Who wouldn't want to be a ninja warrior? That's the question that has me leaping through a mini-obstacle course of kid-size gymnastic equipment — alphabet-themed carpet squares, metal pirouette bars — toward a padded ramp. There, coach Noah Labow wants me to execute a "misty" roll, a side-spinning front flip.
Following his directions, I brace my arms on the top of the ramp, "donkey kick" my legs and butt and — whoompf! — land squarely on my face. This elicits peals of laughter from my 7-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, who are watching from the waiting area in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Williston.
I feel light years from "American Ninja Warrior," the hit NBC show that just wrapped its sixth season by sending athletes through a Japanese-inspired jungle of rope swings, giant monkey bars and unstable bridges toward a grand prize of $500,000. This season's superstar wasn't the chiseled Rob "Adonis" Moravsky or repeat threat Travis Rosen, but a 5-foot, 2-inch gymnast named Kacy Catanzaro. She became the first woman to climb the 14-foot Warped Wall, the first woman to attempt — and complete — the Salmon Ladder, and the first woman to advance to the finals.
Catanzaro's pint-size power has inspired plenty of ordinary athletes to try the extraordinary feats of strength and flexibility required by "American Ninja Warrior." It also helped inspire Labow to kick off a new "ninja training" class this fall here at Green Mountain Gymnastics, also the home of the Green Mountain Freestyle Center.
Labow is a top park and pipe competitive skier and soccer player who actually competed in season 5 of "American Ninja Warrior" after training on gymnastics equipment. He now coaches the University of Vermont's freeskiing team and oversees Green Mountain Gymnastics' sprawling playground of trampolines, foam pits and spring floors, which were added to the Williston warehouse in 2011.
The sport of parkour — a multidisciplinary street workout from France that uses urban features as obstacles — was a natural addition to the ski programs at GMG, Labow explains. Then came the ninja training, informed by Labow's own experience on the TV show and its social-media-wrought surge in popularity.
"It's an accessible, top-notch sport," says Labow, who has been teaching young athletes ninja moves for several months; he's just added an adults-only session on Wednesday evenings. "We range from acrobatic work on the trampoline — flips and spins — and strength training to agility and balance work."
During my first session of ninja training, I meet the brother-and-sister duo of Johnny and Leah Finity, Williston-based thirtysomethings who hadn't even heard of "American Ninja Warrior" when they decided to jump in. "I've just always wanted to be able to do a flip," Johnny says.
Given the Finitys' focus on acrobatics, Labow gears this session to balance and spatial awareness — two of my greatest weaknesses. After warming up with high knees and butt kicks, we begin running through an agility ladder, testing various footwork patterns.
"This is getting our cardio going, and also trains timing and cadence," Labow says; ninja warriors don't just fly up the Warped Wall with magic, after all. "You have to learn to lift before you tuck, to jump before you grasp."
Forget grasping. Gasping is more like it, after 30 minutes of warrior training. And I haven't even gotten near the fabled Salmon Ladder — a bar where competitors must "jump" from notch to notch with their arms — that I wanted to try.
During my next session of ninja training, however, Labow is ready to show off some of the warrior-appropriate obstacles he designed and built with the help of a local architect. There's the Pipe Slider, the Quad Jumps, the Spider Wall, the Cliffhanger — none as sleek and shiny as on the TV show, but they're nearly exact replicas of the challenges those athletes must conquer.
Tonight, I'm joined by an 11-year-old ninja named Isaac Marks and a 26-year-old "American Ninja Warrior" season 5 veteran, Andy Rianhard. He's the only other Vermonter to have appeared on the show, to Labow's knowledge. They both lost their grip on the same rings-to-rope bridge, which sent them plummeting into the water and out of the running.
An experienced coach, Labow wants me to warm up with yoga-like moves, which I quickly pooh-pooh. Downward dogs and headstands seem way too Zen for a ninja. "We're trying to learn how to move and control our body better," Labow patiently explains as Isaac executes a push-up. Whatever.
After performing a few handstand push-ups, I eagerly skip over to the climbing A-frame, which Labow requires athletes to ascend and descend using only their arms before they attempt the Salmon Ladder.
It looks like a piece of cake, but I'm soon eating humble pie as I slow down. I eventually drop onto the mats, only to witness Marks and Rianhard flying up and down the A-frame like bugs with massive biceps. As I'm learning about each of the ninja moves, this is much, much harder than it looks on TV.
But it's also much more fun than just about any other sport I've tried, especially when Labow begins monkeying around. While I practice my bodyweight holds over a bar with nunchuck grips, he demos the "typewriter" pull-up, with one arm sliding out: "Click, click, click, cling! Down, back up, click, click, click, cling!" Talk about a party trick.
The Salmon Ladder, meanwhile, remains unconquered by this warrior. I can't even budge the thing. "To truly be a ninja, athletes train for a lifetime," Labow reassures me. "But there's a great sense of accomplishment that comes from it — the conquering of new acrobatic skills is very rewarding. And if one were to practice this kind of stuff, one would have more energy," he adds. "They'd lose weight and they'd find themselves getting an endorphin rush from challenging themselves."
And who wouldn't want that?