Zack Kemmerer is unexpectedly chipper and doesn’t seem bummed at all that viewers have yet to see him full-on conquer the American Ninja Warrior course.
Nor does he feel any awkwardness about attending his own watch party for the extreme athletic challenge — even though he barely appears in the season opening episode his fans gathered to view at Union South.
Kemmerer, a Ph.D. student in UW-Madison’s biochemistry program studying mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell!), says most of his run on the show, which opened its season on June 13, wasn’t just challenging — it was actually fun.
“Once I commit to something I give it 150%,” says Kemmerer, who placed 15th overall in the competition and advanced to the next level.
Given the number of failed attempts by other competitors in the opening episode, filmed over a weekend in Indianapolis, it’s remarkable that Kemmerer hung in there. It’s equally amazing to learn just how recently Kemmerer fully committed to his goal of becoming an American Ninja Warrior. Although he was a champion wrestler in his rural Pennsylvania high school and at University of Pennsylvania, he began serious training on parkour and climbing last fall.
For the uninitiated, American Ninja Warrior is a reality TV show that just began its eighth season on NBC. It pits hundreds of contestants against each other on a series of foam-padded moat-traversing obstacles designed to test the athletes’ speed, strength, agility and balance. A couple of years ago a video of pint-sized dynamo Kacy Catanzaro making the course in Dallas look downright easy went viral and racked up more than 12 million views. More recently, a clip of a guy in a T. rex costume on a course in Atlanta started making the rounds. Nearly 7 million people viewed the episode on June 13, and it might have reached the top of the ratings if it hadn’t been competing with ABC’s block of NBA Finals coverage.
Drawing from a Japanese TV show, Sasuke, the American Ninja Warrior course is made up of six separate obstacles. In Indianapolis (each regional preliminary gets a slightly different set-up), the contestants tackled the Floating Steps, the Rolling Log, the Fly Wheels, the Rolling Disks, the Swinging Spikes and last, but not least, the 15-foot-tall Warped Wall. “I think that the new floating steps were probably the most nerve-wracking,” says Kemmerer.
The weather conditions over the weekend of the competition were far from ideal. “The first night it was raining the entire time. It’s hard to do the obstacle when it’s dry, and when it’s wet it becomes nearly impossible,” says Kemmerer. The toughest obstacle for him was the Log Roll, which involves wrapping your whole body around a log that rolls down along two metal guide rails. “That was just violent,” says Kemmerer. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m a wrestler, I’ve been wrestling for almost 20 years, I know how to grip this up. I’m good with this!’” Kemmerer says. Luckily, he got tossed off just barely past the point where he would’ve ended up disqualified and soaked in the water tank under the obstacle. Those last four obstacles? He says they were practically a walk in the park.
Many competitors on the show use the national television exposure to shout out various organizations, and Kemmerer scheduled presentations at his watch party to highlight two organizations close to his heart: Beat the Streets, a wrestling and mentorship program that works with underserved youth, and Adult Role Models in Science, where he has assisted middle school girls with science projects.
Watching American Ninja Warrior with a crowd, it turns out, is the way to go. Up until now I’ve only caught bits and pieces of the show on barroom TVs, and missed out on the neat little narratives that play out on each competitor's run.
You can feel the whole room tense up as someone leaps from Swinging Spike to Swinging Spike, and everyone collectively deflates when a competitor unexpectedly turfs out Rolling Disks. A couple dozen of us were sincerely cheering these folks on, which, in this age of hate-watching awful shows like Vanderpump Rules (the restaurant reality show starring a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills), was a pleasant turn of events.
Some of the Ninja wannabes get the full package intro with footage of them in their hometowns doing their day jobs, while you glimpse others only in montages recounting their thrill of victory/agony of defeat. A good chunk of folks you barely see at all — our hero included. I’m holding out hope that we’ll see some of Kemmerer’s time on the Indianapolis prelim course as a lead-in for his run in the next event, which will air in five weeks.
And who knows? Maybe Kemmerer will go all the way. He’s not allowed to say, so I guess we’ll just have to tune in to find out.