SOUTHERN UTAH — They call themselves the “Desert Ninjas,” four Southern Utah athletes whose can-do attitudes have taken them all the way to one of television’s biggest reality competitions – NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.”
Now in its eighth season, the popular show pits athletes against a daunting obstacle course designed to physically and mentally tax each competitor.
Several city qualifying rounds and city finals rounds are held in various cities throughout the United States. Athletes who successfully complete the finals course in their various regions move on to the national finals in Las Vegas where they compete to win $1 million.
The Desert Ninjas’ qualifying round, which was filmed in Oklahoma City, airs June 20 at 7 p.m.
For John Merrihew, Brian Beckstrand, Jon Stewart and David Peterson, it all began with: “I can do that.”
While many fans of the show simply marvel at the athletic prowess of the athletes who take on the challenge, the four Desert Ninjas all said that when they started watching, they knew they could do it.
“Hey, I can do that, that looks like fun,” Stewart said of his experience seeing “Sasuke,” the Japanese predecessor to “American Ninja Warrior.”
“Sasuke” is now in its 31st season in Japan and its final course, named Mt. Midoriyama, is considered the gold standard. The final “American Ninja Warrior” course is modeled after Mt. Midoriyama and, according to the NBC show’s website, to date, only three people have ever completed the Japanese course.
It wasn’t long after that first viewing experience that Stewart was hanging obstacles off his pergola and applying to be a competitor, he said.
Stewart is a veteran of the show — this year marks his fourth time on the reality series — and he describes the experience of competing as addicting. The show is something he trains for all year because of how fun it is to challenge himself and see how far he can push himself.
“You get addicted to it,” Beckstrand said, echoing Stewart’s sentiments.
Beckstrand returned for his second time on “American Ninja Warrior” this year after narrowly missing his chance to go the finals in Las Vegas in last year’s seventh season.
Motivated by his success as a rookie last year and determined to make it further this year, Beckstrand has created a gigantic backyard obstacle course where he trains.
The idea for the course began as a ninja warrior-themed birthday party for one of Beckstrand’s children, he said, but soon morphed into the ultimate backyard playground and training course.
“We just wanted to be better at everything that we did,” Beckstrand said, “so we had to have more obstacles to train on and we just got crazy with it.”
It is that motivation to better oneself and test the human physical limits that appealed to Merrihew, who said he loves the physicality and level of athleticism it takes to complete the obstacle course challenge.
“It’s very physcial,” Merrihew said. “It’s not easy. It’s extremely difficult and it will tax you to the bitter end.”
Merrihew is a rookie on the show but is already addicted to the competition and the rush of adrenaline he felt as he heard the countdown to mark his turn.
Rounding out the Desert Ninjas foursome is Peterson, who said that he has been doing obstacle-style challenges his entire life.
“I love being outdoors, I think I have been doing this kind of stuff all my life,” Peterson said. “I love to climb trees, I love to swing on ropes. It’s something I’ve done ever since I was little but I think it is something I will continue to do throughout the years, to stay in shape, to help others overcome obstacles, and it is something I use in my profession as well.”
Peterson is the director of Beaver High Adventure Base, a camp he said is dedicated to helping kids overcome things that are hard. Whether it be completing an obstacle, rock climbing, rappelling or walking a tightrope, the camp teaches kids that they can do hard things, even things they thought were impossible, much like “American Ninja Warrior,” Peterson said.
“All the things that kids didn’t think they could do, ‘Ninja Warrior’ teaches those kinds of things,” Peterson said. “Overcome it.”
Though it is essentially a competition, the Desert Ninjas have built a strong friendship and camaraderie through the show – a camaraderie that they said has helped motivate and push each one of them to do better.
The Desert Ninjas are not allowed to divulge the results of their qualifying attempts, and nobody knows the amount of screen time each of the competitors will get until their episode airs.
Out of the last seven seasons of the show, only one competitor has completed the final course and won the $1 million prize.
A viewing party to celebrate the Desert Ninjas is being held June 20 at the Washington City Community Center located at 350 N. Community Center Drive in Washington City.
The party will kick off at 6 p.m. with a meet and greet. There will be a bounce house and light refreshments prior to the screening at 7 p.m.
Brad Harr, St. George Fun and Tread Armament are sponsoring the event which is free for the public to attend.
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- What: Desert Ninjas Preview Party
- When: Monday, June 20, 6 p.m.
- Where: Washington City Community Center, 350 N. Community Center Drive, Washington City
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