When Matt Iseman refers to Michelle Warnky as an “elder stateswoman” of American Ninja Warrior, he’s not kidding. Season ten is Michelle’s sixth season on the show. During that time, she’s been a pioneer for female athletes. She was the second to complete the Warped Wall back in season six and a frequent contender at the National Finals. In season eight, she was one of the “fantastic four,” when a historic four women qualified for the City Finals.
But while she’s a familiar face and top Ninja, Michelle hasn’t actually hit a buzzer since season six. When Michelle returned to the Philadelphia course this season, she was more than ready to remedy that.
So what changed for Michelle this year? In short, a tough few months. We talked to Michelle about the hurdles she’s faced this year that helped her realize exactly what she needed to change.
“Life has been interesting. Lots of ups and downs. We have been in the hospital a lot in the past two months. My dad got injured and then my mom had to have surgery. Been in the hospital a lot. Life has been crazy.”
(Update: We’ve spoken to Michelle since this interview and both mom and dad are doing well!)
“A lot of different things have affected my training. I was getting really good training in and then staying in the hospital, and then trying to get a lot of time with my parents has definitely... Training was still important, but not as important as being with them. But I would get workouts in in the hospital. I’d be doing stairs and stuff and the nurses would be like, ‘Yeah, I heard you were working out.’ Training-wise, I also started climbing again, but then I came back too quickly and I pulled a few things in my fingers so I kind of backed off.
As a lot of us Ninjas would say, you always want more. You want to feel more prepared. So definitely little injuries and stuff held me back a little bit. But it’s like, we know what to do. We do our best and go out there and have fun.”
“Initially, I was never a fan of the Wingnuts because I tried an initial version that was harder than the show version. I worked on it for two hours and never got it. But it was like nine, ten feet apart. From that I was like, ‘Why can I not figure this out?’ But finally, this week actually, we went to a gym and I unlocked that I had needed to do. So now I feel comfortable and I actually enjoy them.
I actually had a revelation recently. A lot of it is mental. A lot of it is physical. I realized with running and climbing, it doesn’t matter if I’m confident or not. Because I know what to do even if I don’t think I can get a route in climbing, I’m still going to give it everything I’ve got. But I’ve realized in Ninja, confidence matters more because you might do a different technique based on if you’re confident or not. Or you might take more time or less time based on if you’re confident or not.”
“I realized that in Ninja, there’s been multiple times that I haven’t been confident and it’s hurt me. My physical ability has always been there, but it’s been my mental side that’s hurt me most of the time.
It’s tricky because I always know what I can do, and I’ve just got to put it together. So, same as every year, I want to hit buzzers. I want to finish the course the first night. I would love to finish the course the second night. Love to finish the first night in Vegas. A lot of it is, ‘Okay, you’ve got to do it.’
“I’ve been working on trusting my training even though yes, I’ve had injuries. Yes, I’m not as strong as I want to be. But knowing, ‘Okay, I am strong. I can do this.’ Doing course runs with other people, it’s encouraging. I can string 10 obstacles together that are hard and feel good still. Trusting the training, but at the same time, being like, ‘It doesn’t really matter now.’ Just put it all out there.”
Watching Michelle climb her way back to the buzzer was a glorious moment for both the Philadelphia Qualifiers and the show in general. She seems poised for an unstoppable season and we are so here for it.