels of increasing difficulty and prizing speed runs? A game that now features the Power Tower, in which the two fastest finishers leapfrog up 40 feet of stairs and then slide, walk and swing amid a network of poles and tubes?
Gaze upon the many youth ministers and science students who compete.
And think of who could thrive in a space that appreciates a lanky kid who climbs up walls all the time.
American Ninja Warrior, I dare say, is a great sport for dorks.
TV weatherman? Dork. Entomologist who dares the anchors to eat deep-fried tarantulas if he finishes the course? Dork. A brother-and-sister duo who perform acrobatic yoga poses together? Dorks! A kid who invents and submits new obstacles so he can compete on them? Dork. And I mentioned the youth ministers already.
All these people perform deeply impressive physical feats running the ANW course. The core power, the grip strength, the swinging hips and explosive quads, the light feet and spatial intelligence – all amazing.
And, still, dorks!
I love it.
After all, isn’t American Ninja Warrior the closest you can get to feeling like you’re Batman? The thrill of the Caped Crusader is that, because he has no superpowers, the kid in you thinks: With the training and the will, I could become him.
And while ANW surely has proliferated in these times of CrossFit, extreme fitness and foodie culture, the show makes you believe that you, or someone you know, could do this too. The show lowered its age limit last year to 19, so now you have kids who have been tackling ninja courses most of their lives.
Those ninja courses are popping up in gyms all over the country. (Amid a sharp downturn in boys’ participation in gymnastics, ninja courses are the great hope.)
As my fitness journey evolves from “What can my body do?” to “What can’t my body do?”, that ninja course looks more and more tempting. Just to try it. Maybe I can fly through the air, too, even at age 38, when I’ve never flown before. I already started taking trampoline classes.
The joy is the thing.
In this country where certain leaders are obsessed with putting up walls, for an hour I watch crowds of Americans across the nation chanting at these competitors to beat that wall, beat that wall.
I’m sure many of those screaming fans want that border wall. This is America, after all.
However, for just this moment, I can let that go.