Two local youths hang tough as junior ninja warriors
They don’t call it the “jungle” for nothing. Dangling rope swings hang like vines. Ladders and poles resemble tree branches, beckoning anyone brave enough to climb or swing from their ledges. A suspended set of monkey bars shift from side to side, their chains jangling from the ceiling, as 15-year-old Emmett Breen scurries across at top speed. It’s a Monday night in early April, and the Stonington High School sophomore is training at Warwick, Rhode Island’s Laid-back Fitness gym — the “jungle” side of it, to be exact.
For Emmett, who has been training as a ninja warrior for the last year or so, his ultimate goal is to one day make it onto the NBC primetime obstacle course game show, “American Ninja Warrior.” Spiraling off the show, which started airing in 2009, ninja warrior has exploded as a bona fide sport in recent years. As in the show, competitors face off against one another as they race against the clock in obstacle courses that resemble steroidal playgrounds. Helping train for such competitions, which are now held across the country, are ninja gyms outfitted with many of the obstacles seen on TV.
Looking at what the modest, sinewy Stonington native has already accomplished in his ninja sporting career, getting on the show once he turns 19 seems likely. He came in 9th in his age division out of hundreds at a national ninja competition in Detroit in February. Then, he placed second out of 40 at a New England regional competition in March.
Emmett is part of a burgeoning ninja warrior scene in Connecticut — a growing population in a state that boasts two of the show’s top competitors (Joe Moravsky and Drew Drechsel) and, here in New London, last year’s rookie Samer Delgado. Another promising young competitor making his way onto the scene is 10-year-old Mackenzie Roy Peterson of Norwich, who placed fourth in his division in February’s national competition. This summer, the New London magnet school fifth grader hopes to compete on a spinoff of “American Ninja Warrior” for children 14 years or younger titled “Best Kids Obstacle Course Show.”
“Connecticut has really become a hotbed for ninja activity in the last couple years,” says Brian Richardson, an executive producer of “Ninja Warrior.” “We’ve had a huge surge in submissions from the Connecticut area, and I think that’s largely because of the ninja gyms opened by Drew Drechsel (in Hamden and Windsor).”
For a determined Emmett, ninja warrior has become an outlet for fun while challenging himself physically, as well as mentally, in a variety of new and thrilling ways that he finds refreshing compared to team sports.
“I always feel like I have more to improve on with ninja,” Emmett, who is incredibly polite, says earlier this month while explaining his weekly workout routine (two days are spent at the gym with his trainer, another three he trains at home). “Ninja has such a wide variety of obstacles. You can practice grip strength, core strength, upper body strength, endurance, balance. You can even practice strategy. It’s a bunch of really hard things to train for, all in one.”
Besides competing on his school’s crew team (to keep up his cardio strength), Emmett participates in the computer club and math team, while also being a high honors student and a member of the French Honors Society. For the young teenager, who aspires to be an engineer, Emmett already seems to have an understanding of how to master several things at once. Perseverance is key, he says.
Emmett remembers the first time he saw “American Ninja Warrior” on television. He was 13. “I was at my cousin’s house, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he says. “I liked it because they make it look so easy, but you can obviously tell that it is so hard. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, I could do that,’ and so I thought maybe I could also do that.”
It wasn’t long before Emmett was climbing around his bathroom pretending he was on the show, breaking towels hooks off the wall. His parents, somewhat perplexed by the behavior, questioned Emmett’s sudden motives. Once he explained he wanted to build his own ninja warrior obstacles in his backyard, his father, Bryce Breen, was all for it. “The only condition was that he had to help me build it,” Bryce says. “And not only did he help me build it, but he designed it. He drew out exactly the things he wanted to have a part of it.”
In his father's backyard, overlooking the Mystic River, the 5-foot-7-inch teen has everything he needs to train on his own: hanging softballs to swing from one to the next; raised PVC pipes to run over; a slack line to practice balance. Demonstrating his skills, he performs a standing back tuck, landing his feet in the exact position he jumped from. At his mother’s Stonington home, Emmett has his own personal rock wall built into his bedroom. There, he can practice a variation of pull-ups while also working on grip strength and forearm endurance.
“I do at least 20 pull-ups a day to keep in shape. Before nationals, I was doing 60 every day,” Emmett says.
After falling early in his first competition in October 2016, Emmett knew he needed to step up his game. That meant, besides holding himself accountable to a vigorous routine, he needed to seek out his own ninja trainer to help. The closest one, Zak Champagne, a ninja warrior who nearly made it on the TV show two years ago, was in Warwick, Rhode Island, at Laid-back Fitness. Since then, Emmett has had the space and guidance to train for the more overlooked aspects of being a competitive ninja warrior — things such as speed, visualizing a course before running it, and learning how to stay in the zone are imperative to being a formidable ninja.
Sweeping across the nation
Since helping open Laid-back’s 3,000-square-foot ninja warrior “jungle” room in the fall of 2015, Champagne, who is employed as a ninja coach and physical trainer at Laid-back, says that the number of his ninja students has more than tripled. Starting with just a few dozen students in 2015, Champagne now teaches over 150 on any given week.
“Kids are going crazy with this sport,” Champagne says. “I have a lot of kids who come in whose parents say they don’t play well in team sports, but they tend to excel in the ninja world because it’s all about them. They can build their own course, and fail, and work their way to beating it and do it all at their own pace. … To me, that’s awesome.”
Champagne thinks a variety of factors have contributed to the sudden explosion in ninja warrior as a sport. Aside from the show’s popularity, a proliferation of ninja gyms and ninja warrior leagues (governing bodies to hold competitions) nationwide have played the biggest part. The National Ninja League, which was founded in 2015 and started organizing children’s competitions in 2016, reported the number of children participating jumped from 278 in 2016 to 3,188 in 2017.
“The show’s earliest ninja warriors were just people who trained in their backyards or at the park. Gyms dedicated to ninja warrior obstacles weren’t around until recently,” Champagne says. “It wasn’t until a handful of ninja warriors who had competed on the show decided to open their own gyms that the sport started to catch on.”
The ‘Ninja’ prodigy duo
Last summer, New London's Samer Delgado made it all the way to the TV show's national final round. On a Tuesday afternoon, Delgado is in his living room training with his youngest apprentice, Mackenzie — a highly energetic 10-year-old, who, at just 4-foot-5 and 75 pounds, is already an ambitious force in the ninja world. Besides training with Delgado one day per week, Mackenzie, too, goes to Laid-back Fitness once a week to train with Champagne. Being physically fit is one aspect of the sport, of course, but Delgado also sees ninja warrior as a mental exercise in focus, control, perseverance, and patience.
Mackenzie, donning a skintight "Spider Man" T-shirt and a spiky bleach-blonde mohawk, is standing before his first obstacle — a foam roller that he must walk a meter on before continuing with the rest of the homemade course, which includes balancing on a ball and walking over a pipe. But for the fifth grader, who is visibly excited to have a newspaper reporter and photographer watching him alongside his mother and trainer, the balancing exercise was proving more difficult than expected.
“Mackenzie, this is where you need to learn to concentrate now,” Delgado says, trying to mentally prepare Mackenzie for the realities of a television competition. “There will be tons of lights, people, cameras, producers. You have to learn here how to block all that out.”
Though Mackenzie hasn’t yet submitted his application to the show, he already thinks he will be its first winner. In fact, with a sly tilt of the head, he confidently tells the camera this in one of his application videos.
“They call me the Spidey Ninja,” he says with a cute smile.
Mackenzie was born to climb, it seems. His parents, Kim and Ken, both remember their son who, once he could walk, started nose-diving and somersaulting off their living room couch and scaling along the furniture and walls. Years later, the metal beams at big box stores such as Staples, or the roofs of baseball field dugouts, became Mackenzie's forté.
“He would climb all the way up to the top of those beams, without any fear, and we couldn’t stop him. He has always been a very energetic kid,” says Ken. “When we would bring him to our daughter’s softball games, and we would look around for him, you couldn’t just scan the ground, you always had to look up, too.”
After a chance meeting with Delgado almost three years ago, Mackenzie’s parents recruited the calisthenics athlete to start training Mackenzie one-on-one in what his parents saw as a perfect opportunity to safely channel their child’s exuberant energy. After just a few weekly sessions at Groton’s Pleasant Valley Elementary School playground, Delgado had taught the 7-year-old how to do a human flag, and later, levers and flip dismounts.
“It’s been about teaching him how to focus,” Delgado says. “Getting him to do that is still a little bit hard sometimes, and I think it always be with him. … But I think he is starting to understand how important it is.”
Those lessons, it seems, have already started to materialize. In a video of Mackenzie competing at the national ninja competition, a look of determination is set over the mini-athlete’s face as he swings, jumps and climbs his way to the finish line.
“You can see him breathe and relax himself. He visualizes the obstacles he is going to do and knows how he is going to do it. He puts himself there,” Delgado says. "And for someone who is just 10 years old ... he has come a long, long, ways.”