By David Wharton / Los Angeles Times
The place is hard to find. You must drive into the mountains above Santa Cruz, following a road that turns from asphalt to dirt, then park at the top of a rise and look for a path whose entrance is deliberately concealed by brush.
A handful of men and women arrive here on a weekday afternoon in late spring, tramping through tall pines and occasional poison oak to get to an odd sort of playground.
Fashioned from plywood and metal pipe, the makeshift obstacle course looks like a children’s jungle gym, only larger and considerably more dangerous. The man who built it offers his guests a word of advice.
“You have to go hard,” David Campbell says. “Like you mean it.”
Everyone laces up their shoes and soon they are swinging from ropes that hang from trees and scrambling up a sheer wall, reaching for the ledge on top. A mini-trampoline launches them toward rings that dangle overhead.
The practice session continues for hours as Campbell and his friends prepare for the season finale of “American Ninja Warrior,” a summer reality show that has contestants racing through obstacle courses in various cities, hoping to make it to the national finals in Las Vegas where they can win $1 million by finishing the last stage.
Only two people accomplished that feat through the first 10 seasons, but difficulty is part of the allure .
The NBC series has fostered a subculture of athletes who love testing themselves against the quirky, daunting obstacles. Some are former high school gymnasts or college track stars who are hungry to keep competing; others grew up strong and fast but never quite fit with traditional sports.
Finding a niche community to call home, they train in specialized gyms that have popped up across the country or maybe they wrangle an invitation from Campbell, a trim 41-year-old they call “The Godfather.”
Shortly before the national finals — which were taped in June and begin airing next week (Aug. 26) — he convenes a workout at his homemade course. Brian Kretsch shows up, along with a Catholic lay worker known as the “Papal Ninja” and a stuntwoman, Jessie Graff, who ranks among the top female competitors.
Most everyone is nursing sore shoulders and creaky ankles at this point in the year. It hurts when they miss a step or lose their grip on a high bar, tumbling to the ground, rising slowly to brush themselves off.
“I call it the joy of finding your limits,” Graff says. “Of hanging onto an obstacle until everything is trembling and still refusing to let go.”
The idea came from Japan, from a game show called “Sasuke” that debuted in the late 1990s with a mammoth course dubbed “Mt. Midoriyama.” Arthur Smith heard about it from a friend.
“I loved it,” he recalls. “I loved the athleticism.”
A former network executive who started his own production company, Smith devised an American version that has grown to include qualifying events and regional finals, all feeding into the Las Vegas championship. Some obstacles have been borrowed from the Japanese; others have been created by a team of U.S. designers.
The courses demand an array of skills.
Competitors need explosiveness to charge up the 14½-foot “Warped Wall” and grip-strength to navigate the “Cliffhanger,” where they hang by their fingertips while swinging from a series of ledges. The “Jumping Spider” forces them to leap into a narrow corridor and catch themselves by jamming their outstretched hands and feet against the walls on either side.
These acrobatics take place high above ground; most runs end with a trip or slip, the contestant flailing into a pool of water below. If you’re soaked, you’re out.
“You want a little bit of success, but it can never be easy,” Smith says. “We have a warehouse where the obstacles are prototyped and we bring in people who are Ninja-types to do the testing.”
The first few seasons, “American Ninja Warrior” aired on G4, a now-defunct cable channel that focused on the world of video gaming. The audience was young, male and of a particular ilk.
Then, Kretsch worked at a door company that went out of business. Built tall and lanky, a swimmer and soccer player in his youth, he stumbled upon the show by chance.
“I wasn’t doing anything else with my time,” he says. “I figured I might as well try it.”
Campbell tells a similar story. His house had burned down and he was staying with his brother, who had cable. He says: “There was a void in my life.”
None of the early contestants guessed “American Ninja Warrior” would become a network success, picked up by NBC where it is now a staple of the summer lineup. They never imagined that, in addition to invited athletes, hundreds more would line up for a chance to compete in local qualifiers.
The “walk-ons” used to camp on the sidewalk for a week or more; those lucky enough to be chosen often felt achy at the starting line. Now, in the series’ 11th season, producers have established a lottery system.
“There’s a real community of people who do this,” Smith says. “That’s the magic of the show.”
Contestants often share tips, perhaps because all of them — tall and short, teenage and middle-aged, male and female — face the same course on the same terms. As Graff puts it: “No asterisk next to my name.”
Camaraderie has helped all of them improve at training and figuring out obstacles, which has forced producers to adjust.
Courses often include a “balance” element that requires sprinting across uneven steps, an unsteady bridge or a series of spinning blocks. Though no real strength or speed is required, these finicky obstacles can be the scariest.
“You make a tiny mistake,” Graff says, “and it’s over.”