(Dave Cavanagh has gone through the walk-on line four times for American Ninja Warrior. This is a continuation of his experience. You can read the first part of his story here.)
Where was I? Right! I had just guaranteed my call for Season 7 with my Season 6 performance. Before I go on, let me just say I realized early on that American Ninja Warrior is a reality TV show. The stories drive the episodes not the athletic performance. I am a pretty boring guy. I have some things in my past but it seems my story has never fit into their formula for an episode. I never wanted/ expected TV time or expected to be a star. I have a multitude of reasons for doing ANW but most of all I enjoy the heck out of the challenge! Being recognized in the community has been more rewarding then any feature on the show could ever do. The air time is just an extra bonus. But again, I digress.
S7 calls started going out and it became apparent that I wasn't getting one. No worries I had a back-up plan. I was gonna go to Kansas City days prior to filming to wait in line. I found out other lines where starting incredibly early. With ANW helping solidify the line by creating space for us to wait for them, it became apparent the line as we knew it was about to change.
The line was getting ready to start and someone warned me because it was starting earlier then I expected. I convinced Jenny to hop on a plane with me that night and fly out to wait in line. When we arrived we ended up being 3rd and 4th in line behind Other Dave (yup the same one from St. Louis) and Brent. It was 13 days before ANW was scheduled to arrive. We were in it for the long haul. Dave ran a strict line. Scheduled breaks with consequences for disappearing. It was just like Brad's line just oh so much longer. As time went on, people trickled in including Mike McKenzie (@theninjamagician as most of you need to know) who was in the St. Louis line with us.
Through the bi-polar weather pattern of the mid-west we slept in our rental car, ate chicken we grilled on the sidewalk, and came up with the best walk-on line game to date simply known as "Ninja". When you meet me again ask to play it, you'll want to play it everyday for the rest of your life.
13 days later, it was like the twilight zone. Other Dave fell, Brent came so close to finishing (falling just a foot from the landing pad on obstacle 5), and Jenny hit the water. I was standing on the platform with no finishers. I remember the steps. Oh man do I remember the Big Dipper (I will forever call it the Rollercoaster Pipe Slider). The Floating Tiles and Bungee Row are a bit of a blur. But I remember hitting the buzzer and seriously celebrating.
I ended up 23rd, thinking I was running 16th the next night, I felt really good. The Shelf Grab was going to be tough for me but with some obstacle beta I knew I could do it. I was first to hit the course overall. With the Body Prop at Ob9 being adjustable, the competitors who chose the smallest setting went first, and since I was the first person to pick the smallest setting... I missed the first shelf also missing Vegas, placing 21st. But come on, two first finishers in two years! I couldn't be ignored. Needless to say, I didn't get first finisher (Holla at you fellow FF Dennis Lappin @lappindennis) or even shown for that matter in Season 7.
Season 8 was the first season that I got a lot of outreach from the community on how to do the line, where to go, and what my plan was. I remember someone coming up to me at one of the National Ninja League competitions and saying "People told me you're the one to talk to about making sure to get on the show via the line" and countless Facebook messages. It was humbling really. It made me feel like part of the community. There were a lot of firsts this season, it was the first season I watched other cities to help mentally prepare and it was the first time Jenny had decided she wasn't going to do the line for Ninja Warrior.
I was flying solo until a friend (Bill Domke @domkekoncountry) said he wanted to join. It wasn't the same but Bill is a riot to hang out with. While filming Indy, I got word that not only had the Oklahoma City line started but the Philadelphia line was starting soon. I made the tough choice the night of watching Indy finals. I rented a car and drove straight to OKC to hop in line. Again I found myself in line with the likes of Mike McKenzie, by now we were the closest things to ninja family as people get. I was out there for 14 days. On day 13 production called and said Jenny and I were picked to run in Philadelphia. I was offered to run as a walk on or run as a callback with Jenny. I wanted to have that last shot with Jenny for us to both experience being call backs together. I decided to run in Philly. This allowed another fellow Firefighter An T Lee @an_t_ly to run since he was number 16 and they ended up running only 15 in OKC. He made it to Vegas that season.
When I hit the starting block in Philly, they had one finisher. I finally didn't have the pressure of having to be the first finisher of a course I was on. I was out for blood. I had worked speed all year. I wanted that fastest time. I was gonna get it or go out in a blaze of glory. I made it through the first three obstacles in under 16secs. I hit the trampoline on the Wall Drop and suddenly my head was above the upper level of the truss with no tube to grab. People timing me said had I kept up the pace there was a good chance I'd finish under a minute which would have been the fastest time by far. Speculation really, all I knew was I had failed to make it to Vegas in three seasons. I thought about calling it quits but you can't keep a good ninja down for long.
I don't always yell but when I do I have hit a buzzer
When ANW 9 rolled around I was already certain I blew my shot at ever getting a true callback again. Cities where announced and I saw Kansas City was on the bill. It was the city with my best results. I knew the area and people well. It was a no brainer. I had trained to a whole new level. I was picked time and time again to win NNL events, I had people picking me for fantasy teams. This year was my year and even I knew it.
I took a buddy who I knew was determined (Jordan Thurston @vitaility_obstacle_fitness) to make it on the show and again with Jenny's blessing, I left. Again there was Mike McKenzie. Now you might think all these times were planned, they were not. Each time was just by chance, I swear. I think Mike might be my stalker. While the line grew, I realized that I was only one of two with past line experience. And Bobby being number 10 was far from the front. Alex did his best but he didn't know the things I knew. Like the horror stories about people starting multiple lines and production just axing whole walk on lines. I started to help make ground rules, make sure people were signed up properly to claim their spot, and even took watches no one else wanted. Alex was still first in line but by the end everyone looked at me to make the calls about the line. Jordan said to me about after a few days into the line "take over or let it fall apart". I had become the leader of a line. The walk on line had come full circle. It was my turn to pass the knowledge on to keep the history alive. 19 days we were out there.
Finally the night of filming. Alex went down on Ob5, Mitch when down on Ob5, Jordan went down on Ob4. Deja Vu, I was on the starting block of an ANW course with no finisher. I don't remember the steps or the Hang Glider. I remember almost falling victum to the Broken Pipes. Seriously, Crank it Up is no joke. The Bar Hop was a victory lap. There is a rule now from production, "No climbing truss for celebrations," because of me. To top it off I was 7th fastest while not trying to go fast. The speed is natural now.
Going into City FinalsI I knew where I had to get to and how fast to guarantee my spot to Vegas. This was a first for me and for the first time ever, I remembered the whole course. From the steps to the Warped Wall, I was so hyper focused I couldn't hear anything, couldn't feel the lights, couldn't feel the people's glaring eyes. Then the Salmon Ladder came. I am not a fan of that obstacle. No room for error. I did three rungs and started to panic, I thought I needed the forth rung or no Vegas I closed my eyes and went for it. Well, I mean I kinda did. I jacked up the right side to get half a rung and immediately got off to the first Floating Monkey Bar. Mike actually slapped me after demanding I never do that again. I could no longer block the world out. It was like the first time Peter Parker woke up with his spider sense. I could hear everything. I could hear the crowd murmurers, the producers whispering, the water droplets from past fails hitting the water. I did one move on the monkey bars, missed the second, and knowing I had made it to Vegas just let go. The weight was lifted and the water was refreshing. I would get my shot at the real course.
Vegas is awesome! The city is amazing. The hotel we were put up in was really nice but far from the course. My first night at around 2am I couldn't take it anymore. I walked 3.5 miles to see just to see the course in person. It was everything I wanted it to be, though it is a bit smaller in person which made me feel no intimidation towards it. I looked at Stage One and saw nothing that could stop me. I wasn't nervous of the course. It was a weird feeling. B-Roll, Action Shots, group shots, blah blah blah. I just wanted to get on that course.
Finally, I saw the run order. It wouldn't be a night on the course if I wasn't running early. I was running 7th overall out of 100. I felt like they were taunting me, testing me to see if I could do it on the big stage. Spencer fell, Brad fell, Reko fell, Jelani fell, Mitch fell, Eric fell. There I was standing on the Stage One starting block with no finishers. Eric had broken the rope on Parkour Run so I needed to wait for it to be fixed. It was 98 degrees out and I was under the lights. I was hot, I was sweating, and I was angry. I just kept saying to myself "How did I get here again?" "You want a finisher ANW?! Fine!"
Countdown went and it was like unleashing a caged animal. I went steady, not trying to have a slip up. I remember all of it. Snake run went great. Propeller Bar went beyond perfect. The Double Dipper is a scary fun as everyone thinks. I will be honest, I didn't trust myself to keep my eyes open on the Jumping Spider so I just hit the tramp closed my eyes and opened when I thought I was in far enough. Quoted the perfect stick by Jenny. Parkour Run, Domino Pipes. At the Flying Squirrel I was nervous. I was so close but the countdown clock hadn't started. The net climb. I'm not gonna lie. I tried to break that buzzer. I was the first finisher of the night on Stage One, hence my energy in the fast forward.
For once.... I can prove it. ANW: Behind the Scenes (Fast forward to 2:40). Again, it is a reality show first but to finally hear Matt and Akbar say it does feel pretty good. Icing on the cake, while writing this story I found out I am only the 5th walk-on ever to make Stage Two and one of three from this season. (James McGrath S3 who made it to Stage 3, Andrea Del A Rosa S5, Abel Gonzales S6, Adam Rayl S8, myself S9, Mike Silenzi S9, and Cass Clawson S9). So it was a pretty incredible feat and I am in very good company.
I was asked what I wanted people to get out of this story. Did I want it to be a personal vendetta towards ANW? (I love ANW, no hard feelings.) Did I want people to understand how hard the lines are? (They are mentally taxing, physically draining but a whole lot of fun) Did I want people to know my story? (Nah... well...). All I want is for people to know there are people outside this reality show that give it their all to be the best at the sport that you may never even hear of, never see on TV, or ever be considered an ANW All- Star.
Know they paused their life to live a dream. Look around for them, get to know their stories, follow their athlete pages or Instagram because typically they have so seriously entertaining stuff on them. Remember if you ever meet me there are hundreds of stories that come from each line. Bobby convincing me to do Pole Yoga. Mike and Bill becoming a We. The Pokemon cards. The Walk-On Posters. It goes on and on. Feel free to ask any walk-on, they love telling them. Make sure to tune in Monday, maybe you will see the King of the Walk-ons on Stage Two. It only took him 51 days to get there.....
~Dave Cavanagh (@sourneonworms) 2017 Stage Two Finalist