Drew Drechsel was on an emotional rollercoaster during season eight of American Ninja Warrior.
His Qualifying and City Finals runs in Atlanta were perfect. That left him with the pressure of the National Finals. He breezed through Stage One, and then gave us all a heart attack by completing Stage Two with only one second left.
Drew took on Stage Three, and while he did fall from the Hang Climb, he went farther than any other Ninja in the season. That’s something to be proud of. Very proud of.
But the show revealed that it wasn’t all cheers and love for Drew. As the realization that his season was over sank in, Drew cried while trying to describe his feelings. He told Kristine Leahy that he felt he had let his friends, family, and fans down.
This is the most recent example of how passionate Drew Drechsel is about American Ninja Warrior, and the sport of obstacle courses in general. He’s competed multiple times in American Ninja Warrior, and also in Sasuke, the Japanese show that inspired the phenomenon.
In both countries, he has made a reputation for himself as a leader. Not in his strength on the course, but in his desire to rally the Ninja community together.
When Drew isn’t on the course, you can find him building that community in Hamden, Connecticut. Tucked back behind a gymnastics studio, in a small town in New England, you’ll find New Era Ninjas.
Here, Drew has his own space to hone his skills and bring up the next generation of Ninjas. He specializes in working with kids. This is not your typical birthday party location. This is a serious gym that frequently hosts competitions and is one of the premier training grounds in the northeast for American Ninja Warriors.
Shortly after the season finale of American Ninja Warrior season eight aired, we had the opportunity to visit Drew at New Era. When he wasn’t bouncing off obstacles or setting up for the classes due in later that day, we talked to Drew about his love of the sport and what really happened this season.
What’s your athletic background besides Ninja training?
All throughout high school I did several different sports. I did baseball, I did football. I did wrestling. I did volleyball.
I did volleyball for 4 years. It's probably my favorite sport. It's a lot more fun. The others are just super competitive in high school. As in volleyball is was like "Well, we don't care. We just want to have fun!"
So I really liked volleyball. It was a lot of fun. I attribute a lot my quick reflexes and ability to think fast because of volleyball.
But before all that, I played tee ball up until fast pitch for about seven years. And I also played disc golf for about 10 years.
What is disc golf?
It's like frisbee golf. With golf you hit a ball into a hole, with disk golf you throw a frisbee into a chain link basket. I actually have a chain link basket sitting on top of the bathroom over there with a couple disks in it.
Do you still keep up your skills?
I still practice my putting every now and then. I haven't actually been out to a course in a while. But I really enjoyed that. It's very calming and you have to think a lot. In golf, if you mess up, you have to put it behind you. Same thing in disk golf. If you make a mistake you can't carry it with you to the next thing.
That's another thing that's a part of Ninja Warrior. If you make a mistake or something slips you up, you need to get back on track.
So I'd have to say everything I've ever done has always led or helped me in one way, shape or form to prepare me for running the course.
When did you transition into Ninja training?
There's the parkour and free running background too, but I think most people already know that. I started parkour when I was 14 and then right up until 2011, 2012, it started getting to a point where I was really good. And this was before it blew up, so there wasn't very many competitions out there.
However I did a parkour TV show called Jump City Seattle on G4. That was 2011. I think I had one of the fastest times on almost every one of my heats. I was racing on the course.
So when it aired, G4, back when Ninja Warrior was on G4, they contacted me and said "Hey, would you like to come out and try American Ninja Warrior?" I thought I'd give it a shot.
At the time when I was doing this, I was doing such big things to challenge myself and push myself [in parkour] that if I were to make a mistake, not only could it be just dangerous but it was almost life threatening or fatal at that point. I was doing such big things to push myself, to get that adrenaline rush.
Jumping 15 feet across a two story building wasn't enough any more. I was trying to push 20 foot with a two story drop. It was to a point where I realized what I'm doing, it's not healthy. I'm not having as much fun as I used to.
So I started making a transition to challenge myself with the Ninja obstacles. It's very addicting to try something that looks so simple and then fail on it. I'm not used to that.
So when I started doing Ninja Warrior stuff that I thought was simple and it was just like fall after fall after fail and not going anywhere. It was very challenging. I wasn't used to that.
It's addicting. I started doing Ninja Warrior full time, just because I loved the thrill of it and how much I can always challenge myself and how easy I can make something. Once I did get it, make it harder and challenge myself even further.
Then I started just doing Ninja Warrior full time and helping my friends with the trial and error I went through. Helping them so that they didn't have to go through that same trial and error. Like "Hey, well I learned that if I do this then it's better if you do that. It's easier."
I started teaching and a couple years later I have my own gym and over 300 students and I have adult classes and home school programs. Things are going great.
How long have you had the gym here now?
We're getting close to two years.
With the Ninja aspect of the facility?
[New Era is also home to a gymnastics studio in a separate building.]
Right. Yeah. This is Ninja Warrior only. A lot of other gyms, they do either parkour or freerunning and they have Ninja Warrior stuff. Or they're a gymnastics gym, or a cross-fit gym and they have Ninja Warrior stuff.
This is Ninja Warrior only. I don't do anything else here. I feel like I can do a lot more with the space because of the fact that it's only Ninja Warrior. Everything can be usable for several different purposes without having to worry about moving gymnastics mats or apparatuses that kind of get in the way of Ninja Warrior stuff.
Or big vault boxes that take up a bunch of space in a room that you can only do one thing with. I can design stuff that has several different uses and kind of play around and see what I can do with it.
Now that you're finding such success with the show, are you finding that you have to balance to responsibilities of being an American Ninja Warrior with the responsibilities of the growing gym?
It has. There's a lot of people who are reaching out to me who are looking for, "Hey can you do my kid's birthday party? Hey could you come out here? I want to open a gym. Could you tell me what can I do? I've got this backyard. I've got all this space. Can I build some stuff? Could you help me out with it?"
I would love to just clone myself into 12 different Drew's and go help everyone out. But I don't have the time. Especially with running the gym full time where I have classes every day and I still have to compete on top of it.
I'm still training to compete. I'm doing local competitions. I'm running a gym, and then I'm doing as much as I can to help everyone else and give back as well. It's really hard. I have a lot to thank to Tom Alberti [co-owner of New Era] and April [a fellow Ninja trainer and Drew’s girlfriend] as well for helping me balance all of this and keep me sane. Or else I'd be crazy and you wouldn't see me for season nine.
What's your favorite part of having the gym here?
Being able to do whatever I want with it, whenever I want. If you go to other gyms. Like if I went to an LA Fitness or and Edge, or anything like that, I'd see something crazy I'd want to do or something I want to try and I'm going to immediately get kicked out.
You can't just go places and do Ninja stuff without repercussions. Here it's like "Hey, I would love to crawl across my I beam that's 18 feet in the air." No one's going to yell at me. It's my place. I can do what I want.
It's really cool that I can envision something. Like, hey you know what? I'm missing the Wedge. Let me go make a mock wedge, as sketchy as it might be so I can practice it. So I can get my own training how I please without having everyone else worry about me. Because I'm not your normal person.
Why are you so dedicated to American Ninja Warrior?
Not only do I love the challenge, but I think of everyone else who would like to try the show. To be honest, a lot of them are not going to get on the show because it's very selective. Very few have the honor of being on American Ninja Warrior.
So anyone who wants to try those obstacles, they can come here. Any of the kids who want to grow up and be on American Ninja Warrior, they can start here. They can start working on their balance and the Salmon Ladder and the Warped Wall and the steps. They can start playing on all these obstacles that they see on the show that they see their idols doing.
Not only can they train here, but meet their idols. Anyone who thinks Jamie Rahn is their favorite Ninja Warrior, and he's the coolest guy, well they're right. And guess what? Next week he's going to be here. Come meet him. Jamie is a great guy so he'll come out and meet all the Ninjas. He'll sign autographs. He'll play around, he'll teach them.
I think having a place where a lot of Ninjas can go and not only have them train but all the kids can train, and adults can train and everyone can meet each other and get along. I think it's just a great place to hang out and be around whether you're training or not. Just to be here and watch everyone else is Ninja Warrior in the making.
I saw you at almost every American Ninja Warrior taping this season. I think you only missed one, right?
I only missed one. I only missed Philly. As much as I wanted to go, there was Sauske going on at the same time. So I had to miss Philly, but I competed in Japan.
Why did you make it a priority to take time out of your gym and your life to make sure you were at all of those tapings?
I guess going back to what I can do to give back. Not only to the other Ninjas but to everyone else who attends these tapings. Who goes there to be in the audience.
Let's take Atlanta for example. So when I'm getting ready to compete I'm in my zone. There's Drew Drechsel, and then there's the Drew who likes to goof around and play around and do tricks for the kids. But when I'm in competition zone Drew Drechsel, I can't do those tricks. I'm getting ready to compete. I'm thinking about the course.
I'm not the only one. All the other Ninjas are thinking about the course. So all these people going to the taping expecting to see their favorite Ninjas but then they don't get to see them because everyone is getting ready to run. Well, I get to go watch my Ninjas run, which I think is great. I think most Ninjas who can do that, they do. Then I get to meet all the other fans and the kids who are there to see the Ninja Warriors but really probably won't get to because they're getting ready to run.
Then I get to see the course too. Which is really cool. So I'm there, seeing the course and watching my friends do it. I'm meeting all the kids and the adults who are there to see Ninjas. I'm just doing what I can to make sure everyone is doing their best. Like I said, I'm a coach. I'm a teacher. If I see something that I think differently about than normal people, I'm going to tell my friends. "Hey I noticed THAT rope drops a little more now than it did for some reason before. Be wary of that."
I remember it was Indianapolis they had the nunchucks thing. Right before I flew out, I saw a picture of them setting up the nunchucks. So I packed up a couple of my nunchucks from the gym. I brought them out there, and while Ian Dory and Meagan Martin are warming up, I'm challenging them. Here's the nunchucks.
They're swinging on them. They're getting their grip down. They're playing around. They're kind of relaxing a bit while still getting warmed up. Anything I can do to help my friends out is another really good reason to be there.
Let's talk a little bit about National Finals now. Did you have a viewing party here?
We did. We had a viewing party and I think it was the biggest showing that we've had. Our bleachers were full. Our benches were full. There was a lot of people. We have a nice A/C in here, but the gym started getting hot because there were so many people here.
We had about a 25 foot screen projected up on the wall there. In between the commercial breaks we would turn the lights back on and mute the screen and anyone who had any questions would get a chance to ask questions because I was there.
How does it feel watching yourself on TV with all your friends and family and students staring at you?
Oh man. It's weird. When I'm competing, like in Vegas, there's a big group of people there. I knew they were there. I wasn't really thinking about it too much. But still in the back of my mind I knew they were there watching me. I didn't want to let anyone down.
But when I'm here and watching people. They're watching it on the screen. I'm watching it for the first time. Because when you're living it, you're not really taking everything in when you're on the course.
Watching yourself up on TV, knowing millions of people are watching you, knowing all your friends and family are here watching you, it's almost like re-living the moment again. It's almost in the moment again of "Oh man, I'm on Stage Three."
I know what happens. I know what happens next. But it's like, "I'm going to fall. I'm going to grab that and I'm going to fall." And then you see and hear everyone's reaction and it hits you all over again.
You feel like the worst person in the world. It was cool to have everyone here. It was not cool to let everyone down. Well, I know I let didn't let anyone down, but I still know I could have done better.
Everyone knows that I could have done better. That's where I feel like I let people down. I want to be the best I can. Falling on Stage Three is not the best I can do.
How were you feeling back in Vegas the night you ran course Two and Three?
Before running Two, I was kind of getting nervous because everyone was failing. No one had passed it yet. Running on a course that you've got the top people in the country running, and no one is getting halfway through, it's definitely nerve-wracking.
Even though I know I can do it, there's so many areas where I know one mistake can happen and well, we'll see you next year. So I was definitely nervous for Stage Two. Making it past Stage Two and looking at Three, that's where I've been training.
The past year I've been training my endurance and the cliff hangers and floating doors. Every Stage Three obstacle you can think of, I've been working on it. So Stage Three I was feeling more comfortable and confident with than I was on Two. Especially after watching everyone fall on Two, but knowing the people falling on Two could easily do Three, well if I beat Two when they failed, I feel much better going into Three, if that makes sense.
Josh Levin. I'm going to use him as an example. He's definitely a Stage Three specialist. So for him to make it to the Wedge, but then make a little mistake still looking fresh and strong, well now I go into that knowing if I beat the Wedge, how do I feel? I still feel fresh and strong too. So I can kind of put myself in comparison to Josh. Well going into this year, Josh can beat Three, which means I can beat Three.
Have you adapted your training since the Hang Climb?
This year, since Vegas, falling on the Hang Climb again, I have not been doing hardcore training yet. I'm waiting until about the middle to end of December to start training again, but until then I'm trying to let my body rest.
There's a lot of other Ninjas who are having shoulder issues or arm issues. They're having to have surgery, or they're getting injured. They're not resting. I realize how important it is to rest your body. So my shoulders have been giving me kind of an issue for a bit, so I'm resting them. Same thing with my tendonitis in both my elbows.
I just like to take a couple months off and rest. I still do pull ups. I'm still active. But I'm not doing the big stuff like you guys see me doing on TV sometimes. So I'm definitely more active than your average Joe, but I'm not going as hard as I do from December till about March.
We saw you get pretty emotional after your Stage Three run. Now that you've had some time, do you have any more perspective on that experience that you want to share?
Yeah. I'm terrible. No. I've realized that on the Hang Climb, it's not that I don't have the ability. It's not that I don't know what to do. It's that I'm not confident on an inclined rock wall, so it's kind of like I freaked out and grabbed the very first thing I saw. I didn't trust myself to just hold on, when I was perfectly capable of holding on. That's what's hard.
Falling on Stage Three and making it the furthest, when I got emotional. It was like, I did make it the furthest, but the Ninjas lost. The Ninjas lost to the mountain that year, and I really wanted to beat it. Whether it was me, or it was Daniel or it was someone else, I don't like being beaten.
I look at the Ninjas as being a team. You've got Mount Midoriyama and you have the Ninjas. This year Mount Midoriyama won, and I don't like that.
How do you feel about the tactic that the show doesn't declare a winner unless someone beats Stage Four? Do you feel like there should recognition for what you did, going the farthest this year?
I mean, I guess I might be kind of biased in saying this because I went the furthest. But Brian Arnold went the furthest one year. Brent Steffensen went the furthest one year. They didn't get anything. So why should I get something? It's just a different year and yes the course may have been harder, but that's all an opinion.
Some people might be really really good at the Cliff Hanger, and this double crazy Cliff Hanger is a joke to them, as where some people don't really train Cliff Hangers so maybe it's not the easiest thing in the world and it's super difficult. The course is always evolving and it's always changing but it's completely opinionated on how difficult it is.
I look at Stage Two and I'm like Two wasn't that bad. Once I've done it. But it took out so many people. I think Stage One was worse than Two, and I think Two was worse than Three. That's just my opinion on how I train and what my strengths are.
So should I get something for going the furthest? No I don't think so. Would I like to? Of course. But that would be unfair for the other competitors in the past years who have actually made it the furthest, but not won.
You can't say there wasn't a winner this year because there was. Like I said Midoriyama was the winner. I look at it as somebody won, but it wasn't any of the Ninjas. So there was a winner.
What's the fan reaction been like since the National Finals aired?
I think all but one person was nice. There was one person on social media who called me out and was like "Well, that's what he gets." I'm just kind of like okay, I'm sorry you feel that way. I would kind of like to know what I did to offend you. Cause I kind of gave it my all. Sorry it wasn't enough for you.
But everyone else is responding well. They've got my back. They're letting me know that I did really well. I went the furthest which is really cool. Remember that. I went the furthest not only in American Ninja Warrior but also in Sasuke I was the last man standing.
I'm having a really good year. My gym is expanding. There's more big things in the works. It's a really good year for me. I understand. I am going to train harder and I am going to come back next year, and I'm just hoping I can do the same thing next year, but take out that mistake.
You never know what's going to happen. Look at Geoff Britten. Last year he made it to the top of Stage Four, wasn't as fast as someone else, Isaac. But this year he goes out on the very first obstacle on Stage One.
Does that say he's not capable of doing it? Not at all. Not in the least. It means that he made a mistake. Everyone is capable of making a mistake. Any obstacle can take out any competitor at any point. Just if you complete the obstacle and you make it to the landing platform but then you slip and you fall backwards into the water. Well, we'll see you next year. Doesn't matter how you went out. You went out and it can happen to anybody.
Are you planning on coming back for season nine?
Of course. This is what I do. You guys are going to have to stop accepting me, or tell me to go home, or kick me off premises before I stop showing up. Until that day, I am constantly training.
I mean, if I win next year, you're going see me in Season 10. I want to be the first person to do it two years in a row. I want to be the first person to win it three years in a row. I want to be the first American to win the Sasuke in Japan, and then I want to be the first person to win Sasuke and American Ninja Warrior in the same year.
I have goals that far exceed just beating the mountain. Beating Stage Four is just the first stepping stone. Let me get there first.