Rise of the Climbing Ninja Warriors

Want to crush it on NBC's hit show? Be a rock jock.

May 8, 2015
Outside Magazine

Meagan Martin was the first woman to finish a qualifying course on "American Ninja Warrior." She is one of many competitors who have proven a climbing background serves contestants well on the show.    Photo: Morgan Rachel Levy

Sixty seconds into her run through the football-field-size course of NBC’s hit TV competition American Ninja Warrior, Meagan Martin encountered an obstacle called the Jumping Spider. Martin, a professional climber who lives in Boulder, Colorado, was the first woman to finish a qualifying course during her rookie season, and no woman had ever completed the Jumping Spider, which requires racers to spring up into a corridor between two suspended walls and make their way to a platform on the other side using outward pressure from their arms and legs to keep themselves aloft. She paused before hitting the trampoline and heard someone in the audience shout, “You could be first!” Then she bared down, jumped, and stuck the landing. The crowd roared. 

Martin isn’t the only climber to break through boundaries on the show, in which contestants run a series of four obstacle courses, called stages, in an effort to make it to the end and win $1,000,000. (Currently, no one has managed to finish all four.) Brian Arnold, another Colorado climber, discovered the show in a Yosemite cabin in 2011 with a group of friends called the Wolfpack. He made it farther through stage three than anyone had before him, advancing beyond former Olympic gold medalists, an NFL safety, a Harlem Globetrotter, and a world-champion parkour runner. 

“Brian was the first climber to have big success on the show,” says Kent Weed, ANW’s executive producer. But not the last. Since Arnold first appeared in 2013, most serious competitors have added climbing to their training. While the show also draws CrossFitters, gymnasts, and parkour runners in more or less equal numbers, those who climb continue to set the bar. 

Why are the dirtbag set so adept at negotiating ANW’s gonzo obstacles? They have both ridiculous upper-body strength and agile frames. “Lean and mean,” Weed calls them. They shine on the ropes and anything else that requires arm strength, and they have good balance. The most successful competitors, including Arnold, also train with trampolines, walls, and bars—features that show up a lot on the show. 

Climbers have done so well that casting directors have scouted them, traveling to local gyms, poring over YouTube clips, and sending e-mails to prospects. Martin received one of those in her inbox. She was practically raised on a trampoline (her parents are gymnasts), she pole-vaulted during high school, and she has taught climbing for the past two years. 

And the Jumping Spider? Martin made it through, though she didn’t complete the next obstacle. This year, given her experience on the show and her climbing acumen, she might just win it all. “I get to flip around like I used to in gymnastics and use my climbing skills,” she says. “It’s a perfect fit.”

You Shall Not Pass

The three obstacles that give ninjas (or is it warriors?) the most trouble

Unstable Bridge
Cross two suspended planks. 

Salmon Ladder
Hang from a metal bar and “jump” it up a series of higher pegs.

Jumping Spider
Spring into the space between two vertical walls and use outward pressure from hands and feet to traverse it.

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