Brandon Thomas was used to the courses and obstacles at his local gyms, but the 18-year-old was now facing a completely new one in the biggest moment of his life.
Thomas was in Los Angeles on the set of the 15th season of NBC’s hit series, “American Ninja Warrior,” living out a dream he had had since he was 9. It was now all real and he was staring down the barrel of the six-obstacle course in front of him.
If Thomas was nervous, he didn’t show it. He stormed through the first few obstacles on the course, letting out victorious roars after each successful completion, and made it to the fifth obstacle, The Cubes, in 47.33 seconds. But Thomas ultimately came up short of getting a shot at the warped and mega walls for $10,000 as he slipped on the final cube.
The Apex native still qualified for a trip to the head-to-head semifinals as his run was the sixth-farthest and fastest one completed in his qualifier bracket.
“It’s been amazing,” Thomas said in a phone interview with North State Journal. “It’s been weird going from watching it on the TV to seeing how big the obstacles actually are in person. They’re massive. It’s just been an amazing experience.”
Thomas has been a fan of ninja, a fast-growing sport that involves obstacle course competitions, since he was little. He grew up watching the show and his mother, Julie, surprised him with a trip to a ninja gym when he was 14.
“I’ve been watching the show since Season 4,” Thomas said, “but the guy that actually got me into it was Flip Rodriguez. I specifically remember watching him in Season 6, and I told my parents I was going to be on the show one day while watching him. He was always so quick, and I wanted to run the courses just like Flip. He’s been a huge inspiration for me.
“I’ve always loved the idea of ninja, but there were never any gyms around here for the longest time. One day, it might have been in the middle of eighth or ninth grade, my mom just took me to a gym without telling me. It was just a homeschool event, and from that moment on I just fell in love with the sport again.”
Training and improving his ninja skills at his local gyms — WarriorTech OCR in Morrisville and Rock Solid Warrior in Apex and Fuquay-Varina — had been the norm for Thomas for years, but training for “American Ninja Warrior” was a bit different than what he had been used to.
“Once I got the call for the show, I started running courses that would be similar to previous qualifying-style courses,” Thomas said. “So roughly six obstacles, some very technical obstacles, agility, and always ending with the warped wall and the mega wall. I also had to adjust my sleep schedule since it’s filmed in the middle of the night. I had to make sure my body could function into the late hours of the night.
“Preparing for the show, I was usually waking up somewhere between 11 to 1 in the afternoon and I’d go to the gym as much as I could. I’d just find that earliest open gym and start running obstacles, making sure my body is in peak condition.
“I ran a lot of courses, a lot of just basic skills just to make sure my body control is on point and my technique is as good as it can be on whatever type of obstacle I may see because you never know what you’re going to see on the course. Once I was done training at the gym, I’d head home and it was just training my mind to be awake in the middle of the night so I’d be playing a lot of solitaire because that keeps your mind really focused.”
The improved training regimen worked like a charm — Thomas is still in the competition and will have a shot at the national finals when he competes in a ninja vs. ninja race in the semifinals in a few weeks.
The small taste of ANW has only inspired Thomas even more.
“Hopefully I’m back for the next season, but I’m going to find a way to keep competing and keep getting stronger so that way the next time I’m on a qualifying course I actually hit a buzzer,” Thomas said with a chuckle.
“American Ninja Warrior” airs every Monday at 8 p.m. on NBC.