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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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