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Najee Richardson’s new outlook on Ninja Warrior has changed the game for him

“I think this season for me is just about truly soaking in the experience and just being present in everything that I’m doing and not getting so wrapped up in the competition and what I want to happen.”

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

Najee Richardson is a new Ninja this year. That’s what it feels like when we watch him bound through the obstacles with an energy we haven’t seen from him in a few seasons.

Like everything else in the world right now, things aren’t business as usual for American Ninja Warrior. Season 12’s production was delayed and many wondered if it would happen at all. That threw a wrench in many Ninjas usual training habits, both physically and mentally.

But Najee seems to have been reset by the extra time. After hitting zero buzzers in season 11 and openly speaking about struggling with his mental state, Najee found the fun in Ninja Warrior again. And the results are stunning.

In the Qualifiers, Najee easily completed the course. Back for the Semi-Finals, he put together a powerful run that spoke to everything Najee contends with on a daily basis. Najee was wearing his “Ninjas for Black Lives” shirt and spoke about the racism he has experienced. On the course, he gave it his all, frightening us when he stopped to gasp for air and ask for his inhaler. But then, like something out of a movie, he regained his composure and finished out the mission.

Before Najee’s run, we had a chance to ask him about the long road that was preparing for this season and how he’s changed his perspective on the Ninja Warrior experience.

What’s motivating you this year?

NR: Honestly, the motivation for me this season is just being in a better head space than I was last season and the season prior. I have really struggled with my mental state in Ninja for the past two years. This season is the first one since probably season nine, where I’m coming in just completely level-headed and I’m just at peace with where I am in life and what I’m doing. It’s just more so about having a good head space and knowing that now I’m back to my roots of having fun and really just enjoying the sport for me. The icing on the cake is being able to inspire others at the same time. I think that’s the motivation, knowing that I’m here for all the right reasons.

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

How did your preparation journey go? There was preparing for the season, and then there wasn’t a season and now there is a season. Were you training all the way through?

NR: No, it was train, stop, and then train. I was training really, really hard leading up to season. I started training in about February. I started hardcore training, really, really training. Right after the National Ninja League finals, I really kicked in America Ninja Warrior training. And I reached my peak physical condition about, I want to say two weeks. It would have been two weeks after the LA filming when we still thought we were going to have our show, before our show got shut down. I was in peak physical condition. I was doing things at the gym that I was never able to do before strength-wise, and I just felt good. I felt so good, honestly, in every category of Ninja. I think I had finally reached that level of ... I knew that I had done everything.

I had checked off all the check boxes, balance, strength, conditioning, just everything. Conditioning was so important to me this year. Just to know that whatever happened on the course, I’d be able to look away and be like, “I literally did everything.” So when it (the season) didn’t happen, I was so, I wouldn’t even necessarily say frustrated, but I was just disappointed. I was just so disappointed because I was like, “Oh, I put in all of this work,” and any athlete will tell you that that’s really hard to maintain, peak physical condition. You can’t maintain it because if you do, your body’s going to get hurt. You’re going to get injuries. So I had to level off a little bit. I had to kind of go into this maintaining period, and then when we didn’t get any news of the show, and it’s like June at this point, I’m like, “All right, this isn’t happening so I think I’m just going to go do the things that I want to do now.”

I started doing more HIIT workouts, like kind of going back to my roots of exercise. I was training at the Rocky Steps in Philadelphia. I started lifting weights again. I started doing a little bit of MMA and then just going into the gym and just doing cool skills because it made me laugh and it made me smile just having fun. So I didn’t train for Ninja for about a month, and then when everything happened with the protests and everything, I got really, really involved in the protests and that completely took my focus away from training. Then we got the call with three weeks notice. So it was like, “All right, what now?”

I haven’t trained in about a month and a half at this point and we’re going to be competing in three weeks. So I guess I got to get back in the gym. So I got back in the gym, and that first week I hurt myself. The very first week I hurt myself because I forgot to remind myself, “Hey dude, you haven’t trained in a month and a half. You probably shouldn’t do everything as if you were still training at your peak.” So I hurt myself the very first week, had to take the next week off, and then the week before I came out here I was just going in the gym playing around. I’ve reached this level of just calm and a level of peace where I was like, “You know what, dude, you’re not going to be able to reach your peak. That’s totally fine under the circumstances. But you’re in a spot right now where you’re just having fun and you’re enjoying this again. So just soak that in.” So it was more, I think, mental preparation than it was physical after everything happened.

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It’s about that time you guys! A new episode of @ninjawarrior this Monday night on @nbc and I’m honored to introduce 2 amazing new ninjas this season! This year was very different as we were paired with 2 ninjas to create a 3 person team and I can’t wait for you guys to meet the crew! • • First up @ez_erp Such an incredible human here. Not only am I so inspired by his story but upon meeting Ezra in St Louis the very first thing I noticed immediately was how incredibly determined this guy was to take advantage of such a life changing experience and that he is a man that takes Nothing for granted • • @cfwarriorninja there’s so much to be said of this truly kind hearted individual! Amber and I share a special bond, we’re both lung warriors! Amber has Cystic Fibrosis and although her daily challenges are at a level that would make the normal person come up with excuse after excuse for why they can’t live a full and exciting life, Amber literally defies all of the odds and doesn’t let anything stand in her way! • • And then there’s me!! You guys have already heard my story so I’ll spare you that and just say how truly grateful I am to #AmericanNinjaWarrior for allowing me and the rest of my @ninjasforblacklives family to tell our truth and spread a message that is very close to our hearts! ❤️ ✊ ✊ ✊ ✊ ✊ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ #RisingPhoenix #NinjasForBlackLives #BlackLivesMatter #BLM #inspiration #AmericanNinjaWarrior #NinjaWarrior #ANW #MartialArtist #Athlete #gymnast #2020 #excelsior #movement #grateful #Motivation #love #nfbl #bethechange #antiracism #raisedfist #symbol #symbolism #strength #unity #civilrights #racialinjustice

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What’s the goal of this season, considering we can’t say like, “Back to stage three. Revenge on stage three.” What’s the goal?

NR: I think for me, the goal is just listen to my own advice that I’ve been giving my teammates. Just really enjoy this experience. It’s so sad to say, but I honestly don’t remember any of my seasons other than the season nine, because season nine was my only season where I think I went in and with no real expectations. I was able to just enjoy the experience. I remember everything of season nine. I don’t remember season seven. I don’t remember season eight. I remember season 11. I remember all the bad parts of season 11. The only thing I remember from season 10 was hitting the Warped Wall, the 18-foot Mega Wall, but that’s it. It really made me sit back and think like, “Why don’t I remember all of my other seasons?” That’s so bizarre. So I think this season for me is just about truly soaking in the experience and just being present in everything that I’m doing and not getting so wrapped up in the competition and what I want to happen.

What’s the piece of advice you would give those rookies on team?

NR: Just soak up the entire experience. I think, for me, like every year I have to remind myself to just soak up the experience because as athletes, we get so wrapped into the competition that we forget to just enjoy ourselves and just remember that this is super cool and that we get to meet so many incredible people and share so many cool stories with each other. Just remember this moment. Take pictures, just have fun and really enjoy yourself. So I think that one bit of advice that I’ve given them is just enjoy this experience and make sure that when you walk away, you’re like, “God, that was so much fun,” instead of only dwelling on how the competition went.

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It’s taken me a while to find my smile again at the start of that platform... The end of season 10 did a number on the confidence I had in myself and combined with a few poor choices in my personal life that year, it completely wrecked havoc on my mental health. So by the time Season 11 rolled around, I was fully in survival mode, literally fake it till you make it sort of mentality. Full disclosure, Vegas last season was super traumatizing in so many ways... and if it wasn’t for some of my ninja fam, I have no idea how I would’ve made it through. • I took A Lot of time after last season addressing the things I was struggling with that I had been ignoring for a long time, I took time to reassess my priorities, focus on my passions, surrounded myself with the right people and strengthened my relationships with my friends and family and most importantly myself. And slowly but surely my smile, my authentic smile was back! ☺️ This Season every time I stepped up on that platform, I couldn’t hold back smiling even if I wanted to lol its an incredible thing the changes that happen when you focus on your mental health, letting go of the things that harm it and focusing on the things that give it life! ❤️ • @ninjawarrior wraps up the semifinals this Wednesday on @nbc let’s see how much farther we can take this thing! Thank god for my @ninjasforblacklives T giving me extra power! ✊ ✊ ✊ ✊ ✊ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ #RisingPhoenix #NinjasForBlackLives #BlackLivesMatter #BLM #inspiration #AmericanNinjaWarrior #NinjaWarrior #ANW #MartialArtist #Athlete #gymnast #2020 #excelsior #movement #grateful #Motivation #love #nfbl #bethechange #antiracism #raisedfist #symbol #symbolism #strength #unity #civilrights #racialinjustice #change #love

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Najee will continue having fun when he returns for the Finals which kick off in just a week!