Local athlete trains for shot on television obstacle challenge

BIG RAPIDS — Most people run and lift weights to stay in shape. This is not the case for Reed City native Jacob Johnson, who is pursuing the dream of a lifetime — a chance to compete on “American Ninja Warrior.”

Johnson, who currently works as an accountant, has spent the last nine months training for an opportunity to appear on the NBC show.

“I was looking for something different for a workout,” Johnson said. “I was getting bored with just weight lifting and running. I saw ‘Ninja Warrior’ and it looked like a lot of fun. That was key to me, to find something fun to stay active and to keep wanting to do it. I saw the show and that was it for me.”

The show features contestants maneuvering through elevated obstacle courses while being timed. Athletes with top times advance to the next round. The course changes every year, with only a few popular obstacles carrying over, such as the “warped wall,” on which athletes must run up a 16-foot concave wall to reach the top.

“It got to a point where he stopped lifting weights and started running around town, climbing underneath bridges and doing a bunch of other crazy stuff,” said Aftyn Johnson, Jacob’s wife. “It’s easy to support your husband’s dream when it’s something that makes him so happy.”

Jacob wrestled for the University of Michigan and Lindenwood University, where he was tabbed as an academic All-American. He said his skills on the mat helped him prepare for the competitions.

“‘Ninja Warrior’ has a lot of parallels to wrestling,” Jacob said. “It’s an individual sport, but it also has a big community with others who are doing ninja training. So, it’s a lot of fun competing, but also fun around the community as well.”

“I could see the transition from him getting out of wrestling and closing that chapter in his life,” Aftyn said. “It’s in his personality to have some sort of competition, so closing the door on wrestling was hard for him.”

Jacob took part in independent competitions to help prepare for the official course.

“The competitions have been great,” Jacob said. “I have learned some lessons about how failures lead to successes. I have placed within the top 10 in the last couple competitions, and I have already submitted my video.”

Candidates for “American Ninja Warrior” must submit a homemade video showcasing their athletic abilities along with a background story. A panel of judges will choose who will compete in the regional qualifier on May 23 in Pittsburgh based on the video submissions.

“I will hear in May sometime if I have been chosen to compete in the qualifier,” Jacob said.

In the meantime, he continues to stay in shape by working out on his own.

“I try to work out five days a week,” Jacob said. “I do a lot of handstand training, a lot of pull-ups and I do a good deal of running. I try to keep my body lean while not gaining mass, but still increasing strength.”

Johnson’s biggest challenge is finding facilities that house the equipment needed to train for obstacle courses. This has forced him to improvise with his surroundings.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have a gym with all of the obstacles and replicas of the ‘Ninja Warrior’ stage,” Jacob said. “So I use what I can.”

Jacob trains most often at Ferris State University’s Student Recreation Center, where he uses platform boxes for jumping and handstand walking. He also uses the weight room squat rack bars to perform leaping and hanging maneuvers, jumping from bar to bar.

With every step taken and every prerequisite met, Johnson now is patiently waiting for the one phone call that would change his life.

“It’s going to be amazing,” Jacob said. “I have put in a lot of hard work, so to get the call saying, ‘Hey, we are going to have you at the regional,’ it would be a blessing. I would hope the training I have done will prepare me for actually competing at a high level there.”

“American Ninja Warrior’s” regional round and season premier will be televised at 8 p.m. on May 25, on NBC.