By day, Josh Peña works for Walgreens at a store in Huber Heights, Ohio, where he supports both the front end and pharmacy teams throughout the day. His job is to jump in to help customers wherever he is needed during his shift.
But when he’s off the clock, he’s been jumping in, over, onto and across obstacles of different shapes and sizes as he trained for NBC’s high-flying competition show, American Ninja Warrior.
“I had to stick to my training schedule and make sure I was training every day,” he says. “When I had a day off work, that was a full day to train. And when I did work, I’d clock out at the end of a shift, go home and do weight training, or head to one of the ninja gyms I use.”
Peña traveled far and wide to visit ninja gyms – specialized obstacle course and training centers utilized by ninja athletes. He mostly trained at Movement Lab Ohio in nearby Columbus and Nati Ninja in Cincinnati, but would often make the trek across state lines into Indiana to find gyms that were open during COVID-19.
His rigorous workout regimen included taking on several of the obstacles he’d face on the show … from the simple ones, like the rope swings (below), to the more advanced, like the warped wall and salmon ladder – both of which Peña says are his favorites.
Peña on the rope swings at Nati Ninja in Cincinnati.
The warped wall is a 14.5-foot vertical wall that curves back toward the climber in a reverse letter “C” shape, making it extremely difficult to reach the top. The salmon ladder is a bar that rests on, but is not attached to, a “ladder” with several notches, and the only way to climb it is through a series of pull-ups, moving the bar up one notch each time.
“They are not for the faint of heart,” Peña warns.
Peña on the warped wall at Movement Lab Ohio in Columbus.
Peña applied to the show last year, prior to the pandemic, but didn’t make it past the audition stage. Although this is his first year participating, it represents a dream long in the making. He began watching the show in 2014, and started to wonder what it would take for him to compete one day.
Every year from 2015 to 2018, he told himself that he’d finally try out the next year, but injuries, life events and self-doubt got in the way each time. Finally, in 2019, he saw something that made him believe it could actually be possible: a ninja athlete with Asperger syndrome competed at the American Ninja Warrior finals in Las Vegas.
Peña on the salmon ladder at Movement Lab Ohio in Columbus.
Peña, who also has Asperger’s, felt a sense of pride as he watched an athlete represent him, competing at the highest level.
“Watching him on his run in 2019 really inspired me,” says Peña. “To see what he was able to do, despite his disability, made me believe that I could do the same thing. So this year I really want my run to inspire people not just with Asperger’s, but with any other type of mental limitation or disability. I want to show them that we can conquer the course, and we can conquer life.”
And this year, his chance arrived, as he entered the Tacoma Dome in Seattle to compete on Season 13. Although Josh's run didn't make the televised cut last night, he scquitted himself well during his run, making it to the daunting Double Down obstacle before getting eliminated – but not before running down his years-long dream of meeting some of his ninja idols in real life.
“On set, I was absolutely star-struck,” Peña says. “I had watched all of these hosts and competitors on TV for so many years, so to finally meet them in person and be on the show myself is just such a thrill.”
Peña cheered on his fellow Ohio ninjas and enjoyed his time getting to know the course, and the competitors up close and personal, and he's already training to be back on the course again as soon as he can.
Catch the rest of Season 13’s competitors every Monday night at 8 p.m. EDT/7 p.m. CDT on NBC.