LIBERTYVILLE – Twelve-year-old Kylie Campbell adjusted her light brown ponytail and exhaled slowly. Behind her, a swell of voices chanted, “Beat! That! Wall!”
Before her loomed the 14-foot warped wall – a black, slightly concave wall, its ledge leaning a few inches out beyond its base. Another deep breath and Campbell is racing toward the wall, her arms pumping as fiercely as her legs.
She propels herself several feet up the wall before pushing up and away from it, throwing her hands up. Her fingertips are just inches away from the ledge – but then her sneakers begin slipping, casting her the inches or two of purchase that would have gotten her to the top. She slides back down to the bottom and jogs to the back of the line, gearing up for another attempt.
Campbell is one of the nearly 200 kids participating in the fifth annual Ninja Pro Camp at Libertyville’s Ultimate Ninjas on Jan. 5, coached and trained by 21 Ninja Warriors from NBC’s hit TV show “American Ninja Warrior.”
Ultimate Ninjas co-owner Mike “The Stallion” Silenzi is a six-time competitor on the show and says he loves “seeing the growth of a new sport – the sport of ninja” and loves working with kids to get active and attempt to master some of the obstacles they’ve seen ninja warriors, like Silenzi, tackle on the show – in a safe, controlled environment.
“It’s kind of a combination of parkour and gymnastics and functional movement of your body,” he explains. “I feel like the term ‘ninja’ as a sport is becoming extremely popular … most people, I think, know what it is, but it’s functional movement: We’re doing all body weight calisthenic things – swinging, running, jumping. It’s all the things your body is meant to do. Everything comes very naturally.”
During each of the three, two-and-a-half-hour sessions of the camp, kids tackled several of the familiar obstacles from the TV show – including the warped wall, quintuple steps, arm rings and the cargo net – broken down into stations, each overseen by a pair of Ninja Warriors. Shortly after her third attempt at the 14-foot warped wall, it was time for Campbell to move on to the next station. She hadn’t beaten the wall, but her grin was no dimmer as she squared off against the next obstacle.
Campbell’s mother, Roxana, says being a ninja warrior has become a passion for her daughter.
“It’s awesome,” she says. “She loves this type of stuff, so to see her do it and one day be able to compete. … She loves it.”
With a ferocious battle cry, 8-year-old Grayson Dybowski of Lake Geneva, Wis., chases down the 10-foot warped wall. A shoe goes flying, but his fingertips latch onto the wall’s edge. A few seconds pass in precarious limbo as he hangs there, trying to pull himself to the top. Finally, digging into an extra reserve of strength, he scrambles up, winded but triumphant.
This was a Christmas present for Grayson, explains his mother, Kristina Borowczyk – a respectable substitute for the ninja warrior obstacle course he asked Santa to assemble in his backyard.
“His brother right now is at boot camp and [Grayson] was like, ‘I’m gonna be fit, just like my brother,’” she says. “It’s exciting because he’s getting to do things that I never imagined. He said, ‘I wanna grow up and be on the TV show one day.’ So this is just helping him get to explore that.”
Since Christmas, she adds, Grayson had been crossing off each day on the calendar, counting down to the day he would get to meet some of his heroes from the TV show.
Thirteen-year-old Lola Bronchetti is no stranger to the world of ninja warriors, but this was her first time at an Ultimate Ninjas Pro Camp, mother Wendy Wartenweiler says. They drove down from Madison, Wis., to participate in the camp. For Wartenweiler, ninja warrior promotes so much more than simply mastering crazy obstacles.
“I think it’s good she’s learning more about body awareness and feeling healthy and strong,” Wartenweiler says. “For girls, to feel more strong instead of worrying about being skinny and body image. Using your body functionally to be strong, I think it’s really important for girls to grow up that way.”