In 2014, Casey Rothschild watched along with millions as Kacy Catanzaro became the first woman to complete the obstacle course on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.”
But the Holliston native was more than just a fan. With a background in track, rock climbing, figure skating, and as a circus trapeze artist, Rothschild knew she had the athletic traits to thrive in this activity.
She just needed a place to refine her skills to suit the competition.
She stopped by a new gym in Newton, Action Athletics. It had obstacles, but Rothschild remembered it being “tiny” and opted to continue her track and circus careers throughout high school at Thayer Academy.
She set the school record in the triple jump (36 feet 11 inches) and did the same as a freshman at Wesleyan University (37-5) in the spring of 2017.
Still, something was missing. That fall, she sought out a ninja gym once again, this time near Wesleyan in Middletown, Conn. She found two gyms roughly a half-hour from school and began training in early October.
On June 25, Rothschild made her inaugural appearance on “American Ninja Warrior.” The 20-year-old became the youngest female competitor to finish the qualifying course, and the third to hit the buzzer this season.
“Since Kacy Catanzaro, we’ve seen the explosion of female competitors,” said “American Ninja Warrior” host Akbar Gbajabiamila. “But a lot of them, they had veteran presence. We hadn’t had a newbie just come on the scene and they’re boom, like, right in your face, and it was impressive.”
That improvement in female performance is the byproduct of a growing sport. A rule change lowered the minimum participant age from 21 to 19, providing opportunity to younger ninjas like Rothschild. She said the sport has such appeal that she decided to drop track at Wesleyan.
“I think the way ninja works, it’s sort of like you against the obstacle rather than you trying to compete against other people,” Rothschild said. “Like I know with the other women warming up, everyone is supporting each other, and giving each other tips in competitions. No one’s ever trying to mess you up.”
Rothschild next appears on the show — which has aired on NBC since 2012 — in the “city finals” Monday. If she finishes as a top-two female or in the top 15 overall in the Philadelphia finals, she will advance to the national final.
When Rothschild charges at the 14-foot-6-inch warped wall, her start is different than most. She puts her right arm up in the air, swings her hips, and takes off like a triple jumper. Her climb is one of several skills Rothschild brought from other sports into the ninja gym.
When examining the six-part obstacle course seen on the show, Rothschild creates a plan, envisioning the most efficient path. It’s similar to her preparation for rock climbing, which she competed in for a year in middle school and still does recreationally.
Before a climb, athletes plan their route and anticipate how each movement will lead into the next, the same way ninjas methodically maneuver through each obstacle and the run as a whole.
Once on the course, which challenges athletes’ grip strength, swinging ability, and body awareness, among other things, Rothschild utilizes her diverse athletic background to execute her strategy.
Growing up, Rothschild bounced around in sports. She spent two years as a gymnast, then another two as a figure skater before reaching the 9-year-old age minimum to participate in the circus portion of the Metrowest YMCA Summer Camp.
Rothschild admired the small community circus at Simply Circus, which functioned out of a garage when Rothschild started classes. Circus, like rock climbing and ninja, is about experimenting and challenging yourself with new tricks. The aerials of circus immediately appealed to Rothschild because of the upper-body element, and she recalled advancing her repertoire of skills faster than the standard novice.
“I feel like it gives you a head start,” Rothschild said. “People who start with those backgrounds don’t have to catch up on how to hold themselves up and how to control their bodies.”
During the school year, Rothschild trains at New Era Ninja in Hamden, Conn., and Real Life Ninja Academy in Windsor, Conn.
Mike Elwell, a coach at Real Life Ninja, said Rothschild adapted to new challenges faster than other experienced members of the gym. One obstacle was set up with a trapeze bar leading into a heavy bag. Ninjas were tasked with swinging from the trapeze, wrapping their body around the bag and finishing with a leap forward off the bag and onto a mat.
Many athletes tried to learn the obstacle in pieces, Elwell said, either focusing on the swing or the landing of their body on the bag. Not Rothschild. The trapeze specialist hit it all at once, swinging from the bar and onto the bag before landing on the platform.
“She would be able to pick things up so fast we had to start giving her bigger, better challenges, bigger obstacles, bigger things to do,” Elwell said.
About a month after she began ninja training, Rothschild started competing. Real Life Ninja coach Derek Mathews, who doubles as one of Rothschild’s training partners, was quick to point out that “American Ninja Warrior” isn’t the full extent of the sport.
“ ‘American Ninja Warrior’ covers the reality TV aspect of ninja warrior,” he said, “but there are other organizations.”
One of those is the National Ninja League. Entering its fourth season, the league is overseen by a board of ninjas. The league hosts events at local gyms across the country throughout its season, which begins in August and culminates with a national final in February.
A top-three finish in either the male or female division automatically qualifies the athlete for the national final. After placing fifth in her first competition, Rothschild qualified for nationals after capturing second place at her second event.
“The turnover for that is insane,” said Mathews, who made his debut on the show in Season 9. “Most people when they are ‘rookies’ to the show, as the announcers will say, that means they are doing ninja training for one or two years at least. And even still, there’s still so much to learn.”
While home for the summer, Rothschild trains at Action Athletics, the same company she visited in high school. At that time, Action coach Joe Dubuc said the gym had one ninja class, with fewer than 10 students.
Action isn’t so small anymore. Last summer, it moved to a new building in Wellesley, five times bigger than the old one. The 10,000-square-foot gym hosts 15 classes of 10-15 students per week, Dubuc said. Four gyms across the state, including Action, are currently affiliated with the National Ninja League, meaning they host NNL-sponsored competitions.
“The women have really opened the sport up for everybody,” said Dubuc, a ninja of four years. “And now we are seeing different gyms and training facilities pop up because of that popularity, and it’s going to be the women that continue to drive the show.”
In late June, New Era Ninja held a watch party for Rothschild and fellow gym member Danielle Malkin when their performances from the qualifier aired on TV. During commercial breaks, eager members of the watch party quizzed Rothschild and Malkin about their training and experience.
“It’s sort of hard to top that first run, but to come back and do even better would be awesome,” Rothschild said. “I think just being in the community, whether I’m doing the show or not, just doing local competitions is great.”
The admiration carried outside her own facility. At a recent ninja event, a child recognized Rothschild from television. They smiled for a picture together, and Rothschild signed an autograph.
“To have someone after the fact come over and recognize me is really different,’’ she said. “It was cool, but sort of weird at first.”Josh Schafer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org