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Becoming a Ninja Warrior

Turning a pop phenomenon into challenging life lessons

Clark Kent emerged from a phone booth as Superman. Sean Darling-Hammond, 30, sheds his suit to become an American Ninja Warrior.
    In the 1930s, when Superman was debuted in DC Comics, not every Sean, Chris and Tony could be superheros. Nowadays, it’s a wide open field. Anyone can become a ninja (I was one for a day and could have stayed one if I had put in the work). You can, too — if you’re willing to travel to White Marsh, north of Baltimore.
    Darling-Hammond makes his weekly 50-mile drive, usually after working a full day as a law clerk in D.C., to climb closer to his goal of becoming a real-life superhero for children of color.
    “When you get up the ladder, you’ve gotta reach down your hand and pull the next person up,” Darling-Hammond told me. “I really want every kid, no matter what they look like or where they come from, to have that feeling of believing in themselves and also believing in their ability to accomplish great things.”

Rise of the Ninja
    Ninjas migrated from Japan by way of James Bond. In 1964 Ian Fleming’s Bond novel You Only Live Twice — and in the best-of-Bond blockbuster film that followed in 1967 — ninjas allied with 007 to prevent nuclear war. In America, ninjas seeped into the culture through martial arts movies, comic books, video games and television, morphing by the 1980s all the way to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
    That exposure transformed Japan’s Medieval itinerant footsoldiers into many a Western boy’s alter ego.
    The ninja was flexible. In Japan, he’d already gone through many evolutions — from agile, adventurous, able and available mercenary — to, at the highest levels, a supernaturally powered warrior able to walk on the water and fly through the air, like the adversaries in the millennial movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.    
    With the reality TV show American Ninja Warrior, now in its seventh season, NBC has smudged the line between life and fiction, inspiring and enabling everyday men and women to take the ninja challenge.
    As the self-styled Giving Ninja, our hero Darling-Hammond aims to be the first American Ninja Warrior to win NBC’s TV competition. He would then, he says, give the $1 million prize to expand educational opportunity. Already this season, viewers have seen Darling-Hammond complete the Pittsburgh qualifying round, which aired in May. On August 10, the nation will see whether he advances in the finals.
    “I have never been more inspired than I was by the things I saw on American Ninja Warrior this season,” Darling-Hammond said. “I think everybody hungers for inspiration. We all need that in our lives. That’s what this TV show has become for a lot of people.”

The Making of a Ninja

Sean Darling-Hammond scales the side of the 14-foot Warped Wall.

    Stripped from suit to tank top, shorts and sneakers, Darling-Hammond is ready to exercise the Giving Ninja. He and training buddy Chris DiGangi, 25, transform into a super-fit Mario and Luigi team, chasing and challenging each other to run, crawl and hop through a warmup course.
    Sweat gleams on Darling-Hammond’s head as he hauls himself by upper body strength atop the 14-foot concave Warped Wall. He rope-climbs down the side while DiGangi throws himself over the wall.
    Next Darling-Hammond defies gravity by hiking up the Salmon Ladder, using pull-ups to throw his body upward and the fraction of a second of weightlessness to make it to the next set of rungs. From the top of the ladder, he swings his body through the air and flies to the Unstable Bridge, a contraption of floating grip-strength boards chained to the ceiling.
    He grunts and shimmies through the obstacle, his dismount leading him to the gym’s newest obstacle, the Snake Bridge. Three shiny blue-and-black-striped platforms wobble back and forth, strapped to each other with the two end boards loosely anchored to opposing metal pipe structures.
    DiGangi hops on and is across in no time; balance is his forte. Darling-Hammond hesitates on the first step. His feet follow each other slowly, one in front of the other, and his arms sway with bent elbows left and right above his head. The bridge throws him off in 30 seconds at its halfway point.
    Between training sessions and workouts, DiGangi also works full time for a consulting firm in D.C. and is a grad student at George Washington University, where he studies aerospace engineering. He and Darling-Hammond met at an American Ninja Warrior competition last year and have since become friends and training partners.

Traveling Alternate Routes
    Alternate Routes and its daunting obstacles are the brainchild and handwork of Tony Torres, 33, who is the father of Maryland’s only Ninja Warrior training gym. In 2012, Torres outfitted a 5,000-square-foot warehouse with obstacles, turning it into Ninja HQ.
    Torres turns to “Saske,” Japan television’s version of American Ninja Warrior, for inspiration on training and obstacles.

Chris DiGangi works his upper body swinging through the Ring Toss.

    Darling-Hammond and DiGangi will partner in Torres’ own upcoming ninja competition August 1 and 2.
    Torres sets up the course in the style of NBC’s finals in Mt. Midorima and Las Vegas. Stage One consists of eight obstacles focusing on agility. Stage Two concentrates on balance and upper- and lower-body work. The Salmon Ladder, feared by many competitors, is one of the challenges in this stage. Stage Three is all upper-body obstacles, while Stage Four is one large obstacle.
    Of course, after ninjas have been marketed to kids for 50 years, the gym’s younger demographic gets its own shot at glory. On July 25 Alternate Routes hosts American Ninja Warrior: The Next Generation, for nine- to 13-year-old would-be ninjas.
    Torres creates a kids’ course to be taken seriously.
    “I want to challenge the kids. I want to literally bring up the next generation of American Ninja Warrior. I want them to fail, because I want them to know what failure does. Failure should push you to keep trying. I don’t want everything to be easy and rainbows and handed to you, because what does that teach you?”