Ninjas in the Nati

Cincinnati hosts the hit TV show American Ninja Warrior

Cincinnati will be in the national spotlight as the city’s qualifier episode of American Ninja Warrior (ANW) airs on NBC on July 1. ANW descended on downtown Cincinnati over Memorial Day weekend to film its eleventh season.

Contestants try to complete five obstacles testing their strength, endurance and balance, then scale a 14- or 18-foot warped wall to hit the buzzer. Among the nearly 100 competitors taking on the course are eight Cincinnatians and some of the biggest names in the sport. The top finishers advance to the Cincinnati city finals, which will air on Aug. 19, where they compete for spots in the national finals in Las Vegas.

Co-host Akbar Gbajabiamila shares his impressions of the welcome they received in Cincinnati. “It’s been great. The Midwest love—you can feel it.”

Sideline reporter and Ohio native Zuri Hall was thrilled to be back in her home state filming for ANW.

“It’s so special,” Zuri says. “I love all the cities, but I can’t lie, I’m most excited to be back here in Ohio for the city qualifying and finals. It really feels like a homecoming.”

Matt Iseman is in his tenth year co-hosting ANW.

“I love watching people do extraordinary things and push themselves to their envelope of what they can do physically,” Matt shares. “But for me what’s awesome are the stories. To be reminded of what this show means - it means hope for people and that’s awesome.”

The ninjas consider each other family. Some of the top ninjas in the sport came to Cincinnati just to support other competitors, including two-time “Last Ninja Standing” Drew Drechsel, who is widely revered as the best in the sport, having hit the buzzer 18 times.

“The ninja community is a very tight-knit community,” Drew says. “I go to all the cities and either help them, support them, just see if they need anything - I’m here.”

Ryan Sutter is best known for receiving the final rose on season one of The Bachelorette and marrying Trista in the first wedding from The Bachelor franchise, but he’s also a ninja competing for the third time this season.

Ryan says of the sport, “It’s not like you’re competing against any of these individuals, you’re just competing against that darn course and everybody has the same goal. Everybody helps everybody else out.”

Six-time ANW veteran James Wilson is the hometown hero known as the “Nati Ninja.”  

“This is awesome!” James says, moments before running the course in front of his hometown crowd. “The energy is off the charts. I’m ready.”

As the owner of the only official ninja training center in Cincinnati, James has spent years preparing for this moment.

“I know I’m capable of it, but there’s a mental aspect because of the lights, the cameras, the people, the pressure,” he shares. “But a lot of us are able to overcome these obstacles.”

Local competitor Justin Miniard, known as the “Wildlife Warrior,” agrees that having the opportunity to run the course at home is unforgettable.

“It’s incredible. To have it in my hometown allows the opportunity for friends and family to come out here and support me.”

First-timer Lindsay Partenio of Batavia adds, “I’m hoping that I don’t walk out there and cry because I’m overwhelmed with the emotion and support. But it will be good. I know that everybody’s pulling for me and I can feel the love.”

Two of the top female ninjas, Jesse "Flex" Labreck and Columbus native Michelle Warnky agree that conquering the balance obstacles, especially the dreaded spinning bridge, is the key to the tough Cincinnati course.

“We’re always nervous about balance because it’s something we can’t really simulate and can’t really train for,” Jesse says.

“Generally, most ninjas get nervous about the balance because anything can happen,” Michelle adds. “You can be literally a few inches off and that can make the difference.”

Jesse has hit the buzzer two times in previous years. She trains three to four times per week in a ninja gym and regularly rock climbs. She offers this advice for girls considering ninja training.

“They can achieve anything,” Jesse says. “It’s equal opportunity and we can all be out here trying these really fun obstacles.”

“Just go for it,” Michelle adds, “There’s always going to be fear of failure, there’s always going to be ‘I’m not good at this or that.’ That’s okay. Keep going.”

Tune to NBC at 8pm on July 1 to see which ninjas will hit the buzzer in the Queen City.  

Pro tips for becoming a ninja:

  • Jesse “Flex” Labreck: “Start now and just have a blast with it and just have fun with all your training. Because when you have fun with your athletics it just makes it so much more enjoyable. Keeps you strong and healthy.”

  • David "Flip" Rodriguez: “Find a playground, just climb on stuff and get strong. Rock climbing gets you strong too.”

  • Michelle Warnky: “Learn from your mistakes and just keep going. We all fail, we all mess up and it hits us hard but you gotta get back up and learn what can you do differently and keep going.”

  • Ryan Sutter: “You gotta get out of your comfort zone a little bit.”

  • Daniel Gil: “Never give up. Failure is inevitable, but you have to keep trying.”

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