Well it “only” took 3 years; I finally realized my ninja warrior quest of competing on American Ninja Warrior!
Three years, tons of travel competing across the country, a bunch of injuries (including dislocating my shoulder in front of 50 horrified people), many new friends, lots of 2nd and 3rd place finishes at regional ninja competitions, and tons of battles with my inner demons – all “just” to get me to the starting line!
And it was totally worth it 🙂
Ninja Vision Quest
Over 75,000 people applied to be on season 8 of American Ninja Warrior – the show is more popular, just got nominated for an Emmy, and according to the Wall Street Journal Ninja Warrior is the future of sports (because of its ability to attract young viewers at a much faster rate than professional sports like baseball and basketball.)
And out of all of those applications, only 600 were “cast” for the show… and I was NOT one of them. Yup. Seriously. This wasn’t handed to me….
I Willed this $hit into Existence!
My absolutely brilliant audition video (if I may say so myself) just wasn’t enough.
Brilliant not because of my goofy smile but rather my friend and super ninja videographer Ryan who came up with the blazing hot idea to turn my video into a retro video game!
I mean, com’mon. What little boy hasn’t dreamed of being the star of his own video game 🙂
Alas, twas not enough, so I had to find another way. And that I did, essentially “beating” 74,400 people to the starting line. Success!
Sneaking In Through the Back Door
And that back door is called the “walk on line”. If you don’t get cast, you show up to the city where the competition is being held EARLY, as in 1, 2, even 3 weeks in advance. And you wait. And wait. And if you’re lucky, you get chosen to be one of the “walk ons”.
Me, I was always against it. “Waiting in line? Shah right! I’m awesome, they’ll pick me.” Well that was my “strategy” last season (and the season before that), and let me tell you, waiting for that phone call from casting was brutal! Especially since it never came. I was in disbelief! And forced to learn the very hard lesson of how to put failure to work to try and get on the show yet again.
I am literally allergic to waiting on line, but I had to take things into my own hands this time. The idea of just waiting for a call from casting AGAIN felt even worse than waiting online.
I realized that some of the ninjas that I respect the most – James McGrath, Jamie Rahn, Isaac Caldiero, Adam Arnold, Bobby Zavala – had all been “walk on line” ninjas once upon a time. This wasn’t waiting online, this was my ninja initiation!
What’s more ninja than sneaking in through the back door?
And with that shift in perspective, it was still a hard decision but no longer an impossible one. To be away from my family, especially my daughter and wife Alexandra Damiani, and from my students and home felt like leaping off a mysterious cliff into a pitch black sea at midnight. Am I really going to leave my toddler and wife for 2 weeks, to chase this crazy ninja dream of mine?
Fatherhood is Truly a Warrior’s Path
Choosing to become a father was THE scariest – and best – decision I’ve ever made.
To be a good father is to be a warrior in the truest sense of the word; providing, protecting, mentoring and training. Yet be humble enough to realize that your child can be your greatest teacher.
So deciding to leave for 2 weeks to make my dreams come true felt like a huge sacrifice. But even when I was away from them physically, my wife Alexandra and daughter Emma were always with me, because everything that happens to me will effect them deeply.
Every move I make counts. Every breath I take is sacred.
The entire walk-on experience was an invitation to combine the wisdom of the sage with the power of the warrior, anything less would be dishonorable.
Besides, kids learn by example; more than what you say, it’s about what you do. I want Emma to know that it’s worth it, to sacrifice for your dreams.
Here I am, trying to explain to my daughter Emma (who just turned 2) why I won’t be around for the next 2 weeks.
Diving Deep Into The Unknown
The entire process of the “walk on line” was a profound self-reckoning. For two weeks all I did was confront fears, practice movement and sharpen my body-mind into a single point of focus; Tai Chi, Kung Fu, meditation, primal movement.
This wasn’t waiting online, this was preparing for a sacred battle and facing my destiny with heart, eyes, and mind wide open. I was living my Hero’s Journey!
I started having wild experiencing both during my meditation and while walking and biking around Philly, stuff that I am still processing and not ready to share yet. It felt like I was waking up from a deep sleep, like all my life I’d been numb. All of my senses came alive and super powered, and everything I saw and felt was magnified tenfold.
I was staying in an AIRbnb in a very rough neighborhood of Philly called Harrow Gate. It was a strategic move – it was close to both the site the show was going to be filmed and the spot where we had to “check in” every day for the walk on line. All biking distance.
And my heart literally felt like it could burst, seeing the trash on the street, the desperation on people’s faces, all of their suffering became my own, like the barrier between us had melted away. The beautiful was more beautiful than ever, and the sadness and despair was overwhelmingly terrifying.
There were only 2 other times I felt my senses so wide open; during my vision quest in the high desert and witnessing the birth of my daughter Emma. Both of those experiences, however, occurred when I felt safe, and in privacy, and during my ninja rite of passage it was in the middle of an urban ghetto; horns honking, prostitutes soliciting, sad people shuffling to work, alcoholic old bums stumbling along the underpasses of life…
On my desert vision quest, the veil of separation lifted and I merged with the beautiful desert landscape; on my ninja quest, it lifted and I merged with urban decay and disease.
To say it was intense is the fucking understatement of the year. But if there’s one pattern in my life, it’s that…
Fear is the Gateway to My Higher Power…
and intensity is my irresistible muse. So I’ve learned to follow the fear, listen to it, even dance with it. This is a core ninja skill, and truly a vital life skill at that.
Clear Goal = Clear Result
I took two vows before leaving for Philly.
First, that I be truly open to experiencing all the lessons the universe will provide me, especially the uncomfortable ones (because in my experience that’s where the most growth occurs).
Secondly, that I show up to the starting line of the competition with my body, mind, and spirit as strong and balanced as possible (because I know I have a tendency to “over do it” when training and it’d be a shame to tweak something right before the most important moment of my athletic life!)
Committing to these 2 vows literally lit my soul on fire. I was meditating 2x/day, practicing movement, self-healing with Qigong, expressing myself through Kung Fu, doing nature rituals (I would sneak off to a bird sanctuary in New Jersey in-between walk-on line check ins), using every ounce of my strength and awareness to prepare.
And a funny thing happened.
The intensity and totality of that commitment, the pressure from sacrifice of having left my daughter and wife, it squeezed my very psyche something terrible, and out of me oozed bliss and beauty.
My meditations were more powerful than ever, my senses more acute, at moments my body felt like a wave of shimmering power – like a panther with wings – and my Kung Fu was on fire.
What was happening to me?!?! I knew I’d be processing this experience for a long time to come, so I took 55 videos to document the experience.
Here’s the first one, and perhaps the MOST vulnerable one, where I share my most powerful meditation practice. I also, for the first time ever in public, tell a childhood story that has been a huge source of both pain and healing in my life, a major moment in my personal mythology.
And to keep myself engaged with my free time, I made another commitment to share a “movement meditation” on Facebook each day I waited on the walk on line.
It’s Beyond a Dream Come True
I got picked off the walk on line to run the course (only about 15 of us out of 70) and I succeed in fulfilling my two vows!
This allowed me to show up to the starting line feeling like I’d already won, truly. And that was a tremendous sacred victory; everything else would just be icing on the cake. My ninja warrior quest was already complete, but I wasn’t going to stop there.
My run did not make the cut and was not featured on the TV episode – about 130 athletes competed that night and only about 30 get air time- but of course getting on TV was never the point of my ninja quest. I did it to become the best version of myself! For my wife, daughter, students, and vision of becoming a champion of the idea that empowerment through movement can transform the modern world and ALL of its institutions, especially education.
So What Happened on the Course?
I was feeling really excited, grateful, and emotional the day of the semi-finals.
I got to the starting line feeling powerful, balanced, and more focused than I’ve ever felt in my life. That, in and off itself, was an amazing victory, having grown up a shy kid whose worst nightmare was being in the spotlight.
I painted my face with war paint, was wearing my magic ninja bandana, and had a wild goose feather I’d been gifted sticking out of it – my antenna to Great Spirit!
I saw the course and was thrilled to realize that I could totally do it, there wasn’t a single obstacle that looked impossible to me. And that’s not always the case…
Then, a series of small, regrettable mistakes. My nerves kicked in big time, I almost tripped stepping up on stage, and my body felt stiff. I said a prayer, and completed the 1st obstacle (ascending steps). I took a super conservative approach, knowing that my nerves would settle as I got the energy moving.
The second obstacle (log drop) was the only one I felt super confident about… and it still kinda rung my bell! Stay humble, yall.
Yet another mistake, I broke my focus to look for Alexandra and Emma, and couldn’t find them. I had expected to see them walking the course along side me (as was the case last year) and I wanted so badly to see them in that moment. And they weren’t there, and I couldn’t adapt emotionally. And the nerves came back stronger than ever.
I visualized doing the 3rd obstacle (the paddle boards) and I fell in my visualization! The crowd got quiet and the pressure was on. I made my move and this weird thought arose … “Whose body am I in right now, it’s so slow”. Seriously, that shit happened. It was surreal.
And the next thing I knew I was wet! I was in total shock, I couldn’t understand why I was wet. Had I really fallen on an obstacle that I knew I could do. It just didn’t make any sense.
Below is a video of the course, and one of my personal heroes Jesse Labreck crushing it!
Learning Through Failure (And Recognizing Success in the Wreckage)
In my experience, falling has so much more to teach us than success. Accepting the wisdom of failure require us to sacrifice our ego and have the courage to feel the discomfort.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of courage.” Brene Brown
If I showed up to that starting line a invincible immortal with the ability to levitate over every obstacle and finish the course in 20 seconds, it wouldn’t require courage. It is only because the possibility of falling is very real that courage can manifest.
And that is the lesson I want to be for my daughter (because kids learn from who you are and what you do way more than what you say). Sadly, many parents try to insulate their kids from failure, afraid that it will damage their fragile body or psyche. But actually, kids are phenomenally resilient and can take so much! And what they learn from parents who insulate them from the vicissitudes of life is that reality is scary and mistakes are something to fight with, hide from, and avoid at all costs. And this leaves a deep wound.
I want to embody the principal of radical self-reliance for my daughter; I am imperfect, I make mistakes, and I use them to grow stronger and fuel my joy.
Besides, it’s truly amazing how much I gained from failing.
- I am stronger than ever: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.
- I’ve fallen in love with competing, something I used to be terrified of, for so many reasons: more focus, more anti-fragile, self-resilient, and confident.
- My training is more dynamic, balanced, and focused than ever. Not to mention the most enjoyable it has ever been!
- I experienced some amazing moments of oneness and euphoria leading up to the battle in my meditations.
- I reached a new level in my Kung Fu – more relaxed yet quicker than ever, I really felt like I tapped into a deeper level of power.
- I didn’t injure myself leading up to the competition, that was huge for me. I overcame a very deep habit of over training myself in an attempt to self-medicate my anxiety.
- I met some amazing friends, was inspired deeply by this wonderful community of athletes (especially the “walk on line” ninjas).
- I feel closer and more connected to my wife, daughter, and vision than ever. I am living my dream, and it’s a tremendous privilege, challenge, and adventure.
And of course, having failed at my goal of making it to national finals in Las Vegas despite committing every ounce of strength, I am humbler than ever.
I exposed my weaknesses too, and that is priceless. It is now clear that I need to compete more, and learn how to harness the pressure of competition to rise up to the challenge. Many of the most consistent ninjas were Division 1 college athletes and have a lot of experience being in a pressure cooker. I am committed to competing as much as I can this year to prepare for next season, because they only thing that got in my way this year was my nerves.
And next year, I will be back, stronger than ever, and will have made progress in building the first ever “Temple of Movement”, a place that empowers kids of all ages through movement and obstacle training.
Committing to the Impossible
In fact, a funny thing happened the very next competition I participated in after the American Ninja Warrior Philadelphia taped… I won that shit!
But the most astounding part about it was how I won it. At 1:50 in the video – the lachey to the peg board – when they showed us that obstacle, I immediately thought “there’s no way I can do that! I’ve never done anything like that.” But something truly wild happened.
When I stepped up to do that obstacle, I TOTALLY put those thoughts aside. I said to myself “ok, I can grab the bar, I know how to do that”, and that allowed me to stay super relaxed. Then “ok, I know how to swing to prepare for a lachey” and I stayed super relaxed, just focusing on one thing at a time.
And then, RIGHT before I’d let go of the bar I looked at the peg board I saw my hands grab them IN MY MIND’S EYE! It was WILD! As I released from the bar, hurling towards a cement wall 9 feet away, I was TOTALLY relaxed, because I’d already caught the hand holds in my mind. And so it was.
Now if I can let myself stay in that zone while competing, there is absolutely no obstacle that can’t be conquered!
Together, We Rise
I feel beyond grateful at having the chance to compete and am committed to learning and healing myself through ninja training for many years to come. The community and people I met along the path to glory have made it all worth it; the entire experience has been and continues to be deeply fulfilling. I’ve grown personally and become more inspired than I can possibly express in words.
My quest to the top of Ninja Mountain is healing me on a deep level… and many others too.
“Where else can you see people rooting for those who could beat them and remove them from competition?… Nowhere. And while it was somewhat of a boys club for years, it is now the single best example of a televised sport that incorporates men and women equally and holds them to the same standards.
“The simple truth is this – American Ninja Warrior is unlike any other sport. It is teaching the youth of America that you can be friends with people and compete against them at the same time.” ~ Joshua Pants ~ American Ninja Warrior Nation
Movement is the most radically transforming agent in the known world, and American Ninja Warrior is inspiring a nation to become the ninja hero in their own life.
We live in a culture that literally MANUFACTURES sadness and disease; cancer (due to pollution), diabetes, heart disease and obesity (due to our food industry), and violence are now the NORM!
But the wisdom of ninja training – and the shaman celebration of obstacles that it represents – shows us that all the sadness and disease can be used as a catalyst to develop our greatness!
Maybe all the dysfunction we see today everywhere we look is really just a huge opportunity for the next generation of warrior ninjas?
Harnessesing the Power of TV for Greatness
Watch this show, the season finale is tonight! It’s amazing and uplifting, one of the rare times when TV actually brings people together and inspires them. Most TV programming turns people into zombie coach potatoes; this one inspires those same people to become a bad ass ninja. Many people have been transformed, many more will be transformed in the future.
All across the country, people from all walks of life are building ninja obstacle courses and hosting competitions in their gyms and back yards, and the ninja youth are learning the real life skills that schools all too often miss; how to work with fear, how to assess risk, how to build confidence, how to develop real focus when it counts most, how to use the obstacles that life provides as a catalyst for greatness.
It’s an absolute honor to be a very small part of this amazing movement. Thank you for joining me on the path to glory, I couldn’t do it without my friends, family, students, and followers. And most of all my wife and daughter, Alexandra and Emma.
Having arrived at the foot of the mountain, I feel nothing but gratitude and awe for this amazing adventure I am living.
With every ounce of my being, I am more committed than ever to reaching new heights, using the challenges that lie ahead as an opportunity for self-development, dancing with the uncertainty, getting to Las Vegas for the National Finals, and returning home with the blessings of the mountain spirit so I can build a Ninja Temple of Movement to inspire the next generation of ninjas 🙂
For my own good, and the good of all the people. AHO!
Jonathan Angelilli ~ American Ninja Warrior
P.S. In case you missed it, here are the first four parts of my ninja warrior quest series: Part 1 – American Ninja Warrior Quest, Part 2 – Movement Is Medicine, Part 3 – Embracing Obstacles, and Part 4 – Putting Failure to Work.
P.P.S. Here are some more photos from the walk on line and my rookie debut on American Ninja Warrior!