My Night With Ninja Warrriors

May 25, 2019

It's like the circus rolled into town – a high-tech TV circus starring acrobatic ninjas cheered by hundreds of onlookers.

A dozen 18-wheelers hauled the rigging, lights and 32 cameras to The Banks for NBC's American Ninja Warrior obstacle course on Second Street, in front of the GE Global Operations Center building between Race and Vine streets.

After dark on Friday night – about 9 p.m. -- more than 90 contestants tried to conquer the six obstacles and earn a chance to compete again Saturday night in the Cincinnati finals. They will do 10 obstacles – repeating the first six, plus four new challenges – on Saturdays. The winners advance to the finals in Las Vegas, to be taped next month.

"This is awesome," said James Wilson, owner of the 'Nati Ninja Gym in Blue Ash competing on ANW for a sixth time. Eight people from his gym were competing Friday night – six cast by producers, plus two walk-ons.

James Wilson plays to the crowd on the 'American Ninja Warrior' stage.
Credit John Kiesewetter

Wilson has run ANW courses in Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and St. Louis. This was special.

"This is the hometown crowd, there's a lot of energy," Wilson said.

The course stretches from Race to Vine Street.
Credit John Kiesewetter

I spent five hours at the taping Friday. NBC granted permission to media on condition we don't reveal specifics about all the obstacles until the 11th season premieres Wednesday, May 29 (8-10 p.m., Channel 5), before moving to its regular time slot on Monday, June 10 (8-10 p.m.).

WLWT-TV meteorologist Randi Rico tried the course Friday night.
Credit John Kiesewetter

The Cincinnati qualifier taped Friday night airs Monday, July 1 (8-10 p.m.). The Cincinnati finals taped Saturday airs Monday, Aug. 19 (8-10 p.m.).

Important note: Even if you don't have tickets, there's plenty to see.

A couple hundred spectators behind temporary fencing on the south side of Second Street watched the competition. (The ticketed audience sat on the north side, with their backs to downtown.) Spectators will be recruited to fill seats late tonight/early Sunday, says producer Brian Richardson, an Indianapolis native and Indiana University graduate.

In the first hour Friday night, ANW filmed about a dozen contestants. The pace tonight might be slower since there should be fewer people wiping out, unlike Friday night.

Blue lights mean the course is ready for a contestant.
Credit John Kiesewetter

Here are the highlights from my night with the Ninjas.

THE COURSE: The linear obstacle course starts at Second and Race streets and stretched east past Vine. 

Under each obstacle is a shallow pool; when a contestant falls into the bright lights accenting the course turned red.

I can't reveal how many people advanced to the city finals, but let's just saw I saw a lot of red lights.

Red lights mean the contestant has failed to complete the course.
Credit John Kiesewetter

Competitors start on the Shrinking Steps (five increasingly smaller pedestals over a pool). Next came the Ring Swing (rings); Spinning Bridge (a bridge of balls); the Wing Nuts (suspended levers); a bungee obstacle I'm not allowed to describe; and the Warped Wall (steep ramp) up to finish line. Nobody talked about the four additional challenges coming tonight.

Throughout the day, "testers" wearing blue arm bands ran the course so producers could adjust camera angles and the obstacles, giving spectators something to watch. Before the taping, the contestants watched a tester navigate each obstacle, and asked questions, after a ANW staffer explained the rules.

Singer-actor-teacher Drew Lachey was Cincinnati's celebrity contestant. I'm not allowed to say how he did.
Credit John Kiesewetter

THE SETTING: Closing Second Street for 10 days was a royal pain for downtown traffic, but the location provided a grand view of the city skyline as the backdrop.

"We love being in an open public space, with people on both sides. It's fabulous to be in the heart of the city," said producer Richardson.

The action is captured by 32 cameras – mounted on the course, on boom cranes, held by staffers and a "spidercam" moving on wires above the entire course. There are 18 manned cameras, Richardson said, plus the fixed point-of-view cameras and a drone.

Randi Rico on the Shrinking Steps
Credit John Kiesewetter
So far, so good
Credit John Kiesewetter

CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS: Meteorologist Randi Rico, from NBC affiliate WLWT-TV, arrived at ANW at 4 a.m. and spent all of Friday there reporting for newscasts throughout the day. Her reward? Interviewing hosts Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbajabiamila, and trying her luck on the course before the taping started at 9 p.m. She couldn't scale the Warped Wall. Then she failed to grab the rope after successfully crossing the Shrinking Steps.

"I actually got farther than I thought," said a soaked Rico.

Randi's splashdown on the Shrinking Steps

Actor/singer/teacher Drew Lachey competed on camera at 10 p.m.  A half-hour later, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton stepped on stage with Wilson from the 'Nati  Ninja Gym. Wilson ran the course; Dalton didn't.

Andy Dalton chats with Reds COO Phil Castellini
Credit John Kiesewetter

In VIP seats were Reds COO Phil Castellini and a gang from the Jeff Ruby steakhouses, where hosts Iseman and Gbajabiamila dined Thursday night.

HOSTS: Former Dayton TV host Zuri Hall, the new sidelines reporter this season, toured the set with about 20 family members before the taping.

The Toledo native and Ohio State University grad was "proudly rocking the scarlet and gray," a scarlet jacket and gray denims.

Toledo native Zuri Hall interviewed before the taping.
Credit John Kiesewetter

She hosted and produced the Living Dayton weekdays at noon on WDTN-TV. She's now living in Los Angeles where she hosts Daily Pop, Live From E!  and Fashion Police for E!, also owned by NBCUniversial.

CONTESTANTS: NBC provided interviews with several Cincinnati area residents.  

We met "Leaping' Lindsay" Parcenio from Clermont County, and "Wildlife Warrior" Jeff Miniaro from White Oak who works at the Red Wolf Sactuary near Sunman, Ind.; and Wilson.

Contestant Ben Schneider, a 2014 Fairfield High School graduate.
Credit John Kiesewetter

I tracked down "Reckless Ben" Schneider, a 2014 Fairfield High School graduate, who was in Boy Scout Troop 967 at Sacred Heart Church with my sons. This was the first ANW for Schneider, a professional slackliner (he performs stunts on a not-so-tight stretchy, bouncy tightrope. He was going to give it his best, although he's still recovering from a dislocated shoulder.

THE CROWD: Many contestants had their own cheering sections. Producers allotted them a group of tickets for their scheduled time period, and encouraged them to wear matching T-shirts and bring signs.

I saw shirts for Leapin' Lindsay, the Queen City Ninja, Lunch Lady Ninja, Speedo Ninja, Deaf Ninja and Eskimo Ninja and Restless Ben, to name a few.

Many children were wearing American Ninja Warrior T-shirts.

"Kids love this stuff," says producer Richardson. "The best thing about this show is its infiltrating the country. People are setting up their own courses – in their backyards, in their attics or in barns. Kids today are not going into soccer, they're going into ninjas, all because of this show."

TAPING SCHEDULE:  Producers plan to start filming the finals shortly after 9 p.m. today, when its dark, until about 4 a.m.