American Ninja Warrior Junior was 10 episodes into its debut season when it went on hiatus for the 2018 holidays. The show will make its highly anticipated return on Saturday, February 23, at 7 pm on Universal Kids.
Ninja Warrior fans have readily embraced the new division of competition. After watching the grown-ups on American Ninja Warrior for years, these young athletes have the chance to show off their own abilities, as well as solidify their place as the future of the sport. The resulting match ups and races have given us photo finishes, dramatic comebacks, and a beaming example of how the Ninja Warrior community is alive and well.
The show has also been picked up for a second season, and is currently casting for its next group of young athletes.
The hosting team behind Ninja Warrior Junior have been equally moved and impressed. We had the chance to talk with Olympic gold medal gymnast Laurie Hernandez, who is ANW Jr’s sideline reporter, as well as co-hosts Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbajabiamila. They reflected on what we’ve watched so far and gleefully hinted that the action won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What has surprised you so far about the competition?
LH: I think that what surprises me the most is the good sportsmanship they have with each other. I think the good sportsmanship and how fast they actually get through the obstacles! As you’re watching the show, you see these kids progress and go faster and faster and cut off seconds as they’re going through. But once they get to the end, they’re shaking hands, they’re dancing with each other. It’s a really neat thing to watch.
MI: The skills. Drew (Drechsel) and Flip (Rodriguez) ran the course and they got through in about 25 seconds. We had some of the kids going 23 seconds. These kids, their strength to weight ratio is phenomenal. The ability to perform on the big stage, as young as age nine, was incredible.
But what I really loved was they got what Ninja Warrior is about. The camaraderie and sportsmanship. We saw it again and again. Someone would fall and they were still cheering for the other athletes. I love seeing that.
AG: You think about the Purel society we live in now. Everybody is sanitized. Nobody can do wrong. We want to protect your kids and everything. Participation trophy mentality. To have these kids go out there and experience defeat, to me, you learn a lot about people in general, but you learn a lot about the kids and what they’re made of. I think it’s a great example that you don’t necessarily have to protect kids from failure. It’s a great environment to grow.
There’s only one winner in each age group. The way they supported each other. The way they brushed it off and came back to do it again. To see that, it’s a character builder. I don’t think kids naturally just want to have things handed to them. A lot of time parents just naturally want to protect their kids from these types of things. For them to experience that and go, ‘Hey look, I’m okay. I can come back and I’ll do it again next year.’
MI: That was one of the cool things we’ve seen with American Ninja Warrior, especially with Junior, is it’s not failing. These kids fall, but you don’t fail because you’re learning. You competed. To hear Drew Drechsel, to hear Kevin Bull, Meagan Martin, come up to these kids and go, ‘You know what? You’re a Ninja now. We’ve all fallen. That’s part of this. That’s how you grow.’ I thought that was such a great message that falling isn’t failing if you get back up and learn from it.
Is there a race that has been the most memorable for you so far?
LH: That’s really tough. I have to say I love watching the gymnasts go ahead and race. Just because, being a gymnast myself, it’s kind of like rooting for my people, my family. But they are so fast. We have a lot of rock climbers, we have a lot of kids that are training for the obstacles. They train in Ninja gyms. It’s neat to see them do this sport well.
MI: I love Payton Meyler, obviously, with her pigtails because we know PIGTAILS NEVVVER FAAAAIL! But I think Daniel Martin, to me, was someone who stood out because he was a kid who’d experienced some bullying. He said he always felt like an outsider. One of the things we’ve seen with American Ninja Warrior is the community. He hit the buzzer and we said, ‘Hey Daniel, how do you feel?’ And the moment that gave me chills was when he said, ‘I feel like I belong.’
That was what was great. When we saw these match ups, the races were incredible. Within a tenth of a second. But what I loved was seeing their reaction to getting to compete.
AG: Analise Grady. She kept her shades on the entire time. Especially early on. She just went at it. She was a fierce competitor. But the other thing we saw too was some of that same momentum that we see on American Ninja Warrior. The women are competing in a format where they have to go up against the boys. To see the girls and boys being able to compete against each other, it can go either way. It’s whoever’s the best Ninja that day, at that particular moment. We saw some good match ups.
MI: That really goes back to Kacy Catanzaro, Jessie Graff, Michelle Warnky, Jesse Labreck...
AG: Meagan Martin.
MI: All these women who’ve paved the way to show these young girls that they can do it. To have Payton Meyler at four feet tall, or Ella McRitchie, this rock climber coming out there, Analise Grady. To see these girls going out there, and not only holding their own, but beating, advancing and doing so well, we’re not spoiling anything here, but we’ve seen some of these girls win competitions. I love that. I love the fact that we see it’s just about how hard you work and how much effort you put in.
Can you sum up the athletes and the competition in a few words?
LH: It’s hard to do in a couple of words! I’d say they’re fast, they’re courageous, they’re extremely brave, and I think they’re all excited.
AG: I’m going to speak the way the kids speak. They don’t use words, they use letters and acronyms. OMG. That’s what they say.
MI: I would say intense, and most of all, inspirational. And now I’m using more words. I’m clarifying it! Seeing what these kids can do and seeing them rise to the moment. We didn’t know, going into this show, how these kids would do, and they blew us away.
AG: I’ll probably say my signature...
AG: No, BT, PT, ST, AT.
Together: BIG TIME, PRIME TIME, SHOW TIME, ALL TIME.
AG: I’m speaking like them. I’m showing how cool I am by short-handing everything.
What can viewers expect from the upcoming semi-finals and finals?
LH: I think the audience can expect some pretty serious races. As much as the show is fun, it’s also pretty dramatic in the sense that you find yourself really rooting for these kids and wanting to see them do so well. Seeing anybody move to the side, that’s going to be pretty heartbreaking. Even watching from the sides I get really emotionally invested in how well these kids are doing and making sure they’re all okay. I think the audience can really expect some very close races.
MI: What we see is the competition just elevates. Every run, these athletes get more and more confident and comfortable. If you thought you saw good performances, strap in, because these athletes are only stepping their game up from here.
AG: I would echo the same thing. They take things to a whole other level. Just to see them find that next gear, it’s just impressive. Sometimes we forget that kids have this natural, innate, competitive spirit that we see at home and on the playground. To transfer that into a real competition with cameras and a live audience, I mean, that’s a lot of pressure to compete like that and turn it on like that.
MI: Iron sharpens iron. As we get down, the best of the best are going head to head. You start seeing them push each other. We see performances and moves. I think these athletes surprise even themselves with their performances.
The other thing you see? TREMENDOUS hosting out of Akbar and I! And it helps to have a gold medalist on our team with Laurie.
When a kid sees someone their own age stepping into the spotlight, what do you think that does for them?
LH: I can relate to that feeling in the sense that as a little kid, I can remember watching gymnastics on TV and pointing to the screen and telling my mom I wanted to be just like her. So I ended up doing gymnastics. I hope that American Ninja Warrior Junior can do that for a bunch of kids that are watching. Even parents who want to get moving with their kids, exercising and trying new things. I think the show could be a really good motivator to help them explore new things that they like, or even if they want to be a junior Ninja themselves.
MI: It’s the exact same thing we saw (on American Ninja Warrior). Once Kacy Catanzaro, five feet tall, was the first woman up the Warped Wall, we saw a change in the athletes who applied. We saw an exponential growth in women who applied. Tyler Yamauchi, Jonathan Horton, these guys who are five feet one, five feet two. They realized, ‘If Kacy can do it at that height, maybe I can too.’ So I think there’s something so special about when you see someone like you doing it, you believe you can do it as well.
Remember to tune into American Ninja Warrior Junior’s return, Saturday, February 23 at 7pm on Universal Kids.
You can catch up on all the previous results with these articles.