May 5, 2017
My name is Oscar and I want to tell you about my journey to becoming a Ninja Warrior. It all started in April of my sophomore year in high school. My father, a soldier in the US Army, had been relocated to Fort Belvoir in Virginia and my whole family picked up to move…again. Life can be tough as an army brat. With the move comes a whole new community, a whole new group of friends, and a whole new school. Freshmen year had been difficult for me in North Carolina where my dad was last stationed, but I did at least have a few friends that made it bearable. At my new school in Alexandria, Virginia, I was going to have to start friend-building all over again–a task I was not looking forward to.
I had played baseball in North Carolina and done well on the team as a freshman. My speed as a runner had earned me a starting position and I was hoping to build off my success this year. I was convinced that as a sophomore on the baseball team the upperclassmen would turn their menacing attention to the new freshmen and leave me alone. Now that I was starting over in a new place, all hope was lost and I was surely going to start from the beginning again.
On the first day of practice the coaches gathered us all in the conference room to discuss the season. Having moved mid-year from North Carolina, I only recognized one guy on the team who was in my chemistry class. I sat in the back trying to keep a low profile. After an hour of rules and uniform handouts we left the building and headed to the baseball diamond. To say I was nervous is an understatement.
When we got to the field we were all shocked to see this large yellow and green inflatable waiting for us in the outfield. At first I thought that maybe there was a scheduling error with some other activity at the school. But once the coaches arrived it became clear that this large circular inflatable was here for a reason. We all gathered into a circle per the coach’s instructions. He asked us,
“Can anyone here guess what we are going to do next?”
I glanced around, timid about speaking up, to find that everyone else had a similar blank stare on their face.
“We’re a new team with a lot of new faces,” coach said, “so today we are going to start our season with an ice breaker.”
Ice breaker? I don’t see any ice I thought to myself. Coach then explained that the only way a team can work together is to get all of our first day jitters out and have some fun together. After all, playing high school baseball was about having fun. The blank stares continued as our coach carried on.
“This activity is called the Ninja Warrior Challenge.” Our faces all turned from confusion to excitement. “The purpose of this game is to stay on the pedestals longer than your teammates. As you can see, there are 8 pedestals surrounding the interior of the inflatable for 8 people at a time. As the high foam bar and low foam bar spin around your job is to jump over the low one and duck under the high one. The longer you guys are able to stay on, the faster the bars will rotate until there is only one Ninja left.” By this point, everyone was excitedly whispering to each other with some obvious trash talking beneath the hum of our coach’s voice. “Since we have 24 players on the team we will go in three groups. At the end of the 3rd group we will take the three winners and let them compete against each other to see who is the true Ninja Warrior. Good luck fellas and have fun!”
Upon coach’s closing words everyone jumped up and started pushing to be first in line. Since I still didn’t know anyone I stayed back for self preservation and to avoid getting on anyone’s bad side. The first group to go was everyone in the starting line-up with the exception of the catcher. The rotating bars started out fairly slow, but gradually sped up to a pace that kept everyone on their toes and all of us laughing. Before long six of the eight guys who started had fallen off their pedestals. This meant that our starting shortstop and right fielder were left. At this point the man running the game sped it up to top speed. While both of the remaining guys were impressive, only the right fielder was able to stay on for a few seconds. Winner: right fielder.
For the second round, the 8 guys quickly took their positions and the game started again. Rather than starting it out slowly like before, the game manager started it faster. I think the challenging speed caught everyone by surprise because before long, there was only one guy remaining. This meant that it was my turn.
Understandably, as I walked to my pedestal no one seemed to even notice that I was there. I was the new guy and I was a sophomore. As it had started in the last game, the game manager started the machine quickly. I jumped, and ducked, and jumped, and ducked. Before long I looked around and much to my surprise it was only me and one other guy still playing. As this was a game of endurance and speed, I felt well equipped to give it my all and compete. Finally, the last guy fell and I was the winner of my group. I smiled, jumped off the pedestal, and made my way to the winner’s circle. I remember in that moment no longer being concerned about quietly blending into the crowd.
The team gathered with the three winners standing next to our coach. I could tell that I had surprised everyone watching. Coach spoke up,
“Okay okay, good job to all. It is time for the winner’s circle to compete for Ninja domination. I am not surprised to see you two here (he was speaking of the right fielder and our pinch runner who had also won their heats). You, however, what is your name?”
“Oscar,” I replied.
“Alright Oscar, welcome to the team. I must say that I am surprised to see the new guy, but way to go, you are quite the athlete.”
I could feel everyone looking at me. “Thank you sir,” I replied.
As the three of us approached the Ninja Warrior Challenge again, I got a few encouraging pats on the back from my new teammates. The emotions of being new, young, and an outsider seemed to lift, leaving only the competition ahead in my mind. It was a sport and in sports there is no room for insecure emotions, only competition.
The three of us mounted our pedestals and the game began. The game manager started slowly this time. I stayed focused on the task at hand but I couldn’t help but notice one of my competitors showing off as he jumped over the rotating bar. Every time he jumped over the bar he would grab his feet like skateboarders do when they are attempting a trick. The team watching loved it and cheered him on. He was clearly the crowd favorite. The other contender was quiet, like me, zoned in on the challenge. As the rotating bars gradually sped up, I stopped looking around and worked hard only to focus on the task at hand. All of a sudden, a roar came from the team and I looked up to see the show-off lying on his back off the pedestal (I guess the mute grab didn’t work this time!). With only two of us remaining, the game sped up even more, probably to its max speed. As we jumped over and ducked under the foam bars I could feel my heart beating out of my chest. Could I actually win?
After two minutes of playing the game at the max speed I felt winded. In fact, I was less concerned at this point about making a mistake and falling off than I was about falling off from sheer exhaustion. Fortunately, as I jumped I glanced over at the other guy remaining and he looked even more exasperated than I was. The team around us had stopped cheering for one individual and were excitedly cheering for the both of us. There could only be one winner. All of a sudden the foam bars shook and as I glanced over to my competitor, I saw him fall off his pedestal onto the soft inflatable around us. I had won!
As I exited the Ninja Warrior Challenge as the newly crowned Ninja my team gathered around me to show their support. There were no tangible rewards for having won, but it didn’t matter, winning was enough of a reward. The coach announced me as the winner and just like that we went back to practice. I had started out the challenge as the new kid with no friends. After winning I was still the new kid but I could tell that I had earned my team’s respect. I had started the day afraid to be in a new school, afraid to be making new friends, and afraid for what lay ahead in sophomore year. With my victory came a new excitement for my new school and life in Virginia.
In hindsight, winning the Ninja Warrior Challenge that day was a big moment in my childhood. Yes, it was only a game. But at that moment in time, when everything felt so turned upside down in life, the feeling of accomplishment and victory is what I needed. It taught me to not worry about how other people thought of me. It taught me that when things are difficult I should focus on the task at hand and ignore all the noise around me. Yes, I learned all of this from a little game in high school.
Who would have thought becoming a Ninja Warrior would help me so much!