What does total victory smell like? On the set of American Ninja Warrior (ANW), NBC’s hit obstacle course show, it smells like fresh spray paint and drying glue; gasoline vapor and sand; surf wax and sweat; and a little bit of marijuana. It’s mid-March, and I’m in Venice, California, at the taping of the show’s seventh season. (The show premieres May 25.)
The sun is just dipping below the Pacific, the clouds going all pink and purple. It’s a lovely sight, this sunset, and yet no one is watching. All eyes are on the ANW course, a sprawling jungle of chrome and bright hot lights and, below, a series of five-foot-deep pools with soft bottoms for crash landings. Soon, competitors will have their chance to run it. But first, the paint must dry, the glue must settle, and that goddamn drone must come down from the sky.
“We need to do something about that. Can you do something about that?” says Kent Weed, the show’s executive producer, grabbing a passing grip and pointing him to an illuminated quadcopter with a GoPro on its undercarriage drifting toward the course. Weed has about him the anxious buzz of a coach before the big game. We’re talking about how this course came to be, but every minute or so he notices something else slightly amiss, and that drone makes him nervous—he doesn’t want footage of the course and its obstacles leaking before the show airs. Minor leaks are inevitable, but drone footage is too far.
Each year, hundreds of contestants try to make it through all four obstacle courses—each one called a “stage”—of ANW. Anyone who successfully does so achieves “Total Victory” and wins $500,000. In six years, no one has made it past the third stage.
Why? The obstacles aren’t easy. And making them that way requires countless adjustments in the hours before filming. Holds that aren’t quite holding, bars that don’t have the angle just right. Contestants are scheduled to start running the course around eight, but it’s likely at this point it won’t get going until at least nine. Then, they’ll run 100 people who were cast via video submissions, plus as many walk-ons as they’re able to handle, which Weed guesses will be about 35. It all depends on how quickly the contestants fail on the obstacles and fall into the water below—and water is the real enemy. As the night wears on and the dew point is crossed, it makes things slippery—and no one wants to see these athletes slip on the flats between obstacles.
“Every obstacle has a starting point based on some skill-set: balance or agility or strength,” says Weed. The flow of the course, and the flow of the show, depends on that mix: the third obstacle usually focuses on balance, the fifth obstacle on upper body strength. For each of these initial rounds, hosted in different cities in different regions all over the country, there will be new and different obstacles, dreamed up in the offseason. “This one’s called ‘Spin Cycle,’” Weed says, pointing to a row of what look like giant thimbles, high above (what else?) a pool of water. “We came up with the name this morning. I think it was at first called inverted basket or something.”
A bearded gentleman named Nate Moore explains the rules of Spin Cycle to the contestants, also mostly bearded, many with hair held back by bandannas. Most of them have camped out along the boardwalk for days to get a chance to run the course and win the half-million dollar grand prize.
When ANW started, the first serious contestants were parkour runners. “They’re flashy. They do flips, they like to show off,” says Moore, a course tester for Alpine Training Services, the California-based production company that builds the obstacles for ANW. But recently, some of the most successful contenders have been climbers, who run the course with great technical skill, but not much flash. “They all want the half million dollars so they can go off and live in their car and climb,” says Moore. “They’re businesslike about the coursework, and the producers had to be like, alright guys—do something.” When Moore describes this particular event, it sounds pretty basic: jump, grab ahold, and move from one rotating, inverted basket to the next.
Just in case there’s any confusion, though, Moore—who dreamed up this obstacle and helped build it—shows the gathered crowd of walk-ons how it’s done. He leaps from the platform, grabs the first rotating thimble/basket with two hands, and moves to the next basket, and then the next, cruising through it like monkey bars on a playground. Weed, as if reading my mind, says, “Part of the beauty of watching this show, at home or here, is thinking ‘I could do that!’”
I ask him if there’s something about ANW that isn’t fully translated on TV. Weed used to produce professional football, and in that case, he says, it was the hits; he used to film auto-racing, and there you didn’t feel the speed. But here, “You kinda get it. You see the pain in their faces; you see them letting go at the last second.” As he finishes that sentence, there’s a collective “ooooof” from the crowd. The first of the walk-ons, leaping toward the inverted basket, misread the jump, missed the bar entirely, and went careening into the water.