Nati Ninjas: Local athletes will compete in NBC’s popular obstacle course show downtown

James Wilson has run the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course five times. But later this month, when it comes time for number six, he’ll have a local fan base cheering him on.


“It’s a lot different,” he says. “The energy is off the charts and the comfort level is there. I feel like I’m going to have a big hometown crowd.”


The obstacle course phenomenon, which airs on NBC, will tape in downtown Cincinnati on May 24–25. This is the show’s eleventh season.


Wilson, 33, was selected out of thousands of applicants. He’ll be among 120 competitors navigating six obstacles, five of which are built over water. The top 30 finishers advance to the second night of competition, when four new obstacles are added. If Wilson finishes in the top 15, he’ll head to Las Vegas in June, a goal he hopes to achieve for the first time. He almost made it in 2018, finishing 17th in the city finals held in Indianapolis.


“I ended up going out on an obstacle I know I can do,” he says. “But I’ll get redemption this year.” That was the Spin Hopper, where he grabbed the obstacle, it spun around on him, and he fell.


Wilson’s first competition was in St. Louis in 2014. He made it to the last obstacle but then his hair hit the water when he landed low on the cargo net from a jump.


“Any part of your body can’t touch the water,” he explains.


His next competition was in Pittsburgh in 2015 when he was bitten by the “Snake Crossing,” which required competitors to run across two s-shaped balance beams that were tilted.


“That doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “It was a tough obstacle.”


He hit Philadelphia in 2016, then Cleveland in 2017.


So how does one train for the American Ninja competition, which requires, among other things, running across floating steps, climbing a salmon ladder (one of the show’s most iconic images), and running up a 14.5-foot warped wall?


“You can’t go to your local gym and do triceps press down or anything,” Wilson says. “You have to actually be doing obstacles in order to be successful and good at these things. It’s more about movement-based training, getting the feel of something, repetition. It’s more training specifically for something.”


And that was the impetus for opening his Nati Ninja Obstacle Course and Training Center in Blue Ash. He’s also a fitness specialist at the TriHealth Fitness and Health Pavilion.


“I like to train by myself a lot versus an open gym so I can set up some of the crazier things. I’ll run up the warped wall about 20 times,” he says.


A new mega-wall, 18 feet tall, is his next challenge. “That’s my goal, to get up that one,” he says. “So I’ll have to make the traditional wall look easy.”


Wilson will do some high intensity interval training and box jumps or other explosive moves. “I’ll set up different courses and I’ll work on just running through them and extending those courses, making sure I can go obstacle to obstacle.”


Athleticism has been a part of Wilson’s life since he was young. He played football at LaSalle High School all four years and ran track. He started doing obstacle course runs and mud runs, and fell in love with the obstacle course scene.


Trying for American Ninja Warrior was the next toughest level in the genre. And it’s exploded, to the point where it’s its own sport. Wilson, plus five others from his gym will be competing, including a few first-timers. Despite training at the same gym, Wilson says they don’t think of each other as competitors.


“We’re trying to beat the course. We’re not looking at trying to beat each other, even though it is that because were trying to get this number, this top rank,” he explains. “At the end of the day, you have to go out there and pit yourself against the course.”


Training for agility, strength, speed, and endurance is only one part of the competition. The environment itself can also be a challenge.


“There are cameras in your face,” Wilson says. “You’re being pulled to talk to a producer … You can be ready to compete and they’ll say, ‘James, can we take you back to the hotel for a second?’ And you’ll talk about what you plan to do, what’s motivating you, what are you worried about. And then you’ll go back out there and you’ll be ready to go, you’re warmed up and they’ll be like, ‘Hold on James come back a minute.’”


But he said he’s used to it and embraces the noise and lives in the moment. “I remind myself that few people are given this opportunity and I need to make the most out of it.”


In addition to training future American Ninja Warriors, Wilson also hosts birthday parties and training camps at the gym for kids.


“It’s definitely a confidence-booster,” he says. “Parents tell me all the time they see a big difference in their child after visiting the Ninja gym, like a switch has flipped and they’re willing to try it all.”


The Nati Ninja Obstacle Course and Training Center is located at 4627 Carlyn Dr. in Blue Ash and can be reached at 513-485-2956.

Read more articles by Jan Angilella.

Jan Angilella is a freelance journalist, blogger, and publicist. She's been in the communications industry for more than 25 years. She's also mad about Italy. Read about her adventures there on her blog 1cannolo2cannoli.org. Remember: no 's' on cannoli.
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