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Can you out-climb fear? How American Ninja Warrior taught me to take a fall

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With the help of a Ninja Warrior, I try something that terrifies me.

I have a confession to make. I had the glorious opportunity to travel to almost every taping of American Ninja Warrior this season, and not once did I try an obstacle.

Oh sure, the chance arose many times. Production members suggested it. ATS members suggested it. Ninjas encouraged it. One time, a photographer for NBC said it was going to happen and to meet her by the Warped Wall in 10 minutes. I literally called an Uber, got in it, and texted her that I didn’t see her over there.

Why? Because public humiliation isn’t my jam. Almost every single one of my friends has a story about that oh-so-hilarious-time I fell down the stairs, or into a bush, in a puddle, off a curb, etc, etc. Once in a high school play, I slipped and face planted HARD while on stage. I was so embarrassed that I pretended my character had died and laid there until they closed the curtain. (I like to call it a spontaneous plot twist.)

So yeah, I actively avoided breaking my face on a notorious obstacle while on the road. I figured, I was there because I had a job to do, and bleeding all over a Ninja wasn’t part of it. I couldn’t stand the idea of embarrassing myself in front of these people I deeply respected. I was afraid of it.

But I’ve been feeling pretty regretful about that lately, thanks to the community members of American Ninja Warrior Nation. Every day, I talk to and work with you wonderful, inspiring people. I know so many of you who are working hard in your own training. Overcoming fears, illness, set-backs, to charge forward and reach your goals.

Being scared is the worst reason in the world to not try something. I think that feeling holds a lot of people back from even small things in their lives. I wanted to challenge that feeling thanks to all of you.

So when Ninja Warrior Natalie Duran asked me for about the 5th time to come rock climbing with her, I immediately started to text back, “Hahaha. No.” Then I thought about all the fun you guys seem to be having training, and I typed yes, hit send, and started panicking.

Oh crap.

I met up with Natalie at the Cliffs of Id in Culver City. Natalie is exactly what you’d think she would be from watching her runs on American Ninja Warrior. She’s excitable, energetic and delightfully silly.

How are you feeling about the weekend? @ndtitanlady will help you shake off the stress. #AmericanNinjaWarrior

A video posted by American Ninja Warrior Nation (@anwnation) on

We were also joined by Alex Weber, host of the NBC digital series “Crashing the Course.” He assured me he also was a rock climbing beginner and would share in my humiliation. LIES! Aside from being in great shape anyway, Alex had visited THREE rock climbing gyms in the past month.

So, here we have a sponsored rock climber, a ringer, and me. I had pizza for the breakfast that day I think. Thoughts of calling an Uber and “not being able to find them” started floating around my head. But as small children and extremely athletic people scaled the walls around me, I thought once again that I needed to do right by the Ninja community and see this through.

Here’s what it’s like to take your very first rock climbing lesson ever from an American Ninja Warrior.

First off, the place is SUPER cool looking, and you get fun shoes. So that was a bonus.

Cliffs of Id
No one told me until AFTER that I wasn’t supposed to wear socks.

Natalie walked me around the gym and gave me a brief overview of some basic dos and don’ts. We were going to be bouldering, which means climbing without ropes or harnesses, which was not what I wanted to hear. However, the entire gym floor was covered with really awesome mats and Natalie assured me I wouldn’t die.

After teaching me how to fall properly (Oh Natalie, I have YEARS of practice at falling) she showed me how to spot the routes laid out.

Sure, Natalie, it’s that easy.

Each route was marked with different colored climbing holds. The color didn’t dictate how challenging the route was, just once you picked a color, you stayed on that route until you reached the end. Appropriately, the routes are referred to as “Problems.”

Difficulty is marked by a ranking system. In bouldering, the US system is called the V-Scale. Problems go from V0 (easiest) all the way up to V16, or what I like to call infinity.

When you start a problem, you have to begin with both hands and both feet on the holds. My instinct was to just go from the ground and start climbing on anything I could grab, which eliminates some of the challenge. So you navigate yourself into a slightly awkward position just inches from the ground and start climbing from there.

Alex is much taller than me, which I feel is cheating.

Natalie led Alex and I to a V1 and quickly scrambled up it, over the top and disappeared down the other side. While I pondered how that happened, Alex followed suit. Both suddenly appeared next to me with big grins on their faces. That’s when it dawned on me that it was my turn.

Now, it seems so incredibly simple, and that’s what I kept telling myself. Just climb. It’s like a ladder. You just pull yourself up. That is not what I experienced.

The foot holds seemed impossibly tiny. Did I have giant feet? Why couldn’t I seem to get purchase on them? What was happening to my hands? I knew I wasn’t upper body strong, but this was just SAD. Why was I just clinging to the wall? How do I let go to grab another hold? Then I started pulling.

The moment I managed to move up a few holds I felt elation at the small success. Followed immediately by my mother’s voice yelling, “What are you doing?! Get down from there! You’re going to break your neck.”

Plopped down to the mat. I think I made it about 12 inches off the ground.

Natalie and Alex were jumping around and cheering for me. Natalie was yelling, “Again! Again!”

So I tried again. I made it far enough to touch the hold marked “end,” and was so overjoyed I lost my grip and fell again.

It’s feel like you’re WAY higher up.

We spent the next hour moving around the gym. Natalie was breezing through V6s and V7s, with Alex taking on 3s and 4s. I was stumbling around on the V0 and V1 routes. Generally, Natalie would lead me to a route, talk me through the problem, and then guide me as I tried it. “Left food higher! Now let go with your right hand!”

Each little bump and curve in the wall presented a new challenge that baffled my body. Climbing; it’s up an down right? Nope, it’s up, down, all around, and in some cases upside down. Even a small grade that causes you to lean back a bit feels like you’ve just gained 50 pounds.

THIS IS REALLY HARD, OKAY?

I started thinking about all those Ninjas on the I Beam Cross in Los Angeles and I wanted to cry for them.

Also, this was EXHAUSTING. I had done maybe 3 or 4 routes and my hands were aching and my arms were shaking. The combination of fear, anxiety, and physical exertion added up quickly.

We approached one more V0 route. It went higher than the others had, and the finish hold was a good stretch to the right to grab. Natalie turned to talk to Alex about a route he should try and I had a sudden moment of bravery.

Before Natalie could give me the run down, I took everything I had learned in that short period of time and tried to add it all up. I locked into the starting holds and pulled. I could hear Natalie shouting, “You’re doing it! You’re doing it!”

While talented children zipped past me with ease, I hesitated about half way up and couldn’t figure out where to place my feet next. Natalie kept yelling instructions my brain just wouldn’t compute because I also realized I was much higher up than I had previously been and my brain just kept saying, “Bad. This is bad. Much badness.”

With one more deep breath and strange Twister style move, I managed to convince my legs to go to the next hold. A few grasps later, I was touching the finish.

“Get both hands on it! Do it!” Natalie yelled.

I got both hands on it. I had done it. Totally completed a problem without breaking any of the climbing rules. I was elated. I forgot how how up I was. I jumped.

My teeth had a nice clank together as I hit the mat and sprawled backwards. Natalie leaned over me and said, “You realize you’re supposed to climb back DOWN too, right?”

Whoops.

I have always loved American Ninja Warrior. Now more than ever I love the community the surrounds it and I want to know and understand the challenges they’re going through on their journeys to physical fitness, Ninja competitions, or maybe Mount Midoriyama.

So this was my first teeny tiny step towards that. I’m going to try again. I going to keep taking the falls, knowing that you all are taking them as well.

And I swear that if I ever get a chance to try the Warped Wall again, I’m going to do it.

Thank you, Natalie!