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The 'Warrior' way

By JOSHUA ROBERTS jroberts@paducahsun.com

Nicole Martinez was dialed in two years ago in downtown Kansas City, Missouri — trained, focused and determined for a seventh season appearance on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.”

But inexperience snagged her, she stumbled early, and couldn’t recover.

The memory is a sore spot, and motivation. She has redemption in mind for her second go around, a season nine regional qualifier slated for April 7 and 8 in Daytona, Florida.

“I’m just so much stronger now,” said Martinez, a Paducah resident and an elementary health/physical education teacher in Metropolis, Illinois. “I will be extremely disappointed if I go out super early.”

Martinez, 26, is one of two local athletes slated to participate in the southeast region of the NBC sports entertainment show. Inspired by the Japanese series “Sasuke,” “Ninja” challenges highly-tuned athletes to negotiate a series of challenging obstacles in hopes of reaching the national finals in Las Vegas.

The winner earns a $1 million grand prize.

Calvert City’s Andy Harrington, also 26, will compete in Daytona, too. He’s a Ninja rookie, but a long-time fan who set sights on competing.

“I never played sports in high school,” said Harrington, who works as an apprentice electrician for a Paducah union. “I was always just a gamer. But I made it my goal in 2016 to hopefully get on the show and sure enough, I got the call saying, ‘Hey, we want you.’”

Martinez said the application process alone, which includes photos and a video, is arduous. Last year, more than 65,000 people applied, and the interest keeps growing as the show gains more popularity.

“We like to say in the community that the biggest obstacle is just getting the call,” she said.

The local athletes described what motivates them to meet and surpass the rigorous requirements for a competition like Ninja, which demands quick-twitch strength and agility.

Martinez said she was laughed at and written off when she told people she was applying the first time. The doubters “lit a fire under me,” she said. Stubbornness keeps her pushing.

“Ultimately, for me, it’s seeing a skill that is unattainable at the time and figuring out how to make that something I can do,” Martinez said. “So, there’s always something in the back of my mind that’s out of reach that I’m trying to get to.”

Harrington, who hopes to someday open his own gym, said he wants to use Ninja as a platform to set a good example for others.

“I’m a pretty firm believer in what you put your mind to, you can do,” he said. “I’ve put in countless hours of practice and training at the gym, and here I am.

“You hear all the time, ‘I don’t have time for this,’ but I work 10-hour days, five days a week and go to school and I have time for this. I want to show working Americans that you do have time to work for your dreams.”

There are six different Ninja qualifying regions around the U.S., each with about 125 competitors. Harrington and Martinez will have to finish in the top 30 on April 7 and the top 15 on April 8 to advance to the national finals in Vegas this summer.

The course on the 7th will have six obstacles, Martinez said, and four more will be added for the 8th.

The show will air in late May or early June, and competitors sign waivers forbidding them from disclosing how they fared before the show comes out.

Both local competitors have sharpened their skills by training with “Ninja”-like implements at home.

Harrington built a peg wall and hang wall inside his garage, and a salmon ladder in his backyard to get ready for “Ninja.” He trains roughly five or six days a week, even during breaks at work.

Martinez, who grew up as a rock climber and played high school basketball, convinced her parents in 2013-14 to let her build obstacles like a climbing wall, peg board and monkey bars in their home barn in Vienna, Illinois.

“I had basically a full-fledged ninja gym,” she said. Later, she started a ninja training program at River 2 River Fitness in Paducah.

Harrington said “Ninja” demands elite physical conditioning, but also adaptability.

“You don’t have to just be physically in shape,” he said. “You have to be mentally prepared for what’s coming.”

Harrington, who has received advice from Martinez about what to expect on the show, said it’s unique the local area will have two “Ninja” hopefuls.

“These aren’t pro athletes, these are people coming from all different environments and backgrounds,” he said. “And it’s ironic for such a small area to have two (competitors) considering how few people they accept.”

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