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As I wrote last week, I’ve been trying to break into the competitive sports scene in the D.C. area since moving here from New York a few months ago.

So far, so good, in getting onto a softball team–though I recently learned the team is sponsored by a local gentleman’s club (I am begging you to read the reviews for this place. BTW, a business idea: a blog where people who write Yelp reviews of strip clubs are given carte blanche to just write a couple hundred words on literally anything. I’d read that.)

Okay, we got a little off track there, but onto the main event: the story of how I tried out for a local tennis team, and how things became much more serious than I anticipated.

In looking for ways to immerse myself in the community–taking the first of many steps to becoming Northern Virginia’s answer to Coach Taylor–I reached out to some of the local tennis organizations to see about either joining a team or a ladder* to keep in shape, meet some people, and play tennis with people of a similar skill level to my own.

*A ladder is essentially a list of people who can schedule matches with each other around their own schedules, rather than being scheduled by a league. After they complete a match, they report their scores to the ladder admin, who keeps track of everyone’s win-loss record. At the end of a pre-determined “season” there may be a playoff, and a winner is ultimately crowned. It’s a great way to play tennis competitively without the rigidity of a league situation.

During the process I guess my name ended up on a few lists and message boards, and every so often someone would reach out about meeting up to hit around, or a team they were on, or suggestions for leagues to join.

On February 29 I received an email from a team captain who had gotten my information from another captain who had reached out to me (that team was in a weeknight league, but I was looking for something on weekends):

I captain an excellent team in the DC USTA 4.0 Spring league that will start in April. … The last two years we have won the league and advanced to sectionals in Newport News. … This time we hope to win sectionals and advance to nationals. It seems like you would be a perfect fit for our team being a high end 4.0/low end 4.5 so to speak.

 

Not sure whether to be flattered as a “high end 4.0” or offended at being called a “low end 4.5,”* I wrote back, expressing interest. We agreed to meet the following Sunday morning so he could get a better sense of whether I could play.

*The United States Tennis Association (USTA) rates players based on skill level. I haven’t ever been officially rated, but based on my experience playing in college and asking people who know about these things, I’m around a 4.5. However, I’ve also come to realize that most tennis people in the know tend to play about half a level down from their true rating, so I should be looking at 4.0 leagues.

After 45 minutes of warming up, rallying, and playing a few points, The Captain had seen enough. My groundstrokes and serve had been solid, but my volleys and overheads were weak, having not played in a while. But I assured him it was just rust, and playing steadily would be sure to shake the cobwebs off my game. I had played both singles and doubles at a Division III college, and felt confident I could regain some of that form (albeit it was now 10+ years after graduating).

My day job is in sales, so I did my best to ask not-too-pushy questions that would get The Captain to betray his honest opinion on whether I was right for his team. Before seeing me play he said I would be a “perfect fit,” but now he didn’t seem so sure.

He told me he needed to see me play one more time to make a decision. He later arranged for me to hit with one of his teammates, but that session was rained out. And so I sat in purgatory, not knowing if I was going to make the team. (This was a very different experience from the softball tryouts I’d attend a week later.)

I reached out to The Captain (twice) via email about next steps. His reply, a few days later:

Sorry for the delay in responding. … The first thing you need to do is to join usta and self rate on the usta website. The computer will likely rate you at 4.5 as you are a former division 3 player under 36. Then click the appeal button to appeal down to 4.0. You highlight the factors in your background to make your case here, i.e., haven’t played competitively in 10 years, lost almost all of your doubles matches in Division 3, any injuries? I think the appeals committee meets on Tuesdays. If you are bumped down to 4.0 then I can consider you. There is alot of interest in our team so no promises yet. Once I find out that you are rated  a 4.0, we’ll regroup.

He was the one who reached out to me! Also, I was somehow too good (I needed to appeal to the USTA to decrease my rating) but also not good enough to be given a spot on The Captain’s team. What?

My initial reaction was to send him a scathing email–how dare he ask me to jump through these hoops just to be considered for his team! Instead I spoke to my tennis braintrust–two of my college teammates, and my father-in-law–who convinced me to “play the game.” The Captain was a little fanatical about his tennis, but maybe he was just being passionate. If I made the team, it could be a pretty cool experience competing for a regional or national title.

Gritting my teeth, I sent my reply:

Thanks for your detailed reply. … I’m happy to take the appropriate steps towards getting my USTA rating to make sure I’m qualified to join your team. But before I do, I’m hoping you can share your thoughts on whether I’m the right fit for your team.
As you noted, right now I’m a stronger singles player than doubles player–but I believe my doubles abilities will come back the more I play (I’ve also joined a ladder to get some extra strokes in during the week). Are you concerned about my flexibility to play both singles and doubles if needed? Or about my ability as a singles player? As I said I’d be happy to hit with you … this weekend as a second tryout, and if you’re still not sold on me I’ll withdraw from consideration for your team.
If you are seriously considering me for your team, I’ll go ahead and follow the steps you laid out re: getting rated a 4.0. But if you’re thinking I’m not a great fit without needing to see me play a second time, please let me know.
Thanks in advance for your candor.
If the team was not going to be a good fit for me, that was fine. At this point I wanted to know I was on the team, or to check this off my list and move on. The Captain replied:
Here is the situation. I run and play on a DC team 18+ and a [Maryland] 18+ team. Both teams are excellent. The DC team advanced to sectionals the last 2 years. The MD team advanced to state regionals the last 2 years and fell just short of advancing to sectionals. We think this year it will happen. Both teams are competitive and no one knows what will happen with either team until the matches are played. Both could advance or neither. Last year both of my DC 40 and MD 40 teams advanced to sectionals. In DC, the scoring is based on total courts won in the season so every court played counts. In MD, the scoring is based on total matches. So if a team won 3 of the 5 courts played in the match, it counts as 1 match won. You have nice strokes, but are still rusty and it will take some time to groove the strokes again and get back to your regular game. With the season starting so soon, I can’t take the risk in DC of losing any courts while working on consistency. In MD I can take the risk of losing a court in a match during this period of working on consistency because the team is strong enough to win enough other courts to win the match. As the season progresses, you will eventually be back in the groove. This enables you to get back in the game with competitive match play with no pressure. I might have one slot open on the MD team. If you are interested in the MD team, we can talk about that. Both seasons are during the same time frame starting in April. 
“I might have one slot open on the MD team.” We never once had spoken about playing for his team in Maryland! Rather than assuming this guy was baiting and switching me this whole time, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’s managing so many tennis teams that he mistakenly did not inform me that my chances of joining his team were slim, and that he would likely end up having me compete for a possible (but not guaranteed) spot on his team in Maryland.
As you might guess, at this point I replied to let The Captain know I was no longer interested in pursuing a spot on any of his teams. If the right situation presents itself later this spring, I’ll consider it. But clearly it won’t be with The Captain.
Whatever. I bet his team isn’t sponsored by a gentleman’s club…
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In February 2005 I started at my first post-college job at Petry Media Corporation in Manhattan. The sole perk of this position, besides being gainfully employed, was the company softball team.

An athletic guy who played sports all his life, I thought I’d automatically be given a spot on the team. (What an entitled millennial I was!)

Instead, the manager and starting pitcher for the team, Marty, explained that the team was highly competitive, dating back to the 1970s, and that if I wanted a spot on the team I’d have to try out for it.

When the season started a few months later, I was given an opportunity to get into a game and show Marty that I could play. I barely passed my audition, managing four infield singles and solid defense in the field. But Marty was impressed with my speed and glove, so I had earned my spot.

After that tryout, I started on Petry’s team for 11 consecutive seasons until I recently moved from the New York area to just outside of Washington D.C.

Now, I find myself, at 34, trying out again, this time for the local softball league. There’s no such thing as a résumé or references when it comes to joining a softball league. I can regale the head of the league with stories about how I once hit four home runs in a game (leaving out the part where I committed seven errors at shortstop in the same game), or how I hold virtually every team record for the Petry Pilots (again, including most errors in a single game), or how my lifetime batting average is around .450.

But none of that matters. I’m starting from scratch. I’m just some not-that-young guy who is looking to keep the last of his competitive fire alive, meet some good people and make some friends in the process, and maybe have some fun and win some games, too.

After asking too many questions for the league commissioner, he eventually informed me that there would be an open tryout on March 12 at noon at the local field for “free agents” (i.e. prospective players without a team) like myself, and that I had the opportunity to showcase my talent (if I had any) to any of the team captains and coaches who chose to attend the tryout. If they liked what they saw they could select me from the free agent pool and add me to their rosters.

I hadn’t had to try out for a team since 2005* so I didn’t really know what to make of the situation. I had to put my feelings of entitlement and indignation aside and focus on showing these guys what I had to offer to their teams. (I also had to get used to the fact that despite my improved play at shortstop—that seven-error game was years ago, so lay off!—there was no guaranteed I’d get to play my favorite position.)

*I’ve interviewed for many jobs since 2005, which were all effectively tryouts to some degree. But sports feels a little different.

And so I went out and gave it my best without being too flashy. My defense was solid, though I didn’t get much of a chance to show off my arm. My hitting was passable for not having hit a softball since last August. All in all I gave them enough to judge me as a guy who could add value to most softball teams.

During the warm-ups, the scrimmage game that followed, and after we ended the official tryout, several coaches approached me to ask me what night I was interested in playing on (each league was assigned a night, much like the Petry Pilots had all their games on Tuesdays since, I think, the beginning of time), as well as what position I was interested in playing (and which other positions besides shortstop I would be open to). They also told me about their own teams, trying to put their own best feet forward. “We won our league last year,” or “We’re a fun group of guys,” or “Do you like burgers and beer? We’re partially sponsored by a local pub.”

I played tennis in college but had walked onto the team without being recruited by any schools, and so this feeling of someone actively pursuing me based on my athletic ability was new. None of them offered me a sports car or illicit cash in an envelope, but they were certainly jockeying with each other for the best possible players for their roster. And by the time I left I had given my contact info to four different team captains. (When I left I said, “Okay, well that’s enough speed dating for me!” No one laughed.)

Though a full-time position as shortstop is not guaranteed on any of their teams—just like I had on Marty’s team, I’d have to earn my position—I ultimately decided to play for Frank, a retired military guy I met during warmups who reminded me a lot of Marty, my former coach.

Frank has a first-place caliber team who lost a few guys during the off-season and is looking to reload his roster. He brought one of his teammates to the tryout, who hit a couple of home runs during batting practice, so it was clear they had at least one guy who could swing the bat.

The first game will be in a few weeks, and that’s really when my tryout begins. Will I be able to secure playing time on Frank’s team throughout the season, and prove him right in selecting me for his roster? (I use “select” loosely as he group emailed me and four other guys after the tryout about joining his team.)

Maybe Frank’s team will be a bust, or maybe I’ll play 11 seasons for him. Either way it’s a fresh start in a new place, and I’m thrilled for the opportunity to be playing competitive softball again.

I should only hope the tennis team tryout I have next week goes so well…

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A lot has been made lately about the “bat flipping” trend taking place in Major League Baseball. (God help us if people start calling it “Bat-gate.”)

Some baseball players, after hitting a ball that they know is going to result in a home run—Major Leaguers, especially home run hitters, can usually tell from the feel of bat hitting ball whether they got “all of it,” i.e. hit it hard and high enough that it’ll end up in the outfield seats.

When they get that special home run feeling in their arms and hands and legs and eyes and ears, sometimes, they toss or flip their bat up in the air, some with more flourish than others, as if to say, “Yup, I know that one’s gone.” The gesture is celebratory, self-promotional, and ultimately innocuous.

Unless you’re on the other team, apparently.

The “unwritten rules” of professional baseball—which are so numerous and rigid that I often wish someone would have actually, ya know, written them down—say that a bat flip “shows up” the other team, i.e. makes them look bad. And more so, it “disrespects for the game.” (Is it weird that I’m quoting text that I just told you was unwritten? Why yes, yes it is.)

Historically this sort of infraction has been self-policed by Major Leaguers. If you flip your bat after hitting a home run against one of baseball’s more irascible pitchers—presumably one who has read the unwritten rules many times on the toilet—you can expect that said pitcher will “plunk” you, “put one in your ear,” or to forgo anymore MLB argot, they’ll throw the ball at you as hard as they can in an attempt to hit you as a form of punishment.

Whether the act of bat flipping should be considered offensive to the other team—I don’t think it is—or whether bat flippers deserve some form of retaliation against them—a grown man intentionally throwing a baseball at another grown man, really?—is not what I care about, at least not for the purpose of this blog post. (And yet it took me seven paragraphs and over 300 words to get to the purpose of this blog post!)

The purpose is to understand whether bat flipping is something that we should worry about as it relates to youth sports. Should we be concerned if a 10-year-old little leaguer celebrates a great moment, such as a home run, by flipping his bat three feet in the air? Is this the sort of showy, unsportsmanlike behavior that indicates that kid’s future success or failure in the real world? Should we be telling our young athletes to “act like they’ve been there before,” and hold in that emotion until some other unnamed future time when it’s acceptable to let it out? Perhaps the safe zone lies in between not showing any emotion and giving every kid a participation, avoiding to have to label some kinds winners and others losers.

Bat-gate (crap, now I’m saying it!) came to a head when the Toronto Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista hit the biggest home run of his life this past week. Bautista, one of the game’s premiere sluggers, has hit hundreds of home runs in his career, but none more important than this one, which put his team ahead in a win-or-go-home playoff game. Upon getting that special home run feeling (that sounds creepier every time I type it out) he stared for an extra split second as the ball traveled towards its eventual home in the stands, then flipped his bat way up into the air, almost angrily, as if to dismiss anyone who had any doubt he could do what he just did.

And yet the opposing team, a lot of people around baseball, and many media personalities, believe it was the wrong thing to do. Showing emotion, apparently, has no place in baseball.

But what about the kids??? What should we tell them to do in moments like this, when their visceral instinct tells them to act on the outside as happy as they feel on the inside?

As the parent of zero children, I believe they should show as much emotion as they want, so long as they aren’t directing any animosity to the other team. A celebratory bat flip is fine—even if it’s simply meant to pat themselves on the back—but pointing at the pitcher and saying, “you suck,” is a no-no.

If the goal of youth sports is indeed to prepare kids—99.9% of whom won’t end up playing professionally—for the real world by teaching them life skills like leadership and sportsmanship and teamwork and the value of practice and hard work, then we also have to include self-promotion on that list.

Like it or not, the business world is becoming increasingly about (if it ever wasn’t) being able to furnish your own personal highlight reel at a moment’s notice. You may find yourself in an elevator with the CEO of the company for which you work, and you’ll need the perfect elevator pitch for when she asks you what you’re working on, or simply, how it’s going.

An understated response to this question, “Busy,” or “Fine,” or changing the subject to the weather, won’t do. Not if you want to get her attention. (Yeah that’s right, it’s a female CEO, you misogynist.) No, you’ll need to tell her, succinctly but with a healthy dose of enthusiasm, how you are directly contributing to the success of the company, and on which projects, specifically, you’re “crushing it” (like a boss, of course). This is the bat flip of the corporate world.

Like it or not, this is the wave of the future as Millennials much younger than myself continue to invade the workforce. Communication has forever been socially networked, and now there’s no feat too small to brag about, including what you do between 9 and 5 (or 6 or 10). So to ask a 10-year-old not to be showy when he does something well, like hit a home run, score a touchdown, or make a jumpshot (or for that matter, ace a test or just absolutely nail his hypothesis on a science project) you might actually be doing him a disservice.

Of course these are not hard and fast rules, set to appear on Harvard Business Review, Elementary School Edition. But I think it’s worth considering that if you are going to operate under the assumption that youth sports prepares kids for life, you should probably think holistically about what that life might look like 10 or 15 years after they leave little league.

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Yesterday I competed in the 2014 Men’s Health Urbanathlon in New York City.

I went in thinking the Urbanathlon would basically be like a Tough Mudder course, which I ran in 2012 in New Jersey, minus the mud. Beyond that my frame of reference for timed or racing events is mostly running races I’ve done in Central Park and other parts of New York City, as well as the Anthem Richmond Marathon I completed in 2012 in Virginia.

Yesterday’s Urbanathlon was a 10-mile course within Flushing Meadows Corona Park, starting and ending at Citi Field, where baseball’s New York Mets play.

Like so many “adventure races,” including Tough Mudder’s rival Spartan Race (not to mention the CrossFit Games and the American Ninja Warrior competition), the gimmick here is that it’s not just a running race–which adventure race promoters often disparage as “boring”–but an obstacle course with running built in. But with the Urbanathlon, I’d say it was essentially a 10-mile running race with a few not-so-difficult obstacles added in.

For someone like me, who runs about a 10-minute mile (which is not particularly fast) I had hoped to make up some time against faster runners on the obstacles. I have decent upper body strength and can pull up my body weight pretty easily with my arms, so I figured I’d gain at least a few minutes on monkey bars, wall climbs, etc. However the obstacles were fairly easy to complete and I never felt like I made up more than a couple of seconds on them. I can’t remember any obstacle taking more than a minute or two, at which point it became a foot-race again.

Most of the obstacles involved simple over or under moves–including jumping and ducking police barricades–or navigating short tire runs. The course did include monkey bars, but I was through them with just four or five swings. (On the Tough Mudder course, the monkey bars were spaced farther apart and were built like a peaked roof so you had to climb on an incline and then a decline. Also, they were greased up and your hands were already covered in mud, so the level of difficulty was much higher.)

By far the toughest and most unique obstacle I encountered at the Urbanathlon came in the last mile or so of the course, which took us into Citi Field. Once inside, competitors had to walk or run up and down the stands of the stadium for about six sections, a mini tour de stade. (I imagine this would have been much cooler if I was a Met fan.) From there we got to actually run on the warning track of the field–which, even for a Yankee fan, was pretty cool–and eventually out into the parking lot where we crawled under some propped up Volkswagens (sponsor!), jumped over some NYC taxi cabs (I saw a couple of guys do that slide across the hood thing you see in the movies), and up and down a cargo net stretched over a school bus.

I completed the entire course in an hour and 40 minutes, which is just about my usual 10-minute mile running pace (the course was just over 10 miles). Considering my time included conquering 14 obstacles, it’s safe to say they were nothing more than a minor hindrance to my overall pace. Overall I finished in the middle of the pack, 495th out of a field of 1,056.

Speaking of time, I had also assumed that like Tough Mudder, there would be long waits for some of the obstacles due to a high volume of competitors. (That race took me almost five hours to complete 12 miles plus all the obstacles.) But at Urbanathlon, I hardly waited for any of the obstacles besides when the people ahead of me started to slow up on the stair climb.

The Urbanathlon cost about $100 per entrant (slightly more or less depending on how early you registered). For an event of this distance that’s not a bad price, especially if it serves as the motivation for otherwise sedentary competitors to get off the couch and train for it. As for me, who’s generally pretty active, I was hoping to be pushed to my physical limit a little more than just summoning the stamina to run 10 miles. I thought the mud theme at Tough Mudder was a little overdone, but that event also has some really difficult obstacles outside of the mud, a few of which I couldn’t complete.

Obstacles aside, the Urbanathlon NYC course was beautiful as a running race. Most people who live outside of Queens (any many who do) don’t realize how much Corona Park has to offer. Aside from the U.S. Open and Citi Field, the park features baseball and soccer fields, water, biking, and even a small zoo.

For runners who want a little something extra in their races to break up the all the running, the Urbanathlon is exactly that. But for non-runners in the market for a challenging and fun obstacle course that will test both their upper and lower body, I suggest trying out for American Ninja Warrior instead.

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***Spoiler alert: Results from the 9/1 episode of American Ninja Warrior, in which Kacy Catanzaro attempted the first stage of the Las Vegas Finals, course are referenced at the bottom of this post.

By now you’ve probably heard about Kacy Catanzaro, the 5-foot, 100-pound former NCAA gymnast who conquered the first two rounds of NBC’s American Ninja Warrior to become the first female competitor in the show’s history to reach the finals in Las Vegas. If you read my blog or follow me on Twitter (or live with me) it would have been pretty hard not to hear about Kacy Catanzaro.

 

 

Fans of American Ninja Warrior may have already been somewhat familiar with Catanzaro, who competed last season but failed to finish the first stage. Back then we mostly knew her as the girlfriend and training partner of ANW great Brent Steffensen.

RELATED: American Ninja Warrior Showcases the Best Athletes You’ve Never Heard Of

I don’t think you can bet on American Ninja Warrior (at least not easily or legally) but I wish I could have seen the (theoretical) Vegas odds for Kacy and Brent each making it to the finals here in Season 6. Steffensen is what bettors would have considered a heavy favorite, having already reached the final course, Mount Midoriyama, the last two seasons. Meanwhile Catanzaro would have been a huge underdog considering no woman had ever even completed the first round of American Ninja Warrior, no less the first two to reach the finals. And surely our hypothetical bookies would have factored in Catanzaro’s diminutive stature, making her odds that much longer.

But, as the sports trope goes, that’s why they play the games. Improbably, Kacy Catanzaro did advance to Vegas while this time Brent Steffensen failed to complete the first stage, signifying the end of his season.

 

 

While NBC might have been sad to see Steffensen eliminated—American Ninja Warrior’s version of a LeBron James-led NBA team losing in the first round of the playoffs—I’m guessing they were happy to trade their biggest male star for an up-and-coming female one like “Might Kacy” (or #mightykacy on Twitter). And that’s what they now have: Kacy Catanzaro’s historic run is easily the most important narrative of American Ninja Warrior Season 6—maybe the most important narrative the show has ever had.

(Two other women, Michelle Warnky and Meagan Martin, actually finished the first stage with faster times than Catanzaro–but neither completed their respective regional finals courses to advance to the finals.)

In the days after Catanzaro’s landmark run, the media slowly started to take notice. People were interested, including those who had never heard of American Ninja Warrior. Heck, even my mom sent me an email with the subject line #mightykacy: “I can see what you were getting all worked up about! She’s amazing!”

NBC knew* what it had in Kacy. On the July 14 episode of American Ninja Warrior, in which Catanzaro completed the second stage, her run wasn’t aired until the last fifteen minutes of the two-hour broadcast, with the announcers teasing the audiences going into each commercial: And coming up later, Kacy Catanzaro looks to become the first woman to reach the American Ninja Warrior finals in Las Vegas!

*NBC also knew the results in advance of the 7/14 episode. Like the World Series of Poker on ESPN, American Ninja Warrior is not broadcast live. I wouldn’t be surprised if NBC moved to a live format in future seasons. I’m actually quite surprised Kacy Catanzaro’s results weren’t spoiled online by any of the people who were in the crowd for either of the first two stages in Dallas where she competed.

But if you’re an NBC Sports executive who oversees American Ninja Warrior, what are you rooting for? (This question is posed while fully acknowledging that NBC already knows the results of this season.) Part of the show’s appeal is that no American has ever stood atop Mount Midoriyama. If Kacy Catanzaro completes the finals course in Las Vegas in just her second season on American Ninja Warrior, it’ll bring even more short-term attention to the nascent sport–but is it good for the long-term success of the ANW brand? Or would it feel like a magician revealing the secret behind their best trick, in that once you see how it’s done, it suddenly seems a lot less impressive?

UFC star Rhonda Rousey. (www.mmaoddsbreaker.com)

UFC star Rhonda Rousey. mmaoddsbreaker.com

I recently came across an article at Slate.com about the female Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star Rhonda Rousey who, like Kacy Catanzaro, has been a marketer’s dream for her sport. A personable, attractive Olympic judo medalist turned mixed martial arts fighter, Rousey quickly rose to the top of the UFC world. The only problem was no one rose with her. Rousey has remained undefeated in 10 fights since her debut in 2011. Per the Slate article, her trash-talking style along with her perfect record has now made her the sport’s villain on the female side. The article goes on to suggest that maybe, just maybe, Rhonda Rousey losing a match would be the best thing for the sport.

Regardless of which result at Mount Midoriyama would propel American Ninja Warrior’s long-term popularity the most, I’m rooting for Kacy to go all the way. Hey, if ANW doesn’t like it, they can build a tougher course.

RELATED: “‘American Ninja Warrior’ Producer: How Kacy Catanzaro Changed Our Show Forever” (via Entertainment Weekly)

***Update: Unfortunately Kacy Catanzaro did not complete the first stage of the Las Vegas Finals course, falling victim to the Spider Wall. While her size had not hampered her progress up to that point, Catanzaro appeared to have had a tough time reaching either side of the Spider Wall with her arms.

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Note: This post was originally published before the 7/14 episode of American Ninja Warrior. If you’ve been paying attention, you probably already know that Kacy Catanzaro has advanced to the finals in Las Vegas and will take on Mount Midoriyama, the first woman to reach this stage of ANWVideo of both her runs so far are included below.

I’ve been very fortunate to grow up in a fantastic era for sports fans.

I was a Bulls fan during Michael Jordan’s prime and saw his famous up-and-under move in real time on TV during the 1991 NBA Finals versus the Lakers.

A lifelong Yankees fan, I witnessed their 1990s dynasty not to mention Derek Jeter’s backhanded “flip” to nab a runner at home plate in the 2001 American League Division Series. Oh yeah, and I’ve been around for Mariano Rivera‘s entire career.

And as a bonus I’ve had the good fortune to watch my hometown football Giants recently win two Super Bowls they, quite frankly, had no business winning against the heavily favored New England Patriots.

And yet for all the tremendous sports moments I’ve witnessed in my 32 years, it was an obscure “game show” called American Ninja Warrior that provided one of the most incredible athletic feats I’ve ever seen.

American Ninja…What?
An old college buddy introduced me to something called Ninja Warrior back in 2008. On a Sunday morning after a beer-fueled college tennis team reunion (GO HAWKS!) he was fecklessly flipping through the channels on my cable box when he got to the G4 network (now Esquire Network) and exclaimed, “NINJA WARRIOR! THIS SHOW IS AWESOME!”

Ninja Warrior, an edited-for-America version of a Japanese “sports entertainment television special” (to borrow some Wikipedia phraseology) called Sasuke, featured contestants attempting to traverse a series of obstacle courses, each with obstacles that make the popular Tough Mudder competitions or old school American Gladiators episodes look like child’s play.

Obstacles named Salmon Ladder, Unstable Bridge, and Spider Wall were designed to chew competitors up and spit them out, daring them to come back to next year and try again.

Eventually a short-lived G4 series called American Ninja Challenge—allowing Americans to compete for a spot on Sasuke—gave way to the current American Ninja Warrior format, which takes place entirely in the United States, with the final series of courses, i.e. “Mount Midoriyama,” built and filmed in Las Vegas.

Boys’ Club?
The great appeal of American Ninja Warrior is the American Idol-, World Series of Poker-like everyman quality. They are accountants and salesmen and teachers and preachers of all ages (some in their fifties, God bless ‘em!) who are in great physical shape and have any of several athletic hobbies—stuff like rock climbing, gymnastics, or Parkour—that help prepare them to compete, and even thrive, among the best of the best on the ANW course.

Some of these men, early adopters of American Ninja Warrior, have become household names (or at least faces) for those of us who have watched ANW for a few seasons. Guys like James “The Beast” McGrath, Dave “The Godfather” Campbell, and Brent “I Don’t Have a Cool Nickname But I Am A Professional Stuntman” Steffenssen come back each season rededicated despite failed runs at Mount Midoriyama—and despite that fact that no American, in six seasons of the competition, has conquered it.

Brent Steffensen navigating an obstacle. (Photo credit: Brandon Hickman/NBC via www.monstersandcritics.com.)

Brent Steffensen navigating an obstacle. (Photo credit: Brandon Hickman/NBC via http://www.monstersandcritics.com.)

And come back they have, with experience their most valuable asset. Having seen what the course is all about, many competitors construct their own obstacles in the off season to practice. (Heck, you can even buy blueprints of American Ninja Warrior obstacles—and it’s only a matter of time before IKEA starts selling ANW kits.) Knowing that they’re physically capable of conquering an obstacle is half the battle. The other half then becomes like any other sport, with many practice hours (hopefully) bringing out one’s best performance on game day.

While still very much a niche sport, American Ninja Warrior is steadily growing. According to ANW‘s executive producer Kent Weed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the show received 3,000 audition tapes for the current season–more than double the 1,200 it received for the prior season.

While the body types of the competitors can vary from muscular to toned to lanky, one sort of body is conspicuously underrepresented: the female body. In any given episode one woman’s run at the course might be featured for every twenty men (maybe more than that), and typically those women never advance past the first few obstacles in Stage 1. Yet each season for the last three or four that I’ve watched, more and more women are attacking the course—and getting a little farther along each time.

The Mighty Kacy
It stands to reason that a tall woman would have the best shot at completing Stage 1, given that many obstacles rely on jumping and running across wide gaps, swinging and reaching, and pulling one’s own body weight horizontally and vertically. So the first time I saw 5-foot-tall Kacy Catanzaro step up to the starting line I didn’t like her chances—until I learned a little bit about her background.

Kacy Catanzaro negotiates The Ring Toss. (Photo credit: Alexandra Olivia via www.dallasnews.com.)

Kacy Catanzaro negotiates The Ring Toss. (Photo credit: Alexandra Olivia via http://www.dallasnews.com.)

Catanzaro, 24, is a former Division I gymnast at Towson University. The Dallas qualifying round in 2014 was not her first attempt at completing Stage 1 of an ANW course, so she had some experience on her side. Oh, and her training partner (and boyfriend) just happened to one of the most successful ANW competitors of all time, the aforementioned Brent Steffensen.

“Beat That Wall!”
For five minutes and 26 seconds, Catanzaro carefully negotiated an obstacle course built for bigger, stronger humans (she only weights about 100 pounds), culminating with the final obstacle of Stage 1: The Warped Wall, a 15-foot high curved wall just like the ones in Sonic the Hedgehog. (Not familiar with Sonic? Just see the image below.)

(The way she approached each obstacle, focused and purposeful but not scared, was not unlike the way Rivera pitched, especially in his final season. He no longer had the raw athletic ability to dominate hitters as he once did, but he could find a way to piece together three outs in a matter of minutes, as if he knew something the hitters didn’t.)

An American Ninja Warrior contestant attempts The Warped Wall. (Photo credit: www.austin360.com.)

An American Ninja Warrior contestant attempts The Warped Wall. (Photo credit: http://www.austin360.com.)

By the time she reached the wall Kacy Catanzaro already completed several obstacles that many other competitors, men and women, had failed at. Had her run ended with three failed attempts to climb the wall—the maximum allowed before a contestant is disqualified—it still would have been as close as any female had come to completing Stage 1 in six seasons of the show. But it wasn’t good enough for Kacy.

The trick to climbing The Warped Wall in my view—from the couch—is to find that perfect moment while running up the wall to jump towards the top and hopefully grab the ledge and pull yourself up. Some competitors are strong and athletic but never seem to find their perfect moment; others simply rely on an abundance of height to make up for their lack of timing. (There’s some info out there on the physics of The Warped Wall in case you’re thinking of building one in your backyard.)

Catanzaro, who trained for The Warped Wall and other obstacles using replicas she and Steffensen had built for practice, was relying on flawless technique to make up for a dearth of height. On her first attempt at the wall, it seemed she had the timing just right, but her fingers came up short.

With the crowd chanting, “Beat That Wall!”, Catanzaro paused and caught her breath before making her second attempt. Rather than dejection, her face read only of complete focus. Again, she ran full speed ahead, leapt at just the right moment and…she did it! She pulled herself up to the top of the wall, turned around to slam the buzzer that stopped the clock and she was through Stage 1! See Catanzaro’s entire Stage 1 run below.

The announcers howled above the crowd noise as Catanzaro stood above everyone there in Dallas that night, pumping her fist and chanting, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” as Steffensen looked on proudly. I had goosebumps.

ANW event coordinator Michelle Warnky became the second woman to finish the course, making it up The Warped Wall on her first try in just 3:09 in St. Louis (and, actually, making it look really easy), while rock climbing instructor Meagan Martin later completed the course in 4:46 in Denver. It’s a safe bet that we’ll see even more female athletes qualify in 2015.

What’s Next?
On tonight’s episode of American Ninja Warrior, at 9 pm Eastern on NBC, Kacy Catanzaro will try to top her already incredible run by becoming the first woman to complete Stages 2. Perhaps she’s still a year away from that feat, or maybe she’ll ride the momentum she’s created all the way to the next round at Mount Midoriyama.

No matter what happens tonight, Kacy Catanzaro, Michelle Warnky, and Meagan Martin have already changed the game for women and men. Maybe the eventual next step for American Ninja Warrior is to have separate male and female competitions, as we see at the Olympics, CrossFit Games, or sports like tennis or mixed martial arts (e.g. UFC). Whatever comes next for the sport, we already know that American Ninja Warrior has likely found its newest crop of female stars and perhaps more importantly, the new faces of the brand.

**UPDATE** Kacy did it again! On last night’s (7/14) episode of American Ninja Warrior, Catanzaro completed the Stage 2 course and is headed to the finals in Las Vegas! See her full run below.

RELATED: NBC, American Ninja Warrior Go All-In on ‘Mighty’ Kacy Catanzaro

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If I asked you what your favorite TV drama was, current and/or all-time, what would you say?

What’s mine? Oh, thank for asking, loyal reader! A few months ago, I’d have been ready with my oft-repeated answer: HBO’s The Wire and AMC’s Breaking Bad. These were my 1 and 1a.

Yet recently another show has emerged that has earned its share of a three-way tie in my TV drama Mount Rushmore: NBC’s Friday Night Lights. The series centers around a high school in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, and its students, its football team, the team’s first year coach, Eric Taylor, and his wife, Tami Taylor. The Taylors are played by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton.

What’s strange about this addition to my list is that the Friday Night Lights hasn’t been on the air since 2011, when it wrapped up an improbable five-season, 76-episode run. I say improbable because like The Wire and Breaking BadFriday Night Lights was critically acclaimed but low-rated, and was always on the verge of cancellation due to lack of viewership.

My wife and I binge-watched the final four episodes of the series this past Memorial Day Monday and I’m still pretty amped after the finale. But I’ve been thinking about FNL’s place on my list for a while now, so we’re outside the PH zone when I say it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

FNL1Netflix-recommended, wife-approved. Friday Night Lights came highly recommended via Netflix’s aptly named “Recommended for Bobby” section. I figured it would become one of my shows, like Louie, to watch when my wife was not home (this, rather than one of our shows, like Orphan Black, which I’m forbidden to watch without her).

One night my wife came home to me watching FNL and realized she’d actually seen the episode I had on. It turned out she’d already seen the entire first season when it had originally aired on NBC. From that point on FNL was officially an our show.

We were, of course, tempted to speed through seasons 2 through 4 in a week or two because we couldn’t get enough. But really there was no time crunch to catch up before the next season started—the supposed “Netflix Effect”—because the show was already off the air (this also effectively eliminated the possibility of reading spoilers online). So we took our time and only watched a few episodes a week—a true test of our collective willpower.

How the hell did I (almost) miss this show??? The one gripe I have with FNL is NBC’s marketing of it back in 2006. When I first heard there was a new show coming out called Friday Night Lights based on the eponymous book and movie (which I saw and enjoyed) I thought, “Now it’s a TV show, too? Haven’t they already squeezed enough out of this one story?” I didn’t know the show would be fictional (i.e. inspired by but not based on the actual 1988 Permian Panthers high school football team from the book and movie), would take place in present day, and would be, well, really freakin’ good.

When the show came out I was 24 years old and exactly the sort of person who would have watched Friday Night Lights—had I known a little more about it. In fact in Grantland’s terrific oral history of Friday Night Lights, co-executive producer John Zinman mentions the lack of clarity of the promotional posters, which made it seem like a football show rather than a drama with football in it.

Gloriously in-your-face product placement. Sometimes product placement on TV programs is seamless, and other times it’s uber obvious. On FNL, two brands’ product placements stood out, but each was pulled off in a way that I didn’t mind as a fan of the show–or as an advertising professional.

The characters on FNL spent a lot of time at Applebee’s. When a scene opened at the leading “neighborhood” family restaurant chain, the external shot always clearly showed the Applebee’s signage. My favorite Applebee’s placement within the placement was Coach Taylor’s quip, “Did they change this menu or what?” (They did, Coach Taylor. Thanks for bringing this to America’s attention.)

Coach Taylor’s teams wear Under Armour uniforms and accessories. There is no mistaking the UA logos that are EVERYWHERE. In season 4 when Coach Taylor’s team is strapped for cash, his friendly Under Armour sales rep is willing to work with him on deferring his payments a while. (And your friendly local Under Armour rep would be willing to work with you as well, America.)

For the record I found product placements far less distracting than the fictitious colleges constantly referenced on the show: TMU? Braemore College? Oklahoma Tech? The Chicago Art Institute?

FNL3

Tough love from Coach Taylor.

The Great Coach Taylor. We’re led to believe that Coach Taylor knows the X’s and O’s of the game better than anyone, but to me it always seemed that he was no better an on-field coach than the next guy (though his play-calling was certainly ballsier than most). What makes him The Great Coach Taylor is his ability to work with teenagers, often whom are inadvertently sabotaging themselves for reasons they don’t entirely understand. As his wife tells him in a moment of self-doubt, “You are a molder of men.”

(Mancrush alert: I became so enamored with the Coach Taylor character that most of my time watching the show I was terrified he would do something “bad” and I’d have to find a new idol. Spoiler: That didn’t happen, and my new mantra is WWCTD?)

Tami Taylor. In that same Grantland piece Connie Britton said she wasn’t willing to reprise her role as the “coach’s wife” (she was Billy Bob Thornton’s wife in the movie version of FNL) unless her character had more depth than simply rooting for the Panthers from the stands.

Talk about ballsy play calling. Britton wasn’t working a ton at that point and could have used a steady gig, even if it was glorified extra work. But she was right: her role on the TV series turned out to be as important as any character’s, including Coach Taylor himself. The balance the character provides as Coach’s counterpart both inside their home as a wife and mom and as a fellow molder of young men and women as a guidance counselor makes the show. As much as I love Coach Taylor (see above), the show just wouldn’t be as strong if he didn’t have Tami to support and challenge him (more on that in the next section).

(Britton’s stellar work on FNL no doubt helped her score her next two TV series, FX’s American Horror Story and ABC’s Nashville.)

Connie Britton and Aimee Teegarden play mom and daughter, Tami and Julie Taylor.

Connie Britton and Aimee Teegarden play mom and daughter, Tami and Julie Taylor.

Mr. & Mrs. Taylor. Part of me is glad I missed the boat when FNL originally aired on NBC and I was still in my twenties. Now that I’m in my thirties and married I have a much stronger appreciation for Eric and Tami Taylor’s relationship.

If the show is about a handful of subjects—perhaps least of which is high school football in Texas—one such subject is Taylors’ marriage. They negotiate every minor disagreement (Eric invited the entire team to a barbecue at their house and didn’t tell Tami until the last minute!) and major family decision (no examples here as not to spoil!) with mutual respect and are never intentionally hurtful. Coach Taylor: “Marriage requires maturity. Marriage requires two people that will listen, really listen to each other. Marriage most of all requires compromise.” This friggin’ guy.

Football is dangerous. While I respect the fictional Coach Taylor (and the men like him who I’m sure exist in real life) it’s tough to reconcile the ideas that 1) football is a team sport that at its best can build an individual’s character and bonds among teammates that few other activities or sports can, and 2) football at its worst can be extremely dangerous and in some cases deadly.

Many questions about the safety of football have arisen in the last few years since FNL went off the air. I can’t help but wonder whether growing criticism, particularly as it relates to head injuries, might have marred the show’s positive depiction of football in some way. A critical scene in the pilot addresses this—a player is paralyzed as a result of an on-field collision—but rarely again in the series are we reminded how dangerous the game can be.

Needless to say I recommend FNL to anyone who has Netflix and loves compelling stories and great acting. Have you seen FNL? What’s your all-time favorite TV drama?

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