Story and photos provided by Roger Moore
There has always been something about climbing a tree or skipping rocks across a calm pond. Finding entertainment in natural surroundings is something kids, and adults, have done for centuries and as the twenty-first century continues to build, alternative sports, games, and entertainments are continually added. It was not long ago that skateboarding was considered a “fringe” sport.
Now, as any evening cruising through your unlimited television channels or a quick search on the Internet will show, there are alternatives a plenty. There are Titan Games, hosted by former college football player turned professional wrestler and now actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Everyday people can challenge themselves on specially designed obstacle courses designed to test your physical and mental fortitude. The Spartan Race promotes itself as “three miles that will change your life.” Perhaps not as demanding, parkour, a discipline that developed from obstacle course training or maybe just from running, jumping, or negotiating a construction zone in a James-Bond-film-chase-scene sort-of-way, grows in popularity. Some of these sports are not for the meek and can require a high level of fitness. At the end of the day, however, the most important aspect is that anyone can participate. And do not be surprised when, in say 2024 or 2028, something involving a combination of all of the above shows up on the Olympic program.
American Ninja Warrior, with its foundations in a Japanese television program, continues to grow exponentially on a weekly basis. With obstacles like Cannonball Alley, Salmon Ladder, Vertical Limit, Globe Grasps, and Unstable Bridge, American Ninja Warrior is certainly an alternative to the mainstream sports world.
A group of Stillwater kids, with a few adults mixed in, is part of this growth. From the outside the building just off the corner of Lowry and Sixth Avenue looks like any other warehouse. But inside the Next Level Gym, run by 2006 Oklahoma State graduate Lauren Lewis, you find anything but ordinary. And a small group of Ninja Warriors that started at four just over a year ago is now approaching twenty. The group’s youngest competitive Ninja is 9-year-old Georgia Story with 22-year-old Josh Bieri the veteran of the bunch. For a few, it is not just some weekend hobby. Some, like Anson Gibson (3), Ellie Jeffery (9), Harlan Curtis (12), Breaden Oliver (6), and Gavin Oliver (10), are just getting started.
There is a qualifying process that includes Area and Regional level competition that finishes with the Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association (UNAA) World Championships at the end of the year.
A year ago, Story placed 21st at the UNAA Worlds in New Mexico; Lilian Jeffery, a 10-year-old, was 19th; and 18-year-old Wade Lopp was 19th. Over the next few months, Story, Jeffery, Lopp, Bieri, Jaedyn Fox (17), Jayden Childers (9), Sela Curtis (9), Josiah Underwood (16), and Wyatt Lopp (15) will seek to qualify for Worlds at a Regional in Ardmore, Houston, or just about any state they wish. There are qualifiers nationwide. Lewis hosted an Area qualifier at Next Level Gym in February.
Explaining the intricacies of what the course actually entails is not possible because each course is different. Competitors have an idea, but are never 100 percent sure what will be required. One thing is certain: it will not be easy.
Wade Lopp was involved in gymnastics – a good but not required prerequisite for Ninja Warrior.
“After gymnastics I got into rock climbing,” Lopp said. “I started coming to (Next Level Gym) and I fell in love with this sport. It’s fun, something that anybody can do to some extent. It’s a fun deal because you never really know what the course will be. I would love to make it to (American Ninja Warrior) someday. I think that’s the goal for everyone who does it, but it’s also about going to these places and meeting all these new people who love it like I do.”
In July of 2017 Bieri decided he wanted to get in shape. A little running and working out led to a loss of 100 pounds. Last November he heard about “this Ninja thing” and began working out at Next Level. His first competition was in December. He was hooked.
“It’s growing so fast,” said Bieri, who sees a possible career in the field. “There is talk about the 2024 Olympics, about incorporating something like Ninja into the Games. That’s going to grow the sport even more.
“I think the television show brought attention to what has been going on. It is much more physical than the shows might show. But the thing about it is that it is so adaptable. It’s constantly changing with new obstacles; you can take it and do what you want. What I love about it is that it is a community. You go to these competitions and everyone is so friendly. Nobody cares how long you’ve been doing it or how good you are. And Lauren promotes a great space (at Next Level). It’s fitness based, but she has added so much.”
Lewis has invested in the growing phenomenon.
“I cannot believe how quickly it has grown,” Lewis said. “It is an alternative that a lot of people, nationwide, are getting into. There are some things we’d like to add, to make it a better, more challenging and fun space. We are still about fitness and the (Ninja Warrior) is something that a lot of these kids love. I can’t imagine it not continuing to grow.”