Isaac Mitchell drove seven hours to U.S. Bank Stadium for a four-minute workout — and a shot at stardom.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said, sweating in the shadows of an obstacle course that would startle Indiana Jones more than a basket of snakes.
The 31-year-old Kansas University student had just bounced, swung, lunged and climbed his way through the set of “American Ninja Warrior,” NBC’s summer hit that set up camp in downtown Minneapolis in late May for two episodes, the first of which is scheduled to air July 9.
What’s as remarkable as the contestants’ physiques — they look like the offspring of Thor and Xena — is the fact that the show took so long to get here.
“Minnesota has become the heartbeat of ‘Ninja Warriors,’ ” said longtime co-host Matt Iseman, citing the more than half-dozen Ninja training gyms in the Twin Cities. He was practically swooning as he filmed outside the Vikings’ digs. “I swear to God, I want to go in there and throw some passes.”
Shooting on location comes with its own brand of obstacles.
It took the crew six days to assemble the course and state-of-the-art equipment, which lit up Medtronic Plaza in front of the stadium as shooting during two weekend nights extended through daybreak. (The reality series shoots at night to maximize the effect of its top-of-the-line lighting design.) Heavy winds four hours before the inaugural run forced techies to temporarily seek shelter.
Right before taping began, runners were told not to chew gum: “It looks horrible on camera!” Sideline reporter Kristine Leahy admitted that shooting all night can be hard on the body, but she gets by on coffee.
“It’s three cups,” she said, shortly before getting on social media as a crew member combed her hair. “But they’re like venti size.”
Being on the road is one reason the show draws an average of 5.9 million viewers a week and has lasted 10 seasons. Most of the free tickets allowing fans to gawk from the stands were snatched up instantly, despite the fact that some seatings started at 1 a.m. Those who didn’t get official passes leaned over the railings, cheering on everyone from professional Warrior Meagan Martin to a guy called “Tie-Dye Dad.”
“It’s nice to capture the local flavor,” said Leahy, who had lunch at Manny’s Steakhouse before the Friday night taping and purchased scented candles at the downtown Target store for her hotel room. “It makes you connected to the rest of the world.”
St. Louis Park’s Sarah Schoback, a “Ninja Warrior” veteran, was more than thrilled that the show was finally on her home turf — but not as excited as her 5-year-old daughter, one of roughly 35 friends and family members who were on hand to support Mom.
“She asked if she would be on TV again,” said Schoback, who started her own Ninja gym, Edina’s Obstacle Academy, in 2016. “She’d much rather see herself on the screen than me.”
Schoback was all business right before her turn, jogging in place to get the blood flowing and taking deep breaths at the starting line. But in the hours leading up to the event, the 32-year-old was more than happy to serve as cultural ambassador, recommending Glam Doll Donuts to first-time visitors and warning competitors how the area’s humidity might make it harder to hold onto the course’s trapeze bars and hooks.
“Everyone can’t believe how clean it is here!” she said.
Eric Middleton, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Entomology Department, was so comfortable competing in his backyard that he challenged the hosts, who were perched atop the proceedings like emperors overseeing a gladiator combat, to eat spiders if he completed the course. Doing so meant reaching the top of an inwardly curved wall, a drill that tested the strength of calf muscles and the desire to defy gravity.
“This is really relaxing,” said Middleton, who, like Schoback, has had success in past seasons. “It’s much better than having to travel and stay in a hotel.”
Our tires would get punctured by throwing stars if we revealed whether these two old hands qualified for the Minneapolis finals — airing later this summer — or the Big Show in Las Vegas at season’s end. But we can say that in the first three hours of shooting, only two of 50 competitors made it to the top of the wall.
Schoback’s pregame analysis was right on; a lot of the athletes struggled to get a grip.
“I didn’t do as well as I would have liked,” Minneapolis personal trainer Jennifer Tavernier said minutes after her attempt. “On TV, they make it look like a piece of cake.”
Despite falling short of expectations, Tavernier was all smiles as she toweled off. In fact, all the contestants seemed thrilled to have had a shot at taming the Beast, even if they failed to conquer it.
“In other sports, if you have a bad night, your team picks you up. Here, it’s just you and the course,” said Charlie Bush, a Walmart employee from Utah.
That experience didn’t come cheap. Bush paid his own way to fly to Minneapolis. Out of 70,000 hopefuls who applied to compete this season, just 720 got invitations. And only one will take the $1 million prize. The rest will have to settle for very limited cash awards at each qualifying round — and stories to share with grandchildren after their knees give out.
“You hear about Minnesota Nice,” said co-host Akbar Gbajabiamila. “Now, the world will be learning they’re also Ninja Tough.”