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'If It Were Easy, It Wouldn't Be Interesting,' Say 'Ninja Warrior' Producers

Intelligence officer Tory Garcia, who has a background in gymnastics and diving, works through the obstacle course on <em>American Ninja Warrior, </em>which airs on NBC and Esquire Network.
Brandon Hickman/NBC
Intelligence officer Tory Garcia, who has a background in gymnastics and diving, works through the obstacle course on American Ninja Warrior, which airs on NBC and Esquire Network.

Arthur Smith, executive producer for American Ninja Warrior, knows the show's obstacle course is really, really hard. "We want to see extraordinary feats ..." he tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "If it were easy, it wouldn't be interesting."

But the course is so tough that no one managed to actually win on the show until the seventh season. And that's OK with Smith.

"It's not about winning. ..." he says. "The show is kind of anti-American in a way. ... The athletes root for each other and when something amazing happens on the course ... I always love the reaction shots of the other competitors just marveling at it."

The NBC show was adapted from the Japanese obstacle course competition show Sasuke. The American version has spawned eight seasons of drama and athleticism as a diverse group of competitors scramble and hurl themselves through obstacles with names like the Jumping Spider, Ring Jump, Devil Steps and the Warped Wall.

Anthony Storm, also an executive producer of the show, says that they often look to playgrounds for inspiration. They take a familiar concept, like say, the monkey bars, and then "we try to grow it into something that's going to challenge you," he says. Really challenge you.

Smith and Storm talk with Cornish about how they create and test the obstacles, and share some of their most memorable Ninja moments.

Interview Highlights

On the kind of strength you need to compete on American Ninja Warrior

Arthur Smith: Upper body strength is definitely crucial but ... the mental part of it — every great athlete has a great mental approach to the game — and you have to have that. ... The ideal athlete for Ninja Warrior is probably someone who is 5'9", kind of lanky, 140, and that's pretty much it. But then again, a few years ago there was a woman who vaulted Ninja Warrior more into pop culture ... Kacy Catanzaro who was only five feet and 98 pounds. ... She became the first woman to climb the Warped Wall. And it really broadened the show even more. [You can see Catanzaro work her way through the course in the video below.]

On the way they test the obstacles

Anthony Storm: We bring in people of all types because our athletes come from all realms. We bring in gymnasts and stunt people, we bring in athletes from different sports, and we bring in rock climbers because they tend to have a very specific skill set — they have a grip strength that's unfamiliar to a lot of our athletes. It's really important to us that our testers be representative of the cross section of athletes that we get on the show.

On the way the show feels reminiscent of the Olympics

Smith: Ever since the beginning of the show we decided that we were going to take an Olympic approach — that we were going to tell great stories, that we were going to make people care. And we've had some remarkable things happen, and remarkable background stories — people who are overcoming cancer and people who are running for their sick wife, or just people who have lost a few hundred pounds and they want to prove something.

On Kevin Bull, the walk-on who completed Cannonball Alley

We always leave a number of spots for walk-ons. This year we had 70,000 applicants for Ninja Warrior — under 1,000 of them actually get to run the course. But in every city that we go to, we always make sure there's 20 to 25 walk-on spots. And people will sleep out two and three weeks before to get a spot.

And Kevin Bull, on that one night, waited, waited, waited, waited, and got his time and there was this one obstacle ... Cannonball Alley, and everybody had failed at Cannon Ball Alley ... 15 consecutive failures, no one could get past it. ... Everybody was trying to do it the same way and they were using their hands and trying to use their grip strength to do it and none of them were successful.

And then Kevin Bull, this walk-on comes on and he starts with the hand [approach] and then he flips his legs around one of them ... inverted, upside down, and flips over and completes the obstacle. ... [You can seek Kevin Bull complete Cannonball Alley in the video below, starting at 2:35]

I love the moment because when we cut to the fellow ninjas ... who had failed, they were cheering, they were so excited in what this walk-on could do. And that to me, in that moment, it summed up American Ninja Warrior.

On why Ninja Warrior appeals in our current fitness culture

Storm: I think it's about self-improvement and I think it's about people's desire to improve themselves, in a way where they can see the actual tangible achievement ...

Smith: It's fighting your own personal obstacles. It's fighting your own challenges.

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