My Epic Journey to Becoming a Ninja Warrior

I remember coming home from an unforgettable L.A. video shoot with ninja celebrity Travis Brewer, sitting down to the dinner table, and making a proclamation that would end up changing my life. “I am going to compete on American Ninja Warrior,” I said.

My family around the table fell quiet. This prophecy had obviously come way out of left field.  It should be noted here that, at the point of my heroic proclamation in the Fall of 2015, I didn’t have any of the skills or connections I would need to make it anywhere near this goal.  I mean, tons of people apply for American Ninja Warrior and almost no one gets selected.  This year for example, thousands of people applied, and only 120 people were invited to compete from my region.  To my family, this ninja goal of mine looked a lot more like a ninja pipe dream.

Still, no matter how crazy it seemed, in my head I could see myself achieving it so clearly.  It was like a side of me, a side that had been there ever since I was a kid leaping between couches to avoid the lava… this side of me was surging to life.  I have always viewed my life as a great obstacle course, and I began to see the American Ninja Warrior course as the main stage, the ultimate gauntlet of athletic achievement.  I wanted to illuminate the power of play, and do this for the inner child in all of us.

I wanted to get on that stage. I had to get on that stage.

Back at the dinner table, as my family was starting to cast gentle doubts on this apparent pipe dream, my father-in-law casually mentioned that there was a guy living in the neighborhood who was recently featured on American Ninja Warrior.  Apparently he had even built his own personal obstacle course right in his backyard.  Just like I knew I would meet Lewis Howes, just like I knew I would meet Charlie Hoehn, the writer of "Play it Away,” I was struck by an indescribable knowing that this person would come into my life.

Then just a week later, it happened.  Like most things go in our world, synchronicity showed me the way. I was on location filming for the Austin City Limits Music Festival when I spotted a man in the crowd wearing an American Ninja Warrior shirt. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Hey, are you Ian Waggoner?!” “Yes!” he replied with a confused look washing across his face. I went on to explain who I was and share my dream of becoming a ninja warrior.  We started chatting, and before I knew it he had offered to let me work out with him on his backyard ninja course!

The dream was starting to take shape.

Keep in mind that when out I’m shooting for the ACL Festival, my camera and I are zipping through thousands of people, all streaming from stage to stage. So the fact that I spotted this man who I had never met before, amidst the endless sea of faces, is pretty insane. That is what I mean by synchronicity.

Anyone familiar with American Ninja Warrior knows that, if you want to have any chance of competing on the show, you really have to train properly.  

Shortly after our meeting, Ian introduced me to his “adult playground,” designed specifically to build strength for the ninja obstacles that appear most commonly on the show.  And man, this guy had everything.  He had built a salmon ladder, a peg and spike climb, and even a warped wall up the side of his house! Those ANW nerds among you will appreciate just how lucky I was to have this one-of-a-kind training facility a few blocks from my house.  

Now that I was gratefully under the master’s wing, I began to inch closer to my goal.

I was quickly given the first of many lessons from my new sensei: this would be much harder than I thought it would be. The training was grueling. Over the months of sweat and blood and tears, I started to gain an understanding of just what it takes to build the strength of an elite athlete.  While it make look like playing around on an obstacle course, this was no joke.

Still, through the process, I realized that I do have a few strategic advantages. For over a decade, my job has been to chase world-class athletes and performers with a heavy camera in tow.  As creative director and chief lens behind CIRCUS PICNIC, I need the endurance to climb mountains, and the explosiveness to capture epic moments as they unfold in the projects we produce for television and commercials.  For three years, I shot the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii. After a 24 hour day filming the premier race on Earth, I think it’s safe to say completing that assignment makes you an Ironman of the camera.  

Plus, Ninja Warriors need excellent balance.  As a professional stilt walker, I’m definitely on top of my balance game.  Many of the circus arts skills I practice give me a competitive edge in my ability to focus and keep my center in the chaos of acrobatic maneuvers.  

You could say I also had an edge when it came time to make my ANW audition video. I am, after all, the co-founder of a creative studio that produces spectacular videos,  if I do say so myself.  It was a very enlightening process to tell my story on camera, tapping into the core of my WHY, an exercise that so important for all of us, regardless of the goal in mind.


When I got the call from American Ninja Warrior, I was in complete shock!  

Was the dream actually happening?!  I was surrounded by our CIRCUS PICNIC team, who secretly got the news just minutes before, and were able to have the cameras rolling when my phone went off.  It’s funny, I had been visualizing this becoming a reality for so long that it just felt natural -- I had focused on achieving my goal so intensely, that it felt as though making it was the only possible outcome.

Still, all that bravado didn’t come close to numbing the electric feeling that was shooting throughout my body as the ANW producer delivered the good news over the phone.  “You should be thrilled to death because it’s really really hard to get on the show,” he said. I was thrilled to death. The whole team immediately ran out to the trampoline for a celebratory jump!

Then finally, on March 26th, I completed at the American Ninja Warrior regional competition in San Antonio, Texas (my hometown).  It was a dream come true. And to step on that main stage in the city where I grew up leaping above that imaginary lava, was an incredibly special moment.

While I didn’t make it out of the first round of competition, and I didn’t get to experience the rush of running up the warp wall, I did prove to myself that I can achieve anything I put my whole self into. And if I can do it, you can, too!

As I said in my audition video, my goal was to have the most fun anyone has ever had on an American Ninja Warrior obstacle course.  As I stood on the opening platform juggling joyfully in front of the blazing cameras and the cheering crowd, I knew I had succeeded.