After months of work, Akbar Gbajabiamila’s Parkour 4 Parkinson’s event roared to life on Sunday, August 5. DojoBoom, in Thousand Oaks, CA, hosted the event which quickly developed it’s own distinctive soundtrack of delighted yelps from children, blaring music, and cheers of encouragement from Ninjas. The afternoon was dedicated to raising awareness and funds through the The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
The event has been in the making since early this year, spearheaded by American Ninja Warrior host Akbar, and Ninja Warrior competitor, Jimmy Choi, who has Parkinson’s Disease. The two have become close since Jimmy’s introduction in season nine. Jimmy has been fundraising for the Michael J. Fox Foundation through Team Fox since 2012. Akbar’s father also has Parkinson’s disease and after meeting with Jimmy, he’s also become a board member for the foundation.
Deborah Brooks, Co-Founder & Executive Vice Chairman of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, attested to the enthusiasm Akbar has for the cause. “When we first reached out to Akbar after we heard the story that he had really connected with Jimmy since his own dad has Parkinson’s and it gave him that touchstone. We reached out and said, ‘Hey, we’d love to have you do a FaceTime to our community about this,’ and he jumped at the opportunity. We knew right away that we had someone who was going to put their heart into it, their head into it. Today, he’s putting all his Ninja Warrior muscle into it. It’s awesome. When you have two people like that in your community, you’re off to a great start.”
This was the first time in Akbar’s career that he’d decided to put his whole weight into a cause like this. As he told us previously, he was never interested in creating a celebrity-driven event. He wanted it to be about families, the Ninja Warrior community, and the Team Fox community.
“This is the first time that I’ve ever put together a fundraiser,” Akbar told us. “There’s insecurity. Does anyone care? This is something that I’m passionate about. This is something that means something to me. Jimmy Choi has put himself out there and for the first time, I’m putting myself out there because of my relationship with Jimmy and because of my father.”
So Akbar put out the call to the Ninja Warrior community. Who would come to the event to help draw in the fans and the donations? Turns out, Akbar didn’t need to be worried at all. The Ninjas flocked to his side that day.
“It’s been truly, truly inspirational. After all these years of calling their runs, they would run out to help me. It’s pretty cool. Kevin Bull is open on Sundays. He shut down shop so we could do this. I owe Kevin a lot. I need to be super favorable to him from now on when I call any of his runs!”
Kevin, the manager of DojoBoom closed his business down for the afternoon to provide space for the event. “I was blown away by the number of Ninjas that showed up. We expected maybe a dozen and we ended up with 35.”
“Akbar has been such a big supporter of us. It’s like giving back to Akbar to be here,” said Selena Laniel, who’s competed on five seasons of the show.
Nick Hanson, who calls himself the Eskimo Ninja, flew down from Alaska to attend the event. “My coach from basketball in high school has Parkinson’s. My assistant coach has Parkinson’s as well. But also one of my aunties passed away with Parkinson’s just a few years back, so I was really connected on that personal level. When Akbar messaged me personally and said it would be cool to have me out, I said, ‘You know what? Let’s just make it happen.”
But it wasn’t just Akbar’s call to arms that rallied the Ninjas. It was also that one of their own, Jimmy Choi, needed them there.
“Two years ago, when I was giving my first opportunity to compete on American Ninja Warrior, the Ninjas came to me when they found out my story,” Jimmy said. “They came to me and gave me pointers without me having to ask. That hasn’t changed in the last two years. In fact, more and more Ninjas, and the community itself have supported what’s important to me in terms of fundraising for the cause, but also in terms of my own growth in the sport.”
Tiana Webberley, who just had one of the best runs of her career in the Los Angeles City Finals, shared her perspective on the Ninja Warrior community. “It’s not just talk. It’s action. They flew out here on their own dime. It’s not for our benefit. It’s for someone else’s benefit. A lot of people talk about how great the community is, this just proves it.”
Tearing herself away from a trampoline where she was studying for her first backflip, Ninja Natalie Duran said, “It solidifies what people see on TV. The camaraderie. We really do support one another and feed off each other’s energy on and off camera.”
While the Ninjas were flipping and leaping with the fans, a legion of Team Fox volunteers moved the event along seamlessly. It was a combination of communities dedicated to cherishing every member. No know knows this better than Jimmy.
“We’re all cheering each other on, we’re all giving each other tips even though we’re competitors. You don’t find that in any other sport. The same thing with the Team Fox community, we are all fighting the same disease. For every person living with Parkinson’s, it’s a different monster, but yet we support each other and we give each other pointers.”
“Today is the start of something really amazing for the American Ninja Warrior community and the Parkinson’s community. They’re coming together and it’s powerful,” Deborah Brooks told us, gazing around the event.
“A lot of stories on American Ninja Warrior are about people who are overcoming challenges. So I think these stories resonate. It’s hard not to admire Jimmy as an athlete. Most nations are about someone asking for help and other’s coming around and saying, ‘I’m here for you.’ I think it’s amazing. I do find in general that people have it in them to do more. Life is busy and you’re all over the place and when someone says to you, ‘Hey we’re going to do this, can you be a part?’ You’re like, ‘Yes, I’m totally there.’ So you see them rising to the occasion and coming out full force, which couldn’t be more gratifying, I’m sure, for Akbar and Jimmy.”
Akbar has eagerly embraced the Parkinson’s community and those at the Michael J. Fox Foundation that have helped guide him in this first adventure.
“Team Fox has been great. This is the first time I’ve been active as far as throwing an event. They’ve been supportive and given resources. Educating me on how to use my platform. It’s crazy that, I think by the time this night is over, we’ll have more money donated and contributed by buying tickets than I have Twitter followers. That’s special because I wanted to know how you use your platform as a ‘celebrity.’ But if there’s any way to measure success or influence or reach, it’s in the amount of money you can raise for something like this.”
While Akbar and the team weren’t quite sure yet if this would be an annual event, they made it perfectly clear that their work isn’t done.
“I remember having a conversation with Michael J. Fox,” Akbar told us, “And I was really blown away once I joined as a board member, when he said ‘I’m not trying to have this foundation forever. We’re trying to find a cure and shut down shop.’ I never forgot that. I’ve never really heard someone speak like that.”
As Jimmy looked over the Ninja course at DojoBoom, watching members of both communities play together on the obstacle, the emotions welled up. “Every time I think about it, I get choked up a little bit, because these people are coming out to have fun, but at the end of the day, they also know they’re supporting a cause. They’re supporting a great man in Akbar for diving in and bringing this event to Thousand Oaks.”
Drew Drechsel, who is based in Connecticut, took a quick break from signing autographs and posing for photos to tell us the lengths he went to in order to participate in the day. “I woke up this morning at four. Left my house, went to the airport, landed this morning around 10:30, took an hour and a half Uber ride. When we wrap up here, I’m going to grab some food, go back to the airport and my flight tonight is at like 11.
I don’t even know how to put it into words. All the kids walking up to their role models and saying hello. That’s awesome. It’s amazing. It’s such a good feeling for us.”
While the foundation of the event was built upon deep emotions of love and support to help others with Parkinson’s disease, let’s face it, you can’t put Ninjas around kids and trampolines without fun being the number one item on the menu. Only an hour into the event, each Ninja we spoke to was sweaty and out of breath, giddy with adrenaline of flying around with their biggest fans. Stealing them for an interview was like pulling a kid away from a playground.
“A lot of good things happen at the Fox Foundation. Magic is always a part of the potion,” Brooks said, nodding towards the palpable joy floating from the crowd.
When the day was done, over 35 Ninja Warrior competitors descended upon the trampoline park to mingle with over 350 fans. Currently, around $75,000 of donations and contributions through ticket sales have come in. 100% of the proceeds went to the foundation.
Couldn’t attend the event but would still like to participate? You can donate to the cause here.
Akbar also put together some pretty amazing prize packages that are being auctioned off online. There’s a Ninja Warrior package that includes VIP tickets to a taping, a tour with Matt and Akbar and plenty of swag. In another package, you could score a private lunch with Akbar.
Now, we can’t let you go without some videos of flipping, flying and dancing Ninjas, can we? (Special shout out to Zhanique Lovett and Kevin Bull for brining the MOVES!)
Special thank you to Nick Hanson for capturing these moments for us!