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Flip Rodriguez turned Team Ronin into a family for Ninja vs Ninja

He reflected back on the their first Ninja vs Ninja runs and why he knew Meagan Martin and JJ Woods would be perfect for his team.

Eddy Chen/USA Network

On the first episode of American Ninja Warrior: Ninja vs Ninja, the nail-biting competition came down to Team Ronin vs the Hashtag Ninjas. After a tough battle through all five heats on the extended course, Team Ronin prevailed, advancing on to the playoffs later in the season.

Team Ronin consists of Meagan Martin, JJ Woods, and the team captain, Flip Rodriguez. We spent some time with Flip, going over how this powerhouse team came together and reviewing some of the important moments of their success.

Responses are lightly edited for length and clarity.

What did you think about the new Ninja vs Ninja format?

FR: This format is amazing in my opinion. I think it’s a lot better than in previous seasons. It’s a lot of contact. It’s very honorable to the people that win.

For Team Ronin, how did you decide to select Meagan and JJ as your teammates?

FR: I’ve known JJ for a very long time. JJ has been on Team Ronin with me every season (of Team Ninja Warrior). When it comes to JJ and war, he would be the man I would have by my side 1000 percent. I know he’s got my back. JJ is very competitive and that’s what I love about him. For him it’s always like, “Okay what do we have to do to win? Alright, let’s do it.”

Then Meagan was a no brainer. Meagan and I have been friends for the past three or four years. I’ve always loved her on the course and then I got to know her as a person. She’s an amazing person, amazing athlete. She seemed like she’d be a really good fit for Team Ronin. So I extended the invitation out to her and she accepted, which was really, really exciting. We were really excited about it.

We really work together very well and we’re confident in each other’s skill sets and we push each other to believe in our skills.

In your first match up against the West Coast Warriors, what were your expectations? Did you think it would be a sweep?

FR: Each team that we go against, we don’t really think, “Okay, let’s try to sweep them.” We just take it one race at a time. If JJ’s up first, we’re really focused on JJ and making sure he’s got everything he needs to have his mindset perfect. So JJ actually leads the flow of the race. He keeps our productivity level really high. Then if something happens with JJ, we’re like, “Forget about it, JJ. We’ve got you. We’ve got your back.” He sets our pace for us.

When Meagan goes, it’s the same thing. Make sure she’s okay. She doesn’t need anything. Make sure she’s mentally in the right place. And they do the same for me. We take each race one at a time. If we end up having a sweep, good. If we don’t, we need to figure out what we did wrong. Something for us to fix in the next race.

In JJ’s race against Nicholas, we see that first contact of the season as they both fought it out on the Criss Cross Ring Toss. What were you thinking while you watched that and do you think the fans will be surprised to see that kind of contact between Ninjas?

FR: That’s an interesting point of contact right there. In that moment, the person in front kind of whales on the person behind them, which is very interesting. If you don’t have that attitude like JJ does, you’re kind of going to get stomped out.

In our eyes, JJ had one or two options. He was either going to take Nicholas’ body to his body, which could hurt him, or he could kind of stop him in his tracks so they didn’t bump into each other and they didn’t get hurt. JJ took that route to stop him. Nicholas swung into him pretty aggressively, which is obviously part of this format, which is great.

It turned out the way it did. They lost some rings. They got through it. I think it made for an interesting match-up.

How is it between the teams after a heat like that?

The Ninja community is very friendly. A lot of us come from competition backgrounds. JJ played football, so he knows what it is to hit somebody and he knows what it feels like to get hit. There’s no malice towards anybody. It’s part of the sport we’re doing right now. If it requires contact, and it happens, it’s part of the game.

In your heat against Jesse La Flair, you fell on the Shelf Grab. Can you walk us through what was happening in that moment?

FR: That race was awesome because I got to race Jesse La Flair. I’ve known Jesse for awhile. We’ve gone against each other in parkour speed competitions before. We train together and not only that, we’re both part of the same franchise, Tempest Freerunning. Going up against him was iconic for me because Jesse’s known as a fast guy. And I’m known as a fast guy, just different worlds. He’s known to be fast in free running. I’m known to be fast in the Ninja world. So the fact that we got to race each other was awesome.

Of course, my mentality is, “Oh he’s fast, so you need to move it.” I know Jesse La Flair personally and he’s going to go balls to the wall. So I have to make sure to match that. But obviously I didn’t think clearly. In the hype of things, my foot got wet, and knowing my foot is wet, but not being able to react fast enough to take a second to figure it out if I’m going to slip on this jump or not is kind of what happened. But hey, it’s alright.

Moving into the relay race, what was your strategy in setting up the run order? Meagan first, then you, and JJ last.

FR: When it comes to the relay race, we believe that’s a very strong suit of ours. Individually, we’re all fantastic. All together we’re even better because we’re only doing two to three obstacles each. Now we can really hit 100%, full throttle for those three obstacles because that’s all we have to worry about. Then we pass responsibility on to the next person.

Knowing that we’re individually fast and powerful, that’s what our trust is in. We trust each other to get to each other as fast as we can. If we’re behind, we know one of us can make up that time.

We put Meagan up first. She can keep up with some of the guys on that starting platform because she runs fast. For the second obstacle, she’s a little smaller than we are, so she can fit right under that cargo net with no problem and she was really smooth through it. JJ is very powerful so it made sense for him to be on the Salmon Ladder. It made sense to have him on the third leg since he’s so powerful. Salmon Ladder, Rumbling Dice and then the spider wall (Zigzag Climb), because his legs are a lot more powerful than mine are. JJ fit perfectly on the back half.

For me, speed it my thing. So doing the Tiles, to the Shelf Grab, to the Warped Wall, it was like my specialty. We all fit perfectly, almost like a puzzle.

Team Ronin battled the Hashtag Ninjas for a full five heats. Were you getting exhausted?

FR: Actually, no, not really. We started training in different spaces. Meagan’s in Colorado. JJ’s in Florida, and I’m in California. So once we assembled this team, we would talk on the phone and keep up with each other. Made sure we were doing cardio in the Ninja-sense. Not just running outside cardio. We would do obstacle cardio. So we’d do an obstacle course and then re-set and go again. We believed in each other that this was a dream of ours to win. We believed that we would put in the hard work and we did.

When it came down to the five heats, we were still ready to go. We weren’t worried about it.

How did it feel to realize you were heading to the playoffs?

It felt fantastic, especially after the last years. We weren’t able to move as far into it. Being able to move into the next round, especially with my family, was something that you can’t put a price on.

Did you discuss making any changes to your strategy heading into the playoffs?

We sat down and had a team dinner. We talked about what was working for us and what didn’t. Obviously, it all depended on what obstacles they changed out. We don’t know what’s coming up. Our strategy would stay the same, because it was working for us. Unless there’s an obstacle one of us was uncomfortable with, or one of us was comfortable with. We would kind of switch it out on the day and talk about it. It was kind of on a day to day basis.

Flip, Meagan and JJ will return to the competition later in the season as Team Ronin advances to the playoffs!