Kevin Brekke has been a fan of all things Ninja Warrior since he first started watching Sasuke (the Japanese inspiration for American Ninja Warrior) on the now defunct G4.
But we don’t think he realized quite how far his Ninja fascination would take him. In the past year, Kevin has gone from an Entertainment Engineering student at UNLV, with dreams of competing on the show, to starting his professional career as an obstacle designer with the team that builds and manages the American Ninja Warrior course.
And it all got started when Kevin had a crazy idea he submitted to last season’s Obstacle Design Challenge.
Kevin is the mastermind behind Kansas City’s Ninja Killer, Crank It Up.
His design went from this...
It showed the Ninjas no mercy. As the Obstacle Design Challenge winner, Kevin was flown out to Kansas City so he could watch Crank It Up’s destruction in person. He was even featured on an episode of “Crashing the Course” where he tried it out for himself.
We’ve talked with Kevin a few times as his Ninja Cinderella story unfolded. Here’s his side of this obstacle fairytale.
Responses are lightly edited for length and clarity.
When did you first hear about the design contest?
KB: I got back from Vegas (National Finals season eight, where Kevin was in the audience) and I knew it was kind of there. Every time I get back from Vegas I get a huge inspiration. I just kind of create random things. I think it was the day after Vegas, I filled out the application, drew a couple drawings. And that was the start of Crank It Up.
Have you been designing obstacles for a long time?
KB: Not probably until the last three of four years. I've always tried to create random things. But not really obstacles probably until three or four years ago.
Were you building them or just designing them?
KB: I was more designing them. I build haunted houses. So I actually do a lot of the construction for that. But actual obstacles, I haven't done a whole lot. I'm going to try building some of the basics, like obviously the Salmon Ladder and stuff. But I haven't built any of mine yet.
What was the inspiration behind Crank It Up?
KB: I was thinking about what are some of the most common movements the Ninjas do. I came to the fact that swinging and laches are the most common, if not, almost the most common. I was watching the Flying Squirrel in Vegas. I live in Vegas so I saw it live. I was thinking, “Well, what would happen if every time you got a back swing, it pulled you farther and farther away? How would you have to deal with that? How would you get to the other side?” The way that was possible was if you had one kind of circular, one directional device. A ratchet wrench was the basis for Crank It Up. As I was thinking about that more and more ideas kind of came to me.
It's very upper body, with the kipping, the Invisible Ladder kind of technique that you use. But also, in my original design, at the very top there was no stopper. So it became a very difficult body control thing, where you really couldn't swing forward to jump on to the next one, you kind of had to pop off of it. That's the basis for the obstacle.
How long did it take you to put together a design that you felt ready to submit?
KB: I actually submitted the first drawing that I made. I drew it the day after Vegas. I'm not super experienced with 3D modeling software so I actually did a drawing. But I wanted to make the color scheme as if it was on the show, just for my own sake.
How'd you find out it was selected as the winner?
KB: I got an email from one of the NBC people. They said you're a finalist and that it would probably be used on the course, but I didn't know where it would be, or if it was, or what region. I eventually got a call and I talked to the guy and they said it was going to be in Kansas City.
What was it like when you first walked on set and saw it with your own eyes?
KB: It was awesome. It's really weird. The size on TV is a lot different than the size when you see it. It's hard to describe it. It looks more intimidating. But it also looks less intimidating in certain ways. Maybe it's just the way the lighting works. But in terms of the way that Crank It Up works when I first saw someone actually do it, I was like, "Yes, this is exactly what I wanted. This is awesome." I'm really happy.
What was it like to actually watch people on your obstacle?
(This question was asked to Kevin after the Kansas City Qualifiers, and before the City Finals.)
KB: It was awesome. I love watching people when they're really trying their hardest, and they're really struggling through an obstacle. I live in Vegas. So I saw Geoff Britten, at the end of Stage Three. Literally, I don't know how he did it when he hung on to that Flying Bar at the very end.
I saw very similar kinds of reactions. It was all on their face that they were really trying as hard as they could to get it all the way over and then make the lache. It was awesome.
How do you feel about taking credit for a Ninja Killer?
KB: As long as I have a good hiding spot, it's probably good. It's awesome. Whatever its success or failure rate, it definitely had some of the most spectacular falls. I don't want to say spectacular because it's bad. But when you're falling from that height, it's kind of interesting and cool.
On “Crashing the Course” you got a chance to get up there and be on your obstacle. What was that experience like?
KB: It was cool. I have bars at the Ninja gym that I go to, but none of them use the exact grip tape and stuff. It was really sticky. The feeling of cranking up was really cool. I'm glad I was able to get through that part. Just the tactile feel of the grips was very interesting. I felt like I almost couldn't pull off of it. It was fun.
What's your next obstacle idea?
KB: I have a few! I like to work with different concepts. This is a ratchet wrench. Other kinds of things like springs, magnetism. Different kinds of components that you wouldn't always think of in an obstacle. Those are definitely in my next plans.
Did you talk to any of the Ninjas last night who did the obstacle?
KB: I did. I got to talk to a lot of them. The main word that they said, besides "you're mean," no, they didn't say that, was it's fun. It's a natural kind of feeling. It's like you're swinging backwards, which, like I said is a super common movement, but you don't always imagine it's going to catch when you swing backwards. It's just really fun. And the sound. They thought it was super fun, super challenging. They're excited to face it again tonight (City Finals).
Any final thoughts on the experience?
KB: It's amazing. I'm glad that it (the obstacle design challenge) was put on. And that they trusted the Ninjas to come up with these crazy ideas. ATS is awesome. I'm excited to see it on TV. Maybe in the future, other things might happen.
Kevin didn’t know how right he was about things happening in the future. We caught up with him just a few days ago. He’s now living in the Los Angeles area and settling into his new role as a professional obstacle designer with ATS!
How did it feel to see Crank It Up on national television?
KB: One of the things I looked forward to seeing on TV as opposed to seeing live was the grit on competitors' faces as they worked through the obstacle. Maggi Thorne really stood out since she clearly put it all on the line, and it showed on her face. I love obstacles that require tenacity to get through.
How did your family and friends react to seeing the obstacle on the episodes?
KB: A lot of friends reached out to me saying they saw it on the episode and thought it looked crazy. I also ended up having a watch party with some local friends who don't watch the show, so hopefully it got some new people hooked.
Have you designed any obstacles since then?
KB: I have a folder on my computer with probably 50 different obstacles that I have designed SINCE the contest. Wherever I go, I'm always thinking of obstacles. I think there's something wrong with me. Haha.
How did you end up with this opportunity to work with ATS?
KB: So, since the contest I've been thinking of tons of new obstacles. I also just graduated with my degree in Entertainment Engineering and was looking for a job. I kind of put those two together and was like "Hey, maybe I should try to see if I can make THIS my job." I tried to use some of my contacts to reach ATS to ask about any opportunities, and to my luck they responded and now here I am. It's really kind of crazy that I even got this job.
What has this whole journey been like? Going from sending a design into the Obstacle Challenge and then starting an actual career in this?
KB: Yeah, I'm really thankful this contest happened. I finally had a place to send my ideas, somehow one got picked, and then I had a jumping off point for one of my dream jobs.
What advice do you have for other aspiring obstacle designers? What do you think makes a good obstacle?
KB: Keep it simple. Don't mash up a ton of different things into one obstacle. Make it one single idea throughout.
Also, think of movements that are foreign to Ninjas. For example, the Wingnuts took a lache and turned it sideways. Simple as that. For Crank It Up, I took the Flying Squirrel and made it only swing in one direction. Turn the most common Ninja skills on their head.
Should the Ninjas be scared of what you're going to create for future courses?
KB: It's, of course, a full team effort to bring ideas to reality, but here's a warning: Some of the obstacles I have are absolutely terrifying...and hopefully loads of fun, too. The movements required are entirely different from any other obstacles, and will require on-the-spot adaptation. Hopefully you'll see at least one next year.
Congratulations to Kevin on his exciting new career! If you think you’ve got the next great American Ninja Warrior obstacle idea, you can submit it here!