By Junie Burns
After swinging, balancing, climbing and flying through the first 10 obstacles of the ninja warrior course, pro competitor Derrick Pavoni paused for a brief moment to stare down the final obstacle: the infamous American Ninja Warrior Warped Wall.
The crowd watched eagerly as Pavoni, a 26-year-old pizza maker nicknamed “The Pizza Ninja,” sprinted up to the top of the 14-foot-6-inch Warped Wall to finish his perfect course run.
Windy City Ninjas, a Chicago Ninja Warrior training gym, hosted its first Athlete Warrior Games (AWG) competition of the season on Oct. 6. Pavoni, an Illinois native, finished in first place out of 26 competitors.
Ninja competitions and athletic training are exploding into an up-and-coming fitness phenomenon, thanks to the hit NBC reality competition series. In 11 seasons, only two athletes have completed every obstacle to win the show and be crowned with the title of American Ninja Warrior.
However, this slim margin of success doesn’t hinder athletes from massively growing the sport in recent years. Competitions initially existed so that the pros could keep up with their training when they were not competing on the television show, but now several different ninja leagues exist regionally and nationally to provide competitions for athletes of all ages and skill levels.
AWG is a favorite league among ninjas-in-training from the Chicago area because of the close proximity of the participating gyms. Rather than using the standard structure audiences view into weekly on the NBC TV show, AWG created a point-based system that rewards ninjas for complete obstacles but still allows them to move onto the next obstacle if they fail.
“It really was just about finding a universal way to score ninja warrior competitions,” AWG co-founder and co-owner of Illinois Ninja Gym, Muscleball Ninjas, Patrick Losch said. “And [the scoring system] is something that became more fair for everybody, not just the best of the best.”
Mark Riego De Dios competed in his third Athlete Warrior Games at the Oct. 6 competition. He grew up doing martial arts, but said that the strength and skill required for these obstacles are still out of his comfort zone since he has been training for less than one year.
“I like being able to try all the obstacles,” De Dios said. “These competitions are fun because everyone cheers me on and congratulates me for trying even when they don’t really know me.”
The local success of ninja competitions opens doors for the future of the sport. This month, the first ever ninja competition streaming network UNX Now launched, giving access to watch competitors’ full course runs from anywhere in the country.
As gyms continue to open across the nation and competitions gain traction, advocates for the sport continue to test the limits of the sport. According to Losh, a goal for the near future is to establish professional and amateur leagues, replicating recreational standards seen in mainstream sports like basketball or soccer, and hope to one day see ninja warrior in the Olympics.