American Ninja Warrior can boast cross-overs with many other major sports. The show has featured NFL players, NBA players, and Olympians from many disciplines. However, the course has never hosted a Major League Baseball player before. Until now.
Former MLB pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith plans to take on the obstacles in Seattle/Tacoma. Rowland-Smith hails from Sydney, Australia. His US baseball career included five seasons playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Seattle Mariners. He’s now a baseball analyst with Root Sports Northwest.
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Rowland-Smith is open about the fact that Ninja Warrior has not been a long-time passion of his. Since he’s local to the Seattle area, he received an invitation to try out the course (an invitation he misinterpreted at first!). But with only a few weeks of training under his belt, he’s diving in head first. We spoke with Rowland-Smith about how he’s getting up to speed with his training, how his baseball experience is translating, and why he was even willing to take on this adventure.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
So, why did you decide to do this?
RRS: Good question. First of all, when my boss at the TV station I work for contacted me, he said, “Hey, would you like to do the American Ninja Warrior course?” My initial reaction was I’d love to, but thinking it was just for fun. Because people dedicate a lot of time to training. I thought it was for fun, maybe jump in the pool, bring my four-year-old-daughter up there or something. I thought I’d have special access to it. Then come to find out, they actually meant to compete.
When I agreed to it, I was sitting in a coffee shop and I said, “Look, let me call you back.” And I had a bit of time to think about it, do a little research and see how popular the show is. And my reaction was, “No, I shouldn’t do this. I’m too big to do it. I haven’t had enough time to train.” Every little insecurity came over me. Then I just stopped and said, “Hold on a second, this is something I’m going to regret the rest of my life if I don’t try.”
I got back on the phone and said I’m doing it. It’s funny, as soon as I agreed to it, everyone I work with, well 75% of the people, said you’re too big, you’re too old, you’re this, that, and the other. And that, honestly, is the same thing that fueled me to get into broadcasting. You have an Australian accent. You don’t have 20 years in the big leagues. You can’t do this, can’t do that. It’s kind of the same reaction to be honest with you.
That just fueled me a lot more. I’m going to embrace this and enjoy it. I challenge myself and I’m fortunate enough to get really cool opportunities like that and I’m not going to let them go.
Your family has to be excited for you.
RRS: They are! It’s such a huge show in Australia too. I put something on Facebook or Twitter or whatever it was, and a whole bunch of Aussies were like, “Aw dude, awesome! We’ll be watching! When’s it on?” That’s exciting.
My family is super active as well. They’re all giving me training tips from information from watching the show, I guess. My wife is super excited. She’s going to be there. She’s very positive with stuff like this. She’s pushed me to get uncomfortable a lot. Anytime I’ve questioned it, she’s been reassuring that I’m good enough.
I know you’ve only had a couple of weeks of training, but how is training going?
RRS: It’s been fun. I think there was a fear factor in the first couple of sessions. I’m working with Liam Buell, who’s done it before. He’s a local guy here and he’s been to the finals in Vegas. He’s been great. Usually, when you work with someone who’s done it before, and this goes with other sports and other things, they have to straight-away let you know how unique and specific and special this is. As soon as I walked in, he’s been super positive. He’s just been like, “Hey, just do this and do that,” regarding difficult moves and techniques. He’s been great and he’s such a good athlete too. He’s a climber, so he’s showing me different grips and techniques. Things that have been massive because I had no idea.
The first couple of times I tried to jump on something, or do my first laché, it was intimidating. There was a fear factor to get over first. Since then, I’ve said, “Screw this,” to the fear part of it and that’s when the training started to get fun.
I saw a video of you on Instagram standing NEAR a Warped Wall. Did you convince yourself to try it?
RRS: (Laughs) Not yet. That’s the next level fear factor, I think. First of all, I didn’t realize how high it is. You watch it on TV and it’s like, okay, that’s doable. Because the angles are usually from up top looking down on that thing. When you’re standing there looking up at it, you don’t realize how high, and the angles and everything else. Liam has one in his backyard. We did the step technique, but not the full-fledged try to reach up and grab it. But he said, “Man, this is like 60-70% mental and the rest is just going for it.”
He said he’s going to make sure the wood is sticky enough before we go for it, and put some pads around it as well. I will try and give that a go.
In your training, are you finding that any of your baseball or pitching skills are translating to Ninja Warrior?
RRS: I think the balance aspect. The one thing that’s difficult for me, that I need to get my head around, is just my body weight. Carrying my body weight and controlling that in mid-air is tough. But the balance part. Basically we do a lot of core stability and balance, so that’s helped me. We’ve done some slack-lining stuff, or just balance polls, walking on them. Knock on wood, that seems to go over without a hitch. It’s the hanging from one arm, and the body weight stuff, which is tough.
In baseball, you’re a power athlete. So you do plyometric stuff. That’s helped. The only thing with that is you’re not used to launching into a rope, or launching into a bar. That’s the thing you have to get over. But launching from the lower body has been good. That’s helped me, the stability part. Definitely the hanging from a bar with my body weight has been the biggest challenge.
We’re about a week out from the course now (at the time of this interview). Are you nervous at all? How are you expecting to feel?
RRS: Extremely nervous. Really nervous. I’ve pitched in front of 45 thousand people, loaded bases against hall of famers and everything else. But you’ve trained for that. This is something that is very foreign to me. That’s the anxiety I’m feeling at the moment. It’s the unknown. But again, if you didn’t have these feelings, it wouldn’t be worth it.
I put myself into uncomfortable positions, and do it on TV, like I’m doing right now, making a bit of a fool of myself sometimes, like getting to play in the big leagues. I didn’t know what it was going to be like to play in big leagues. It’s the same kind of feeling as that to be honest with you. It’s the unknown. But that’s why we do these things.
It’s been fun. I can guarantee that on the drive home, I’ll be like, “Man, I want to do that again.”
Are you feeling any added pressure from being the show’s first MLB player?
RRS: Yeah, big time. I kind of casually put out there that pitchers are athletes too. Everyone says pitchers aren’t athletes. So I’m representing the entire pitching staff of Major League Baseball. I want to make sure I don’t go two feet bang in the water and everyone is like, “Oh pitchers aren’t athletes.” So I’m definitely feeling the pressure of that. You want to represent your sport well. But, at the end of the day, for me, it’s more of a personal thing.
What are your overall expectations for the experience?
RRS: To me, you can’t expect to say, “Hey, I expect to get up that Warped Wall at the end of it.” That would not really be respecting the discipline of training and how athletic these competitors are. The expectation for me is, one, enjoy the process, enjoy the community. Other Ninjas have reached out on Instagram who’ve done it. That’s been great. I want to get as far as I can and push myself. I don’t want a situation where I’m hanging from a bar and say, “Oh, this is good. I’m dropping off.” I want to push my limits on that.
American Ninja Warrior will film the Seattle/Tacoma Qualifiers and City Finals on May 11 and 12. We’ll have to wait until the episodes air in the summer to find out how Ryan Rowland-Smith did as the show’s first MLB player!