Get to Know South Jersey’s “American Ninja Warrior” Contestants
By Brenda Lange

Profile photography by David Michael Howarth

When you’re a ninja, you swing through the air, grasp metal rods with just your fingertips, and leap from one precarious perch to another – all in hopes of winning $1 million on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.” Over the years, a handful of South Jersey athletes have been among the elite ninjas who make it to the finals in Las Vegas. When season 14 debuts on June 6, look for 3 impressive ninjas who live or train in SJ: Clint Sarion, known as “The Smiling Ninja,” Najee “The Phoenix” Richardson and teen phenom Josiah Pippel.

Although the 3 SJ ninjas are far apart in age, they are similar in their approach to the sport, their respect for each other, and the mental and physical rigor they endure to be among the elite. They met and bonded at The Movement Lab in Hainesport – one of the first American Ninja Warrior training facilities in the country – where they ended up spending a lot of time together. Sarion will be a groomsman in Richardson’s September wedding. And both men have trained Josiah.

“Although we’re all in different places in our lives,” says Richardson, “we all clearly care deeply for the sport, each other and the Ninja community.”

 

Clint Sarion

Clint Sarion is known as “The Smiling Ninja” because of his unflagging, upbeat nature. At 49, he is old in a sport that takes its toll on arm, shoulder and back muscles, and requires maximum flexibility, balance and control. Yet he was the National Ninja League World Champion in the 40 and over division last year.

“I’m a senior citizen in the Ninja world,” says the Columbus resident. But Sarion knows his consistent training – often with his 2 teenage children who compete in the junior division – has paid off. Born in the Philippines, Sarion immigrated to the United States at 14. When he was 25, a golf ball-sized brain tumor brought him to his knees. “I was a partier and a singer with a band in college,” he says, “and suddenly my identity was broken.”

Besides losing his singing voice, he went deaf in his right ear (affecting his balance) but avoided the predicted facial paralysis after the surgery to remove the growth. The experience helped him realize what he’d been given.

AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR – “Cleveland Qualifier” – Pictured: Clint Sarion – (Photo by: Duane Prokop/NBC)

“I gained a whole new perspective on life. I have learned to go with the flow and make the most of the journey,” says Sarion, who is a financial advisor by day and ninja/coach the rest of the time. “Now I’m in the best shape of my life.”

Ninja training came later in life for him. Seven years ago, Sarion’s wife and kids surprised him with a birthday party at The Movement Lab in Hainesport, and the former weightlifter and martial artist was hooked. After 4 months of training, he modified his diet – he’s now a pescatarian – and found what he considers a truly balanced outlook on life including a calling to help others.

“I’ve always found joy in sharing my passions, including ninja and finance, with others,” says Sarion.

He debuted on the TV series in season 8 and has participated in 3 additional seasons. He got a late start in the grueling sport and says he faces the challenges of balancing family, work and ninja life. “I have a lot of responsibilities compared to a teen or someone in their 20s who recovers faster and has fewer responsibilities,” he says.

“Ninja is about falling down and getting back up, and as long as I can get back up, I’m going to keep doing Ninja and spreading a positive message to everyone along the way. And I’m going to do it with a smile.”

 

Najee “The Phoenix” Richardson

At 31, Najee “The Phoenix” Richardson has had an impressive run on “American Ninja Warrior,” reaching the finals every year since he debuted 7 seasons ago. As a high school championship gymnast, he sustained what might have been a career-ending injury but managed to come back, continuing to compete and win throughout high school and college, earning him the nickname that stuck.

Although he has struggled with asthma since childhood and was bullied as a kid, he loved to do flips and jump around, so his parents enrolled him in gymnastics and karate. It was an outlet for his energy and a way to protect himself. A former spokesperson for the American Lung Association, Richardson learned to manage the disease while he trained, giving himself a potential advantage: He could power through obstacles even though he was tired and out of breath.

AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR – “Semi-Finals” – Pictured: Najee Richardson – (Photo by: Elizabeth Morris/NBC)

“I call it riding the lightning,” Richardson says. “I conserve my energy and keep going through grit and determination. It’s 100% mind over matter. But, that said, asthma is no joke, so I listen to my body, and there have been times I’ve had no choice but to stop.”

In his early 20s, he had just retired from gymnastics and was searching for something that captured his interest. He tried mixed martial arts and various fitness programs, and then he happened to see a former gymnastics teammate on “American Ninja Warrior” and decided to check it out.

As a coach, Richardson has shared tips like, “You’re not tired, your body has more to give. Keep going.” He says he is nearing the end of his Ninja Warrior career – maybe one more season – and has ramped up his acting and modeling career. Richardson and his fiancé are planning a September wedding.

“I’m not as intense as when I started,” he says. “I’ve realized that I’ve reached a certain point in ninja, and I might not go much further. I’ve made peace with the fact that I don’t want to make sacrifices that are required to be at the top level.”

 

Josiah Pippel

At 16, Josiah Pippel of Moorestown is one of the sport’s youngest competitors. He was only 10 when he first competed locally and 13 when he appeared on “American Ninja Warrior Junior.” He has always been fast, focused and determined, and after his parents enrolled him in ninja training, his grandmother (he calls her “very outdoorsy”) decided to build him a small rock wall and obstacle course in the backyard. Soon the pair added more obstacles. “And the rest, as they say, is history,” he says.

It’s a true family affair for the Pippels – his parents and 3 younger siblings (2 brothers ages 11 and 14 and a sister who is 8) have all taken classes, although they don’t compete.

“Since we were always at the gym, they all took classes at some point, but have all stopped now, and it’s just me,” he says.

AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR– “Vegas Finals” – Pictured: Josiah Pippel – (Photo by: Elizabeth Morris/NBC)

The teen is home-schooled and trains up to 3 times a week in 2- to 3-hour sessions. His favorite obstacles are the salmon ladder and flying bar. “I like anything where you take a bar with you,” he says.

In the 2021 semifinals, Josiah was the third-youngest person competing and placed 2nd overall. In the finals in Las Vegas, he made it to the end of the second stage, losing his grip on the very last falling shelf (a series of 4 swinging bars shaped like an X), dropping into the water below.

He has high hopes for Season 14. “I feel stronger,” he says, “I’ve been performing more consistently than last year, and I have been training on the obstacle that I failed on last year.”

Pippel is 6 feet tall and weighs 155 pounds, excellent stats for a ninja – his lanky stature makes it easier for him to swing from one obstacle to the next.

“Ninja is all about body control, strength and technique,” he says, “and if you can control how you’re moving, you can conserve your muscle and control momentum and swing. I go with the flow and follow my intuition.”

June 2022
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