The television show is called “American Ninja Warrior,” but that’s a tad misleading because it doesn’t actually involve ninjas or warfare — it involves an obstacle course.
Calling it an obstacle course is also a tad misleading, because people finish obstacle courses. There are four stages to the American Ninja Warrior course, and in the six seasons the show has been on the air on a variety of networks, none of the competitors — including professional athletes, Olympians, Navy SEALs, and world-class rock climbers — have even made it past stage three.
But in the Boston area, there has recently been a huge development in the quest to become the first American Ninja Warrior: The obstacles have arrived.
In recent weeks, three Boston-area “ninja” gyms — in Weymouth, Danvers, and Newton — have opened their doors to the public, offering replicas of many of the obstacles from the show. This allows competitors to better train to conquer Mt. Midoriyama, as the course is known, and gives would-be ninjas the opportunity to see firsthand why no one has.
“I’m intimidated,” Kerri Turmenne, 44, said as she stood next to the towering Warped Wall — the most notorious “ninja killer” on the show — at Gymja Warrior in Danvers.
Turmenne competes in obstacle course races like Tough Mudder and Spartan, but as she saw the ninja obstacles up close, many of them stretching two stories into the air, she was struggling for words.
“It scares me, but it also excites me,” she said as she looked up at the Warped Wall. “You can’t fake your way through something like this. Either you can do it or you can’t.”
That question — can I do that? — is one of the appeals of watching the show. It looks difficult, but it also looks fun. The catch is that the obstacles are so specific and so large that it has essentially been a hypothetical question unless you actually go on the show.
Last year, Dave Cavanaugh, a Hull firefighter, did just that. After waiting in line for five days with his girlfriend, a personal trainer named Jenny Lawler, they finally got their chance as walk-on competitors. They failed in the qualifying rounds, came home, and began building replicas of the obstacles.
“It’s a matter of doing,” said Cavanaugh, who had been making regular trips to New Jersey to a gym that had some of the obstacles. “You can be a great athlete and be in great shape and just get humiliated by these obstacles.”
A few weeks ago, Cavanaugh and Lawler opened their own ninja gym, TA Fitness in Weymouth, and it has been an immediate hit, especially with the children who make up a huge part of the “American Ninja Warrior” fan base.
On a recent Saturday, a class of kids was vibrating with excitement as the couple led them through obstacles with names like the Quad Steps and the Cliffhanger.
“It’s just like on the real show,” was a phrase heard repeatedly from the children.
“The kids are the ones who see ‘Ninja Warrior’ on TV and it just captures their imagination,” said Nate Brosey, a personal trainer who owns Action Athletics in Newton. Brosey has competed on the last two seasons of the show and had begun adding obstacles here and there to his gym. But he recently committed to the “ninja gym” concept and built 15 new obstacles — including the Door Knob Grasper, the Ring Toss, and a double Salmon Ladder — and opened his gym to the public and began offering kids classes.
Last Sunday, 18 of the better-known names in the local ninja community came to Action Athletics for a competition that doubled as a celebration — it was the day that the audition tapes were due for Season 7. (Having your tape accepted is the only way to avoid waiting five days in the walk-on line.)
“American Ninja Warrior” is based on the Japanese television show “Sasuke.” In the 30 seasons that show has been on the air, it has become a cultural phenomenon in Japan, and three men have managed to finish the course, including one who finished twice. The US version, which first aired on the network G4, languished for a few years with a strong cult following but little mainstream traction. The show eventually moved to NBC, and this summer, during its sixth season, it finally became a breakout hit, thanks largely to a pint-sized gymnast named Kacy Catanzaro.
The clip of the 5-foot, 100-pound Catanzaro becoming the first woman to make it up the 14-foot Warped Wall and complete a qualifying stage went viral around the world. She later completed the second qualifying stage before falling in stage one of the finals at Mt. Midoriyama, which is erected each year in Las Vegas.
“Without Kacy Catanzaro, the show wouldn’t be nearly as popular as it is,” Brosey said. “She pretty much dragged it into the mainstream and got a lot of people interested in it. My niece used to think I was some kind of superhero because I was on the show. After seeing Kacy, she wants to try it.”
Parents say that one of the chief appeals for their children is that the best competitors are rather average-looking. “They’re not all jacked up,” is how Jill Daley of Lynnfield put it as she watched her children, Paul, 8, and Mia, 6, take their first class at Gymja Warrior. Many of the best competitors come from rock climbing and parkour, and Joe Moravsky, who went the furthest on the show this past season, is a slim weatherman from Connecticut.
Daley’s kids know all about Kacy Catanzaro and Joe Moravsky. “Everywhere we go, they’re climbing on things pretending to be them,” she said. They’re also big fans of “Sasuke,” and were so desperate to try the ninja obstacles that they asked if they could go to Japan for vacation.
Luckily for Daley, her son plays soccer with a boy whose father was in the same boat. Shahab Afsharian has three boys who are huge fans of the show, and after failing to find a place where they could try the obstacles, he decided to build his own. So Afsharian, an entrepreneur, created Gymja Warrior inside the sprawling Danvers Indoor Sports complex. He erected several obstacles — including three Warped Walls of various sizes — and hired Vince Klapper, a former competitor and a member of the Celtics dunk team, to teach classes.
On a recent night, as Klapper coached a class of kids through some of the obstacles, the area next to the ninja course was crammed with kids dressed for soccer and basketball on the neighboring courts.
They craned their necks to see the obstacles. They “wow”ed at the size of the Warped Wall. And they turned to their parents and asked the question:
“Can I do that?”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.