Guess what? It's harder than it looks on TV

By Dana Schwartz
May 23, 2018 at 10:00 AM EDT
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If you’ve ever watched American Ninja Warrior, you’re aware that every contestant looks like the offspring of a Wonder Woman Themysciran and that guy you know who’s very into CrossFit.

By contrast, my body type falls somewhere between “medium-sized second grader” and “Muppet.” And so when my editor asked for a volunteer to try to run the American Ninja Warrior course for the sake of journalism, of course I was the logical candidate.

It doesn’t look that hard, I told myself the morning I was scheduled to make my way over to the Universal Studios lot, where the show is filmed. I am not an avid Ninja Warrior viewer, but I’ve seen episodes — on planes, when I wanted to see Derek Hough shirtless. I knew the first challenge consisted of red lily-pad-like wedges that the contestant has to hop between. Most contestants are able to do it without breaking stride. I mean, really, how difficult can a little jumping be?

It bears making very clear here that I am not athletic. I do not go to the gym, because up until a few weeks ago I lived in New York City and told myself walking from the subway to my office totally counted as cardio. I can do approximately two pushups in a row, or five pushups if I can take a little break. The only sense by which I qualify as “in shape” is the fact that my limbs are in the general right spot for a human body. I could probably run a mile if I were being chased, and the person chasing me would have to be pretty scary.

Whatever misguided delusional confidence I had about, at the very least, avoiding humiliation on the course dissolved the second I saw it. The course was huge. Massive. “Make Paul Rudd look shrunken-down on the set of Ant-Man” big. To this day, the American Ninja Warrior course is the only exception to the Hollywood adage that everyone is smaller in person. It is the anti-Tom Cruise, and I knew immediately that it would take me down faster than Mission: Impossible sequels keep coming.

In order to prepare, I spoke with actual professional American Ninja Warrior Meagan Martin, who politely provided a few stretches and tips without saying what I imagine she had to be thinking — probably something along the lines of, Why is this undercooked spaghetti strand of a human being pretending that this is something she’s going to accomplish?

“No. 1 tip is be confident,” Martin said graciously, “Just go for it and don’t be afraid.” We were all in on the charade I was going to do the American Ninja Warrior course, and it was too late to back out now.

We journalists were scheduled to try out the course before the actual contestants would start filming, but the studio audience had already been bussed in and seated on rows of metal risers, bedecked in ponchos and smiles. They cheered as I stepped up to the platform where the course begins, a ledge above a deep pool of water that looked much further down than I had initially anticipated. “No!” I tried shouting. “Please stop cheering! Just, everyone, please take a bathroom break or something. Close your eyes. Do not spend your cheers on me!”

“You can do it!” a Midwestern mom shouted at me.

“No, I very much cannot!” I shouted back.

I shuffled through a few flimsy excuses in my head that would have allowed me to climb down with a semblance of my dignity intact: medical emergency? Tonya Harding-style broken shoelace? Spontaneously developed severe vinyl allergy? And then, without thinking too hard, I jumped.

I’d like to take a brief interlude from the story here to remind you all that the real victory is showing up. Thank you.

I jumped. And gripped the rubbery red foothold with my entire body, newly terrified by how slippery, how large, and how high above the ground it was. Every single bodily impulse willed me just to stay put, to remain clinging to that red wedge — raise a family there, buy a house, enjoy my retirement. But people were watching, and so I flung myself with the coordination of an elderly pug and somehow made it to the second, and then the third block.

At this point, I was significantly higher up than when I began. I did a quick mental calculation: Even if I summoned all my remaining willpower and stymied my shaking limbs, if I jumped to another wedge, the fall would be that much longer. And really, the fall was inevitable. There was literally no way out for me except down. I plugged my nose and, in unseasonably cold 55-degree L.A. weather, plunged into the pool below.

Someone from production helped me out and wrapped me in an American Ninja Warrior towel. A very British and very handsome Teen Wolf star hovered nearby, one of the celebrities on the roster to take on the course for Red Nose Day. His hair was glossy and full, and he looked as though he had just joined us from the set of a Nike ad. I went up to him, forgetting for a moment that I looked like a drowned Chihuahua. “Are you … cold?” he asked, very politely. So ended our fantasy romance.

I brought a change of pants but forgot a second pair of shoes, so I drove home sloshing on the gas pedal, cold but content, clutching my free American Ninja Warrior towel like the prize it was. Sure, I didn’t “finish” or “do well,” but I showed up. More importantly, I filled my quota of exercise for the year. “I earned this,” I said loudly to a colleague this morning, eating a coffee-cake muffin the size of a toddler’s head. “I was on American Ninja Warrior.”

See you on the couch, suckers.

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