Interview: ‘American Ninja Warrior’ hosts talk new season, new obstacles, and mental health challenges

El Paso News

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Float like a butterfly, fight like a ninja.

Season 13 of NBC’s American Ninja Warrior kicks-off on Monday night and promises to give athletes and audiences a rush of adrenaline (and endorphins) we’ve all been lacking in lockdown.

KTSM 9 News sat down with ANW hosts Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila to discuss creativity in containment, competition, and athletes’ mental health throughout the pandemic.

“Training is really hard to do on your own,” says Iseman. “But seeing the creativity of these athletes — a lot of them have been using FaceTime time to connect with one another, or they’ve been starting to get into gyms.”

Whether you’re a ninja or not, most felt some degree of frenetic energy within the containment of COVID-19 precautions. 

Physical activity sank globally in 2020 during the early months of the pandemic, with some areas reporting daily step count measures declining by almost 50 percent.

Scientists and healthcare professionals warned of the negative physical impacts brought on by work-from-home lifestyle changes, while millions faced mental health challenges.

The CDC reports that 40 percent of adults in the U.S. struggled with mental health or substance abuse last June.

“A lot of our athletes — very courageously — have chosen to share their stories, their struggles, with mental health challenges,” says Iseman, noting that many of the younger athletes shared their experiences with anxiety and depression. 

“They all talked about physical activity being such a good outlet for them,” he adds.

Season 13 of ANW welcomes its youngest generation of competitors in the show’s history — teenagers.

“The world is going to be really impressed with how competitive it gets with the veterans and the young 15, 16, 17 year olds competing,” says Gbaja-Biamila.

The young ninjas this season will compete against veterans, many of whom are role models for the youngsters.

“Remember,” says Gbaja-Biamila, “these are kids typically running through the hallways in schools and now they’re going to be running through the course.”

The course of ANW never did run smoothly, and competitors this season will be met with a new obstacle, the Overpass.

The Overpass is a set stationary three lache bars, and the athlete must first place their weight on the first bar to set off a trolley-like bar over their heads. Next, the athlete must cross the stationary bars while the trolley passes above them, carrying the athlete to the next position. 

(The trolley locks in place if the athlete misses it, and the athlete must them try to land a nine-foot lache.)

The sight of the ninjas flying through the air, climbing for the top, and literally reaching for their goals is an exercise of inspiration the hosts say is contagious. 

 “It’s an outlet to not only be able to express yourself. We’ve seen some of the ninjas using that platform like Matt talked about, but I’ve always known that especially when you’re going through tough times, some of the mental health issues that have come on because of the pandemic, how sports gives you this outlet to breathe, and enjoy, and watching other people compete,” says Gbaja-Biamila. 

The resilience of the athletes reminds folks at home that we can do great things, too. 

“And then when you see yourself in some of these competitors — like Matt talked about — that have mental health issues but yet are still working through it and competing — there’s just something that gives you this good feeling and encouragement, like ‘you know what? I can overcome it, I can also do this.”

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