Trio of Alaskans represent the state on ‘American Ninja Warrior’
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -
Three Alaskan Ninjas swung, clung and hung on for dear life Monday on the popular obstacle course show ‘American Ninja Warrior’.
The NBC show returned to the airwaves in September after filming was stopped in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The interruption in shooting led the producers of American Ninja Warrior (ANW) to approach their return to Season 12 differently, allowing teams to compete in the obstacle course.
ANW veteran Nick Hanson (Unalakleet) was tabbed captain of ‘Team Alaska’ and needed two more Ninjas to fill out the roster. A clear choice for Hanson was Christi Marie (Fairbanks), who previously competed on American Ninja Warrior, reaching the Seattle/Tacoma City Finals in Season 11. One more spot left on the team, Hanson turned to fellow World Eskimo Indian Olympic Games competitor Kyle Worl (Juneau) to represent the 49th state.
“It was a really great dynamic to be able to bring Central, Alaska, Western, Alaska, Southeast, Alaska all coming together to represent one flag.” said Hanson.
The trio of Alaskans were hosted in a St. Louis, Missouri-bubble provided by the network, where masks, social distancing and COVID-19 testing were frequent. Families were unable to attend the event, as they tuned in remotely on a screen visible to the competitors.
Nick Hanson, also known as the ‘Eskimo Ninja’, made his ANW debut in 2015, becoming the first Alaskan to appear on the show. Throughout his time as a Ninja, Hanson has completed the varied courses five times, including Monday’s performance. Hanson paced his way through six obstacles, including the shrinking steps, the lunatic ledges and the ring chaser, before meeting the final obstacle: The Mega Wall. Standing 18-feet high, Hanson sprinted up the vertical barricade and smashed the buzzer, claiming the $10,000 prize handed out to those who conquer the wall.
“I had this primal scream," Hanson recalled. "And that was very real, because there was no crowd, no family right down below me. I really felt this emotion that came from deeper within and it was just like everybody that couldn’t be there came through me. Everybody that couldn’t be there to witness it live, I expressed my emotions for them and with them and that was what really meant a lot to me.”
Although Hanson was the lone competitor to climb the Mega Wall, his overall time of completion was not fast enough to qualify for the next round, where the top 12 competitors advance.
“Going into it, I know I am not the fastest guy. When I was in Tacoma I missed out on getting to the Mega Wall because I failed on the lightning bolts, so I was like, ‘I want redemption’," he said. “I was thinking ‘I am just going to run at my pace and make sure that I have enough energy for it.' A lot of Ninjas in the back were like, ‘what is he doing, how come he isn’t going fast?’ I knew I had to keep a little bit of energy left for the wall and it paid off.”
Hanson has been a role model for his community and state, where he hopes to continue to reach the youth with his platform.
“The most important value to me is to know who you are," Hanson said. "I want kids to have that opportunity to say, ‘hey look, there are so many different options out there, even if you come from a small village like us’ and that is what I want the kids to know; there is more out there than you might think.”
Kyle Worl, 29, made his American Ninja Warrior debut Monday after invited by Hanson to join Team Alaska. Worl and Hanson have a strong relationship as top competitors in the World Eskimo Indian Olympic (WEIO) Games.
Worl had only three weeks to train like a ninja before the big day, and although Worl was unable to complete the course, failing on the lunatic ledges, he was there for a bigger purpose.
“You may have noticed on the show I wore this same shirt here, which is ‘Team Juneau'. That it something meaningful, as I coach Native Youth Olympics here in Juneau and these are our team shirts, so I wanted to be able to represent my community, not only by wearing this shirt but by showing the world who we are.” Worl said from his home.
On the broadcast, American Ninja Warrior highlighted Worl competing in traditional WEIO Games, while allowing him to give his testimony in his Native Language of Tlingit.
“That’s the most important thing about what they shared on the show," he said. "They included the traditional games and our language and that was even more important to me than the actual airing of the run. That was exciting to watch, but to be able to have them share my story and my community is what is important to me.”
Not only was the representation important to Worl, but to Hanson as well, an Alaskan-Native who gave his testimony in his Native Language of Inupiaq.
“I’ll tell you this right now, the entirety of the show didn’t matter to me as much as the moment they allowed Kyle to speak in Tlingit on T.V. That was the coolest, I mean, I got emotional.
“People forget that our language, our culture was a little bit taken away from us. Kyle, myself, and others of our age group, we are the healing generation, we’re the ones trying to bring it back, trying to recover all of that,” Hanson said. “I thought that was a great representation, showing young people that if you put your mind to it, you can be the change of our cultures and you can save our people. I was just so proud of that moment.”
Worl has been a Native Youth Olympics coach in Juneau for the past three years, expanding the sport in his area from the elementary level to high school.
“When I coach the Games, I always tell my athletes to strive to do their personal best and to not be limited in thinking, ‘I can’t do this', because they never tried it before," said Worl. "I didn’t join the Native Youth Olympics until my senior year of high school because I thought I would be no good. When I took on American Ninja Warrior, if I just let myself think that I can’t do it, than I wouldn’t have done it. I think it is a good lesson to just go into something a do your best. I want to be able to show my athletes that I can lead by example.”
In 2019, Marie became the first woman from Alaska and the first person from Fairbanks to compete on American Ninja Warrior, when she advanced to the Seattle/Tacoma City Finals. The Hutchison High School graduate withstood the lunatic ledges before surviving the ring chaser obstacle in Monday’s performance. Marie hit the water attempting the rib run, unable to advance to the next round. However, she was fortunate to even be there at all.
While on a run in December, Marie collapsed, and was advised to see a doctor immediately.
“They hooked me up to a heart monitor and had me go back to the gym, which I was excited about," she recalled. “They said I was having these heart failings. My heart was shooting up to 200 (beats per minutes) and then dropping down to like 40 and there’s points where it completely quit all together.”
Marie was then sent to the nearest Mayo Clinic, where she was diagnosed her with ventricular tachycardia, which is defined as three or more heartbeats in a row, at a rate of more than 100 beats a minute. Her doctors suggested that she doe not participate in physical activity and to just “chill out”, as Marie describes she did for the next five months. She returned to the clinic in May, where they hooked her up to the same type of machine as they did in December.
“My heart read good, I was in the 99th-percentile and nothing was wrong with it. After months of waiting, we are hoping that it was just a virus and it took its toll and it’s over. And no, we don’t think it was the coronavirus, I was tested for that and it was negative,” Marie clarified.
Just days after competing in American Ninja Warrior, which was filmed in August, Marie had to seek medical attention once again. She received an emergency appendectomy, yet another setback in her training and recovery.
“I swear man, when things hit you like seriously again? It is kind of defeating sometimes, like ‘here’s another kick to the teeth' pretty much," Marie admitted. "But that’s the thing that’s kept me going, you got to keep going, you got to just do what you can to make it through.
"Next year is that it’s my comeback year and that wall is mine.”
Now residing in Iowa, Marie has been teaching physical education while raising her three children. In her second appearance, she felt the difference without her family in attendance physically, but had her fellow Alaskans by her side.
“Having Team Alaska, that was big this year, with the heart we all have for our state and people. Bringing Alaska to Missouri, it was really, really fun, it was almost like having family there.” she said.
Marie will continue to recover, while training for her next chance on American Ninja Warrior.
Hanson and Worl are both elite World Eskimo Indian Olympic competitors, sharing and teaching the traditional games across many borders. While comprising Team Alaska, Hanson had little hesitation in selecting Worl because of his successful background in the WEIO games.
“I immediately though of Kyle Worl. He is one of the top World Eskimo Indian athletes in the world and I thought he would be a top Ninja too, because he’s so coachable, super strong and has the will power that digs beneath.” Hanson said.
The World Eskimo Indian Olympic Games display the preparedness one needs for survival, requiring strength, agility and endurance. These skills are also needed on the American Ninja Warrior course, which is in part why Hanson has appeared on the show for the last six seasons.
“There is no tougher training than training for the Native Games. I have gone to Ninja Gyms, trained with the best in the world and every time I try to teach them a Native Game, they go, ‘how do you do this, how is this possible?’
“It is you versus you. You’re not competing against everybody else, you’re competing against how far you can push yourself, that is what the Native Games are all about. When you get up on that Ninja Course, it is about how much you can hold on to, how much do you want to push yourself to the next level. It is just such a perfect marriage in sport.”
Worl, who is both a coach and competitor in the WEIO Games, pointed to Hanson as the perfect example of how the skills overlap.
“He is a Native Games athlete and then very successful on the show,” he said. “As Native people, hunters and gatherers living off the land, we had to navigate obstacles within our life and that is what the games are kind of structured after. The scissor broad jump, that has to deal with ice hopping and balance and on every [ANW] course, there is a balance obstacle. Through our Native Games, we’ve really learned to push ourselves and to be able to utilize all our strength, so I think there is a lot of crossover.”
The 2020 WEIO Games, previously scheduled for July, were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Worl earned gold in the Kneel Jump, Knuckle Hop, and the Greased Pole Walk, among numerous runner-up finishes. In the same games, Hanson placed first in the Scissor Broad Jump and the Men’s Blanket Toss, while placing second behind Worl in the Knuckle Hop.
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