In 2014, Travis Iverson was diagnosed with a five-centimeter aneurysm near his heart. To save his life, doctors conducted open-heart surgery. Seven months later, Travis was back in the gym, but not lifting weights as he had been. To avoid undo strain on his heart, he joined the Ninja Park in Albuquerque, a functional fitness gym where members navigate obstacles like the ones seen on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior. Just four months later, Travis was selected from tens of thousands of applicants to compete in a regional final and appear on the show. Although he didn’t advance from the Houston regional to the nationals, getting that far was a feat few would have expected a year earlier.
The now 31-year-old former corrections officer is focused on his new career with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department, so he isn’t actively competing. Still, he continues to train—including on his nemesis: the salmon ladder. The obstacle, on which competitors grasp a bar and swing it (and themselves) up pegs, eliminated him from the Houston trials. “You can train that as many times as you want and still never be ready for it. I’ve done that obstacle literally thousands of times at the gym,” he says.
Although the Albuquerque gym has roots in the American Ninja Warrior, it isn’t formally affiliated with the show and is one of only a few dozen similar gyms across the U.S. Inspired by the show, owner Garrett Takach started creating backyard obstacles but set down roots when he founded Ninja Park in February 2015. This year, on March 11, it will host an area qualifier for the United Ninja Athlete Association, a national competition series hosted by other similar gyms across the country.
Ninja Park isn’t just for individuals training for the show or for the UNAA. Nor is it only for 20-somethings with Adonis-like physiques. CEO Derek Anderson says the park’s obstacle course fitness can suit those of all ages, from toddlers to AARP members, and people of all fitness levels. Trainers, he says, simply start where the individual needs to, modifying obstacles or even beginning with balance and calisthenics before taking on the course. “We’re not going to have you doing the salmon ladder your first day,” Derek says. “The biggest priority is shifting how people look at their goals. So people come in and they want to lose weight or get more flexible. When you’re staring at the scale, it’s not the healthiest focus. We want to have people focus on getting up the [warp] wall, for example. By the time they can do that, they’ve probably hit their other goals anyway.”
Derek, though a 20-something, is proof that even those with limitations can join. He started training after what could have been a devastating injury: breaking his back. He inched from barely being able to move through body-weight-bearing activities to competing in the UNAA. His physical therapist supported his path, since functional fitness moves like the ones done at Ninja Park improve the smaller, stabilizer muscles used in every day life. Unlike many American sports—and resulting fitness practices—ninja warrioring doesn’t lend itself to mass and Hulk-like strength. It rewards lithe strength and flexibility.
Also unlike traditional gyms, where routines can become repetitious and monotonous, the Ninja Park encourages play and creativity as members figure out the best and fastest ways to climb a wall like Spiderman or inch along a ledge by their fingertips. The game is as much mental as it is physical. The obstacles challenge ninjas beyond their comfort zones, ask them to trust themselves, and build confidence as they succeed. And it fosters a unique sense of community that many traditional gyms don’t have. “It’s less us against each other. It’s more us against the course,” Derek says.
Just like on the show that inspired it, the Ninja Park continues to reinvent itself, adding new obstacles and varying others, re-arranging the pegs on the climbing wall, for example, in its 4,800-square-foot warehouse space. There are a few standards, like the warp wall, a curved wall where competitors get a running start to grab on to holds at 14 feet high; and the quintuple steps on which competitors skip across angled blocks. But it will vary pegs on the climbing wall and just-installed aerial silks (it will offer classes soon) to present new challenges. “The hard part of being a ninja is you never know what you’re going to face. We’ll do an obstacle backwards or spin as we’re doing it. We’ll create different configurations,” Derek says.
The obstacles can still be intimidating, even with a trainer breaking down the technique, which is why the gym allows prospective participants to try two private training sessions or each of their seven classes for free. Adult classes range from balance and core enhancement to TAK Fit, founder Garrett’s signature blend of obstacles, calisthenics and strength training.
Ninja Park recently added new spaces for children’s classes, including a toddlers’ class where parents participate, and classes for children aged 5 to 17. The gym has excelled at working with kids with special needs, particularly autism, which Garrett’s younger brother has. In 2016, Ninja Park won a $25,000 grand prize from SCORE’s American Small Business Championship to pour into its personal training classes for kids with autism.
With his parents’ encouragement Dylan Zinn, now 17, began taking classes at the gym a couple years ago. As his mother Shara Appenzeller, attests, as a person with autism, it’s difficult for Dylan to try new things. By working with a private trainer, Dylan was able to begin taking on the obstacles in a more comfortable environment. “One thing about Dylan is that he keeps trying until he gets it. He likes to master things. Once he’s done that, he’s on to the next thing,” Shara explains. Seeing what he could overcome and accomplish built his confidence in the gym and beyond. He recently asked to join the adult classes, where he interacts with fellow ninja warriors. Outside Ninja Park, “He’s talking to people. He’s suggesting things. He wants to go and be around groups of people. He asked us if he could go to a youth group where other teenagers are,” Shara says.
It’s become a family affair—a refrain several Ninja Park members take up. Since Dylan joined, his younger brother, sister and father have all begun training. “Families are encouraged to work out together. Staying healthy as a family, it’s important,” Shara says.
Sandy Dierks’ two children began training at Ninja Park, and, despite having troublesome knees, the now 47-year-old joined in. “As a result of my knees bothering me, I gained a lot of weight. I thought I was going to get old and fat,” she says. With a personal trainer, she started with modified and corrective exercises. “Within three months, I was in really good shape. My knee didn’t hurt any more. That part was wonderful, and I also lost 25 pounds,” Sandy says. “Getting excited about something and feeling like you’re making progress, that did the trick for me when nothing else has. I’m not working out as hard to lose weight as much as to do better and get stronger.”
And in case you’re wondering, no, you don’t have to wear all black to work out at Ninja Park.
Ninja Park, 2420 Comanche Rd. NE, Albuquerque, 505.407.8459 ninjaparkabq.com.
Story by Ashley M. Biggers