Uncommon Skills

August 1, 2014 | By More

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Superhuman feats of strength and agility aren’t something we witness every day, but witness them I did on this unseasonably cool July evening.

Josh Cook had launched himself from a chain-suspended 2×6 board, and now clung to the climbing wall in his garage like Spiderman. He landed on the wall with perfect fingertip placement on the inch-wide climbing wall hold. The force of his landing was absorbed first by that slim finger hold, then transferred to arms, shoulders, back and abdominal muscles. It looked effortless. I’m not sure webbing didn’t shoot from his wrist to help him stabilize. Very cool is an understatement.

Josh’s show of athleticism demonstrated a specific skill set tailored for the American Ninja Warrior – an action sports competition with shades of the 1990’s American Gladiator. But instead of campy WWF inspired loudmouth “gladiator” opponents, contestants in American Ninja compete against only a clock and themselves. It all started in 1997 when Japan’s Tokyo Broadcasting System held Sasuke: the first ever Ninja Warrior competition. Designed to be the most difficult obstacle course on the planet, Sasuke attracted hundreds of competitors. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds, finger holds and spider climbs into a worldwide phenomenon. One spinoff from its popularity is American Ninja Warrior. The American Ninja Warrior Challenge runs through a series of regional qualifiers culminating in the Las Vegas finals called Mt. Midoriyama. The competitor who conquers Mt. Midoriyama will win the Grand Prize of $500,000. It’s a competition in which Josh has tasted some success. The 2013 season saw Josh qualify in the Denver regional and advance to post the seventh highest time on stage one of the four stage Las Vegas finals. 2014 brought more success for Josh as well as his partner in Ninja discipline, Greg Duvall. But more on that later.>>

Josh, 27, and Greg, 42, are carpet installers by trade — a hot, sweaty, gritty job. But two or three times a week, after a day’s work, they spend up to two hours swinging, climbing, leaping and hanging from various obstacles and climbing walls. “We get off work, some serious physical labor, and then we do some more serious physical labor,” said Josh.

The garage attached to Josh’s house is a concentrated version of the American Ninja obstacle courses. The obstacles have colorful names like salmon ladder, unstable bridges, flying nunchucks, and devil’s steps among others. Josh and Greg have designed the course to stretch their limits, with several obstacles beyond American Ninja Warrior competition specifications. And the guys cannot stay off of them. We talk as they swing past or stop for a quick breather.

I ask about the motivation for this sport because, frankly, I don’t get it, and a common denominator soon appears: adrenaline. Josh was into climbing before introduced to American Ninja Warrior by a cousin. Greg is a longtime kayaker. Both are extreme sports focusing on personal accomplishment and a big slice of fear. “Part of this is the adrenaline factor,” said Josh. “We’re adrenaline junkies; it’s what climbing is all about. You get up there and it’s scary, and when you beat that this rush goes through you. Another big part of it is that not everyone can do it.”

I can appreciate adrenaline for its intended purpose in my life, which is pushing me to hit a deadline, but beyond that, and the original intent of fight or flight, I’m not a fan. Anecdotal evidence says I’m in the majority.

The extreme sports world is a world without easily definable boundaries. The definition of extreme sports is foggy at best. The best explanation I found: Any recreational activities that involve high risk, aggressive and spectacular stunts, and which appeal to the young. Still vague. Regardless of the definitions, I think we all know it when we see it, and I personally know only a handful of regular extreme sport participants. So how many others participate in American Ninja Warrior around here? “In the River Valley?” asks Josh. “Four. Jarret Jackson and Ben Cook, Josh’s brother, train with us some,” said Greg. “It’s not a members only club,” said Greg. “It’s try to be a member if you want, but it hurts.” Josh and Greg are the only ones from the River Valley that have competed on the American Ninja Warrior competition, though, and 2014 was a good year for both of them. Josh and Greg were both invited to compete in this year’s competition after submitting video. Over 25,000 hopeful participant videos were received by the American Ninja Warrior selection crew, but only 650 were chosen to compete. Just being chosen separates you from the masses. Greg finished near the top of the heap, barely missing qualification to the next stage. Josh took third, advancing to the finals in Las Vegas. But any discussion about what has already happened in Vegas is forbidden. “We had to sign a lot of papers that said we couldn’t talk about it,” said Greg.

The competition isn’t about brute force, but a combination of strength and agility. Bigger participants are at a disadvantage. No bias here, it’s just physics. “The only ones that have completed it (Mt. Midoriyama) weighed under 140 pounds,” said Josh. “A lot of the obstacles you’re on your fingertips so every pound counts.” Greg is a broad-shouldered 182 pounds. He measures under six feet tall with a 6’1” wingspan. Josh is a lithe 136 with simian arms. As he stretches from obstacle to obstacle I’m always thinking he won’t quite reach the next one, but he does. While Josh’s sinewy build is a distinct advantage, Greg’s body control and strength allow him to move like a smaller guy. Josh said he tries to train at 140 pounds and then drops to 135 for competition. “And I feel like a maniac at that weight,” said Josh. “Still have all the strength, just less weight to move.”

As a forty-something in reasonably good shape despite spending too much time basking in the glow of a laptop, the ANW obstacles were intimidating but fascinating to me. Yeah, the moves look cool, and I can see the appeal of wanting to conquer everything in the garage. But I’m thinking there’s more to this than adrenaline and a feeling of accomplishment. Josh and Greg don’t talk about it or treat it like the discipline it is; they can barely stay off the various apparatus long enough to tell me how much fun they’re having. Still, it’s obvious to me that the driving force behind completing an American Ninja course is self-discipline. You don’t hear it in their voices, though. You hear pure passion. Can passion and discipline always be separated? Does one spawn the other? Passion and discipline aren’t end goals. They are tools, purely utilitarian. Passion springs out as an involuntary reaction, and discipline digs in as voluntary resolve. Here, in this garage atop Crow Mountain, they are one in the same.

As the discussion bounces back and forth, the men bounce from rope, to bar, to wall. Effortless. Seamless. Calculated. Josh and Greg aren’t taking risks. They are safe in a cocoon of confidence spun from long-practiced skills and focus. It’s a single-mindedness that approaches Zen. And there’s the answer. At the instant of release, those midair milliseconds from obstacle to obstacle, nothing else matters. Life in the moment. Intense and perfect.l

You can follow the rest of Josh’s journey by tuning in to American Ninja Warrior on television network NBC Mondays at 8p.m.

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