Attention Climbers: $500,000 Up For Grabs (Sort Of)

Brian Arnold swinging through one of many climber-friendly obstacles on “American Ninja Warrior.” Bill Matlock/G4.

Want to know how to use your climbing skills to earn a cool half-mil? Ok, here goes…

Step 1: Climb pretty hard (at least V8). Step 2: Find a parkour training facility and make sure you’re reasonably fit and nimble. Step 3: Submit your audition video for “American Ninja Warrior,” the American version of a Japanese obstacle-based game show called “Sasuke.” Step 4: Get accepted to compete in “American Ninja Warrior.” Step 5: Make your way through the regional qualifier and semi-final competitions… Step 6: …and the four-stage national competition. Step 7: Collect $500,000.

This was Brian Arnold’s approach, anyway, and with it, he got pretty damned close to the jackpot.

Of course, this is all much, much easier said than done, but for all the hype “American Ninja Warrior” has received lately, it might be worth considering that climbers are among the few athletes who are uniquely suited to competing on the show’s obstacle courses, many of which involve gripping ropes, bars, wooden edges, and even standard-issue plastic climbing holds to maneuver across stretches of water.

Arnold, a 34-year-old rock climber with problems as hard as V12 under his belt, completed roughly 90% of the seven-step process outlined above on his first try at the show. An athletically gifted maintenance director at a nursing home, Arnold currently lives out of his van in Boulder, Colorado. He first caught wind of “American Ninja Warrior” the same way millions of other Americans did: the TV.

“I was watching an [“American Ninja Warrior”] marathon with Brian Capps. One of the contestants, Paul Kasemir, was on the show, and he’s from Longmont, near where I live. We were watching and were like, ‘Any climber could do this stuff.’”

Arnold happened to know Kasemir, as the two climb at the same bouldering gym, The Spot, so he made contact to learn more about the show. Tryouts were coming in February, Kasemir told him, and encouraged Arnold to make an audition video. Arnold took his advice.

Arnold’s audition video shows him doing an apparently casual dead hang from a mono pocket, bouldering on a steep wall, pulling two-finger moves up a campus board, and even one-arming a pinky-finger pull-up. The autobiographic talking portions take place in front of an oversized Bruce Lee poster.

But Arnold didn’t submit the video right away. First, he needed to build up some confidence. He entered a competition via APEX, a local parkour gym that holds regular Ninja Warrior-themed events. (Parkour is “about efficient movement,” said Kasemir, who also trains at APEX, in this interview with CBS Denver. “Finding a way over an obstacle, over a fence, over a box, jumping from rail to rail, balancing … basically getting from one place to another as fast as you can.”) Arnold won the local competition and got bumped to a “pro” division, where more experienced competitors face off. He took second place there.

In a region that has already produced several strong “American Ninja Warrior” contestants, Arnold was among the top athletes. That seemed like reason enough to send in that audition video.

The folks at the show recognized Arnold’s talent and invited him, along with 100 other hopefuls, to Dallas, for a regional competition. He placed a respectable 15th and moved on to the semi-finals with 30 competitors. In semis, he placed 3rd, his ticket to Las Vegas for the finals.

“As a climber, you have a huge advantage,” explains Arnold. “Most of the other guys who were in Vegas were pro parkour instructors and stuntmen. It suits the parkour guys, because the earlier stages are a lot of running and jumping, but the farther you go, it starts to suit climbers.”

Brent Steffenson, the highest-placing “American Ninja Warrior” competitor in Season 4, on the “Hang Climb,” which he did not complete. Photo from the Tempest Freerunning website. Steffenson is on the Tempest team.

In Vegas, Arnold passed the first stage, but fell off a tricky rolling-cylinder passage in the second. After that, only one competitor passed the second stage, Brent Steffensen, a freerunner hailing from Salt Lake City. Stephenson was eliminated in the third stage, on an obstacle called the “Hang Climb” (a very steep 15-foot section of climbing on juggy holds that Arnold likely would have completed with ease), thus, no one claimed the show’s $500,000 prize.

Only three competitors, out of more than 2,700, have completed the final course in the history of the American and Japanese versions of the show (the courses are identical in the two versions), and not one American. Still, with the intense popularity of the competition and scores of motivated, athletic people anxious to throw their hats in the ring, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before someone from the States pulls the sword from the stone.

For his part, Arnold is confident that his climbing skills give him a real shot at the big prize. “Physically, you’re swinging on ropes – it’s all grip strength,” he says. “A lot of parkour guys fell on the ropes – their hands just opened up. The globes, in semi-finals, they were jugs. For climbers, it was easy, but if you don’t climb regularly, you just don’t have the endurance.” He made it through the first stage of the finals this time around, and that was with a torn calf muscle, injured during a practice run at home – next time, if everything goes well, he could go all the way.

In the meantime, how does Arnold plan to prepare for the next season of “American Ninja Warrior”? “I’m going to build an obstacle course and practice,” he says. And don’t be surprised if you run into him bouldering and sport climbing in areas across the Western US, of which, Utah’s cobble-choked Maple Canyon is one of his favorites. “I love that place,” he says, “the climbing is just so weird!”