Story by Melody Guyton Butts
A few seconds of channel-surfing was the start of what could very well be a lifelong passion for Durham Academy fifth-grader John David Spatola. He recalls being a 6-year-old walking through the room as his father clicked through TV channels and catching a glimpse of the show American Ninja Warrior before his dad switched to another network.
John David was captivated. “Click back!” he remembers asking his dad. “We watched it for like five minutes, and I was like, oh wow, that’s really cool.” Fast-forward four years, and he trains for ninja competitions nearly every day, either on his backyard obstacle set or at a local gym — and he’s even competed on the nationally televised American Ninja Warrior Junior.
If you haven’t found yourself stopped in your tracks by a high-flying athlete on an episode of American Ninja Warrior (ANW) or its Junior sibling, here’s a quick description of the fast-growing ninja sport: Competitors complete a series of obstacles — typically starting with some version of the “floating steps” in which they make catlike leaps across water between unstable steps; then moving on to a variety of other upper-body-taxing obstacles requiring superhuman-like hanging, swinging, gripping and jumping; and typically concluding with the “warped wall,” in which they make a gravity-defying sprint up a steeply curved wall — all faster than seemingly possible.
“I think it’s actually a sport of techniques — who can go the fastest, what is the technique, what is the ‘meta’ [best way] to do this obstacle,” John David said. “A lot of it is the brain. … It’s my favorite sport to watch and play.”
As an obstacle sport, ninja has its roots in the Japanese TV series Sasuke. It began to gain mainstream popularity in the U.S. when American Ninja Warrior premiered in 2009.
“This is the beginning of a sport, and I’m glad to be a part of that,” John David said. “The adult ninjas now, they didn’t have that — they didn’t have the gyms, and ninja wasn’t even a thing when they were kids. I bet the kids [competing today] will be twice as good as them, and they’re really good now.”
After that fateful day when John David happened to catch a glimpse of ANW on TV, he began researching with gusto, watching every ninja YouTube video he could find. Around that time, USA Ninja Challenge, a gym offering a ninja-style obstacle course training program, opened in Durham, and John David began taking classes.
“It’s a perfect sport for me. I’m a kid who needs to be active, and ninja is perfect for that,” he said. “If I don’t do ninja for one day, there’s this feeling I get — that I need to hang. I need to get my energy out.”
For his seventh birthday, his parents surprised him with a backyard ninja obstacle set so that he could “hang” to his heart’s content. It came in particularly handy in spring 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced gyms across the country, including USA Ninja Challenge, to temporarily close.
Fortunately for John David and the other 140-plus ninjas who competed in the second season of American Ninja Warrior Junior, all filming for the game show’s second season was completed in the summer of 2019, prior to the pandemic.
ANW Junior began airing on the Universal Kids network in February 2020, and John David’s episode aired in May. While he did not advance beyond the initial round, he said he feels grateful to have been selected to compete.
“Ninja Junior was the turning point from not being as into it as much, to [me thinking] this is a serious sport, I can get really into this — and I have,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it at first when I was there, but when it aired on TV, I was like, oh my gosh, this is reality. It was a very good experience, not only to be there but to see other ninjas.”
After competing in ANW Junior, John David decided to prioritize his ninja training and quit playing soccer. Now, he typically trains for ninja competitions nine days out of 10 and has competed and performed well in several competitions. Among his big national-level successes are sixth place in his age group in the Athlete Warrior Games finals and 12th in his age group at the National Ninja League World Championships.
Most ninjas have nicknames, and John David’s is “The Dude,” which has its roots in a username he chose for a chess app several years ago. He still competes with the Durham Academy chess team, and the ability to think 10 steps ahead and the practice habits that he honed through his years of playing chess are paying dividends in ninja competitions.
“My [ninja] coach is saying I’m really good at all the techniques. … I’m really good with the mind stuff,” John David said.
His favorite obstacle is any lache, which is “kind of like flying through the air,” he explained. “You’re going from something to something with your hands. I’ve actually done a 10-foot one before.”
John David believes that in ninja, he has found not only a sport that he loves, but also potentially a profession.
“I really want to open a ninja gym. It would be the perfect job because I love ninja and I love interacting with younger kids. And I love to coach,” he said. “It’s just everything I love to do.”
For John David, ninja is about so much more than competition — it’s also about community.
“You know most of the ninjas. Not only are we competing against each other, but we want each other to do good,” he said. “I heard this from some of the kids who competed in season 1 of ANW Junior: They tried to make it a super competitive show at first — they wanted the kids to have rivals. But it turned out that the kids cheered for each other every time. That’s just ninja.”