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Think You Could Survive American Ninja Warrior? I Tried in Albany Park

Novice ninja Rachel Bertsche tries her hand at Northwest Side jungle gym UltiFit.

Illustration by Pablo Lobato
Illustration: Pablo Lobato

Anyone who’s watched five minutes of American Ninja Warrior (so, everyone?) has wondered if they could conquer the warped wall. Obstacles like the salmon ladder — essentially an ascending pull-up where you bring the bar with you as you climb — are an obvious no. But the warped wall? It’s just a rounded wall you run up, kind of like a quarter of a hamster wheel, and it looks almost fun.

When the 11th season of the show starts May 29 on NBC, instead of watching and wondering what it’s like, I want to know. Enter UltiFit, the Albany Park gym that is a wannabe ninja’s dream. Outfitted with obstacles like a rock-climbing wall, rope swings, and warped walls of four different heights, it caters to ANW superfans while also delivering a serious workout. The class I’m taking, OC Fusion, is a combination of traditional exercises and ninja challenges, and I’m excited but nervous.

There are 12 of us in the class, and lacing up next to me is Fay, an actual ANW competitor who regularly trains at UltiFit. After a brief warm-up, she and I pair up for circuits. First we rotate between an exercise bike and the rock-climbing wall. Then it’s squats and a version of burpees that incorporates ANW’s famous jumping spider — you leap and wedge yourself between two walls. Next is the biggie: the warped wall. Fay goes straight to the tallest, which is nearly 15 feet, just like on the show, but I start on the mini-est. From head on, it looks taller than eight feet. I run at it … and make it! I cheat a little, using a side platform to boost me at the top, but the next time I do it entirely on my own, and the time after that, I conquer the 10-foot wall. At the top, I stand with my arms in the air, as I’ve seen the ninjas do.

After some more exercises — a sideways monkey bar swing, rowing, pushups — my final challenge is the lache. It’s like doing regular monkey bars, but instead of swinging to the next bar one hand at a time, the goal is to move both hands simultaneously, an exercise that works your upper back, arms, and core. Our instructor says newcomers should be content to simply hop on the trampoline and jump the seven feet to grab the first bar, then drop to the ground. But I can’t even reach the first bar. I hop harder and harder. At one point, both my hands graze the bar, and that feels like a win, sort of.

When the class is over, my palms are almost bleeding from all the climbing and gripping and swinging — the instructor calls these “ninjaries” — but I feel surprisingly accomplished. Conquering a literal obstacle is far more satisfying (and fun!) than running in place. I’m tired and sore, but when I leave, all I can think about is how badly I want to grab that damn bar. Just as soon as the feeling returns to my hands.

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