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Cincinnati City Finals recap: Well, THAT cheered us up

After a couple of rough weeks, the Ninjas delivered in a HUGE way

Dennis Mong/NBC

Hey, American Ninja Warrior fans, are you ready for this? If anyone had a bad taste in their mouth after the Seattle/Tacoma and Baltimore City Finals, well, this was a strong way to rinse it out. Cincinnati showed up ready to rock our worlds. We don’t think we’ve ever shed so many happy tears in a single episode. From the first run, to the last, it was time to cheer.

History was made when not just one, but TWO, women hit the buzzer. The sheer joy of the episode is infectious. This is the last stop before the National Finals and there’s so much to smile about as we look ahead.

By the numbers:

  • Course completions: 7 (Yes please and thank you)
  • Ninjas taken out by the new obstacle, Slam Dunk: 4
  • Ninjas taken out by the returning obstacle, Slingshot: 6

The course:

  • The Shrinking Steps
  • Ring Swing
  • Spinning Bridge
  • The Wingnuts
  • Slingshot
  • Warped Wall
  • Salmon Ladder
  • Slam Dunk
  • Spinball Wizard
  • Spider Trap
  • Power Tower for Safety Pass

The highlights:

  • Philip Scott got the emotions and the tears flowing early in the night. Philip, who has Asperger syndrome, shared that he suffered multiple panic attacks before his run. He called the producers to tell them he couldn’t do it. It wasn’t until an hour before showtime that he decided he couldn’t let this chance pass him by.

Thank goodness for Philip’s strength! He started things off with a stellar run deep into the back half of the course. Philip showed perfect form on the Salmon Ladder and gave us our first look at the new obstacle Slam Dunk. One ball fell into the water behind Philip, but he didn’t need it, clearing the obstacle and heading to the Spinball Wizard. He fell early on the ninth obstacle and that put him into the National Finals.

In his sideline interview, Philip broke down into tears. Zuri cried. We cried. We’re 100% team Phil.

  • Jeri D’Aurelio is a lawyer in the JAG Corp who spent the last year in air assault school and worked in a war zone in Afghanistan. There’s not a whole lot of Ninja gyms in those areas, so Jeri trained as best she could. On the course, Jeri beat the Slingshot that took her out in Qualifying. We were so nervous when she needed all three attempts at the Warped Wall, finally moving into the back half. Everyone smiled along as Jeri grinned her way through the Salmon Ladder and looked happily surprised at her own progress on Slam Dunk. She did fall there, but that was a such a great run!
  • Cameron Nave recently lost his father to cancer. He wore a kilt to represent his Scottish background. His run ended on the Wingnuts.
  • Phillip Hucke and his epic beard fell on the Slingshot.
  • Christopher Gabayan barely survived the Spinning Bridge and was officially out on the Slingshot.
  • Brandon Mears is one half of the training team, the Towers of Power. He’s also dad to little Ashton and brand new baby girl, Joelle. During the Qualifiers, Brandon fell on the Slingshot. This time around, he was in total control on the obstacle. He took things slow and steady on the Salmon Ladder. Staying precise, he completed Slam Dunk. Brandon dug deep and gritted his way through the Spinball Wizard. Facing the Spider Trap, so close to his first City Finals buzzer, he needed to get creative. Brandon wedged his large frame into the chute and made progress as best he could. He slipped on the walls a few times, scaring the bejeezus out of us. Brandon broke down as he hit the buzzer and reached an important milestone in his Ninja career. The emotions are on full blast tonight!
  • Lunch lady Amanda O’Dell was out on the Ring Swing.
  • Rock climber Eddie Russel had his grandma cheering him on as he made it to the Wingnuts.
  • Speedo Ninja Mike Wright made it to the National Finals last season. He’ll miss out this year after falling on the Slingshot.
  • 19-year-old Sem Garay is a professional wrestler from the Chicago area. He’s mild mannered by day, and Sem Sei by night. Matt Iseman was loving the chance to pull out his Hulk Hogan impressions. Sem had a lot of extra movement going on during the Ring Swing, but he did make a safe exit. After a steady performance on the front part of the course, Sem was out on his second transfer on Slam Dunk.
  • Michelle Warnky is having a YEAR. In Qualifying, she completed the course with a dramatic injury above her eye. For City Finals, she made history. Before her run, Michelle shared that she’s facing some big medical decisions with her discovery that she carries the BRCA2 mutation, which puts her at a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

We wanted a lot for Michelle with this run and it absolutely came together. She made short work of the front part of the course and dove into the later obstacles. It just started to feel like something was about to happen. Michelle had never passed the eighth obstacle before and the Slam Dunk was zero issue for her. Our anxiety was on high alert as she moved into the Spinball Wizard. Michelle just went for it, even skipping the final set of handles to plant herself at the base of the Spider Trap. She locked herself into position and we knew this was about to happen. She was about to end the drought. Michelle reached the buzzer, the first time since season six that a woman has finished the City Finals course.

Everyone in the audience was overcome with emotion. Allyssa Beird was crying on the sidelines. We couldn’t help but shed a few more tears. Michelle deserved this.

  • After Mike Bernardo shared his health scares this past year, he completed the Qualifying course. Unfortunately, he won’t be heading to Vegas after a fall on the Wingnuts.
  • 19-year-old Reese Pankratz was out on the Salmon Ladder.
  • Grant McCartney danced to the start line alongside Bootsy Collins. Grant has missed out on the National Finals for the past two seasons. Last year, it was due to taking too much time on the course and landing in the 16th spot for the night when the top 15 moved on. He knew focus was key this time around. At the top of the Warped Wall, there were no dance moves and no playing with Matt and Akbar. Grant kept it moving. The Salmon Ladder looked to be taxing for him. On Slam Dunk, Grant missed one of the handles on the final ball and hit the water. While he definitely toned down the antics, he once again would need to wait and see if he was safe.
  • Derrek Pavoni was out on the Spinning Bridge.
  • Dan Polizzi, the other half of the Towers of Power, enjoyed a great run. While it looked like he might slip on the Spider Trap, he hit the buzzer. This is the first season both members of the Towers of Power would head to Vegas together! At this time, Dan and Brandon also had the two top times for the night.
  • Michael Torres introduced us to his adorable training buddy, Hershey the Yorkie! That is one happy puppy! Michael must have absorbed some of that endless energy because he tore through the course. He reached the Warped Wall in under a minute. Michael cut through Slam Dunk and completed the Spinball Wizard in a blink. He was on pace for the fastest time, and for his first City Finals buzzer. Michael ripped up the Spider Trap to claim the buzzer for himself!
  • Dustin Rocho took a four-year break from Ninja Warrior before his strong return. This time, he made it to Slam Dunk.
  • Chris DiGangi hit the City Finals buzzer for the first time in seven years! The moment made his fiancé, Jesse Labreck, emotional as she watched on the sidelines.
  • Jackson Twait earned the second fastest time in the Cincinnati Qualifiers and a trip to the Power Tower. Remember, he loves his cat a lot. He was out after attempting to save a fall on the Spinning Bridge. He was close to making it, but his foot hit the water.
  • Exterminator Tyler Smith pulled off a one-handed save on the Spinball Wizard. When it happened again, he peeled off into the water.
  • Jamie Ross went out on the Wingnuts.
  • Pastor David Womelsdorf has fallen on the fifth obstacle three previous times. He made that four when he went out on the Slingshot.
  • We joined Ethan Swanson as he was on the Slingshot. He had the fastest time in Qualifying and earned the Speed Pass on the Power Tower, meaning he’s already safe to Vegas. Ethan took some time to flap his wings with the crowd, and still was pacing super fast on the course. After quickly making his way up the Salmon Ladder, he had no trouble on Slam Dunk and it was the same story on the Spinball Wizard. Ethan had a minute to clear the Spider Trap for the fastest time, which he easily did. The Chicago area was well represented, as Ethan became the fifth Ninja from that region to hit the buzzer.
  • Grant McCartney was in a tricky position. He was in the 11th position with a few runners left. When Jesse Wildman and Jonathan Cooley both fell on the Slingshot, Grant could finally exhale. He was safe to return to the National Finals.
  • The last run of the night belonged to Jesse Labreck and she owned it. After Michelle Warnky worked her way to the buzzer, all eyes were on Jesse. Could she hit the buzzer too? She was twisted up on the Ring Swing, but then made a clean sprint across the Spinning Bridge. With all her experience, we knew she had the skills to do this. But still, it was hard not to be nervous. When Jesse cleared the Salmon Ladder, Jeri D’Aurelio was bumped from Vegas. She took on Slam Dunk with perfect form and control. The Spinball Wizard wavered a bit as she started it, but then Jesse plunged ahead and skipped over the final set of handles. This was it, the tenth obstacle! Everyone witnessing this was losing their minds while Jesse finished the climb. Shouldering the doors out of the way, she battered her way to her very own City Finals buzzer.

Jesse is the guest on this week’s American Ninja Warrior podcast. She talks about that night in Cincinnati and how she’s training the next generation of Ninjas.

  • All we can say is WHAT A NIGHT.

The Power Tower:

  • Ethan Swanson vs Michael Torres

After all that action, the Power Tower still awaited us! This time, it was Ethan Swanson and Michael Torres, who train together all the time. Ethan had already been to the Power Tower once before, perhaps giving him an advantage.

However, once they were off, Michael gave Ethan a run for his money. They were neck-and-neck the whole race. At the very end, it looked like Ethan would dismount to the buzzer first. When he hesitated for half a moment, Michael zipped past him and snagged the Safety Pass.

Safety Pass winner: Michael Torres

We won’t forget...

The moment we realized that Michelle Warnky was going to reach the buzzer. We always hope. We always wish for the best. Then there’s that, “Oh wow. I think it’s going to happen,” moment. For us, it was when Michelle reached the Spinball Wizard. She looked just so relaxed and confident. Not winded, not stressed. She was ready for it. To be honest, I (Nikki, editor) was so scared I would “jinx” Michelle with my hopes, that I turned my back to the course until I knew she’d started the Spider Trap. It was a beautiful moment.

We didn’t see that coming...

All those first-time City Finals buzzers! Michelle, Jesse, Brandon, Michael, Dan (correct us if we’re wrong on any of those). And those buzzers didn’t go to rookies. They went to return veterans who had worked so hard for this moment. Bravo!

Shout out to...

Cincinnati in general for bringing us back from a Ninja Warrior dark place. Holy moly. If anyone was feeling down after the struggles of Tacoma and Baltimore, this was a pretty darn good pick-me-up. We’re heading into the National Finals on a VERY high note.

Next episode:

  • Monday, August 26. National Finals Night One, Stage One, 8/7c on NBC