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The South Jersey Kids Channeling American Ninja Warrior
Some powerful kids are dominating a new sport
By Kate Morgan

When she’s training, Brynn Howarth isn’t thinking about the things other 9-year-olds think about, like whether she’ll get to play video games that night or whether her friends are hanging out without her.

“If you get distracted, you could start to worry and get concerned, and then you’ll fall off the balance obstacle or the rock wall,” Brynn says. “When I’m doing a course, I’m not thinking about anyone or anything. I’m just thinking about that obstacle and the course. I’m there to win, work and have fun.”

Brynn Howarth, 9 / Photo: David Michael Howarth

David Michael Howarth with his daughter Brynn / Photo: David Michael Howarth

 

Brynn, the daughter of longtime SJ Mag photographer David Michael Howarth, is a ninja. That is – for the last few years, she’s been training to tackle intense obstacle courses during competitions inspired by the television show “American Ninja Warrior.”

Since its TV debut in the mid-2000s as a spin-off of a popular Japanese show called “Sasuke,” the competition has captivated viewers. It features hundreds of competitors attempting to complete obstacle courses around the country. As the season progresses, the courses get more and more difficult. To date, only 3 athletes have completed the final course.

Lots of kids have seen the show, but most don’t start training to become ninja warriors. Brynn isn’t most kids.

“Most of my friends at school know what it is, but lots of other people think it’s ninja like karate or something,” she says. In fact, it’s an elite athletic pursuit. At her gym, the Movement Laboratory in Hainesport, Brynn trains for hours every week.

“It’s everything from sit-ups, push-ups and wall sits to ‘laches,’ which is a move where you hang from a bar and swing your body to leap and catch another bar. She does pull-ups and static hangs,” says David, who in addition to being Brynn’s dad, also officially became her coach last year.

When Brynn first started taking classes at the Movement Lab, he says, it was just for fun. Then they learned there were ninja gyms in almost every state, and there is a National Ninja League. There’s even a push to include the sport in the Olympic games.

“At Brynn’s first competition, we just put her at the starting line and sent her through, and she got 3rd place,” David says. “This year we started going to more competitions. We found this whole underground world of competition for these high caliber kids.”

Brynn is high caliber because she’s ranked in the top 5 in her Ninja League division among kids from gyms throughout the tri-state area. She qualified for Worlds, where she competed this summer against athletes from across the United States and beyond.

Despite a fall early in the Worlds’ course, Brynn picked herself up and was able to continue. “It takes real grit to get back up after a fall in a competition of that size and push deep into the course,” David says. “I am so proud of her.”

Later in the competition, despite another fall, Brynn placed in the top 10 of a 4-skills challenge.

Already, Brynn is back in the gym, training hard to prepare for the next competition. But David says her attitude is already there: “She knows she’s on a different level.”

Melina Sarion, 16 / Photo: David Michael Howarth

 

Melina Sarion, 16, was a superfan of the tv show before she ever set foot in a ninja gym.

“There are lots of fans of the show who never actually compete, and I thought that was me,” says Melina. “I’d watch every episode 5 times before the next one came out. My brother and I knew all the stats for all the competitors – back then that’s what we were really into.”

Melina’s parents liked watching too, and about 6 years ago the Columbus natives rented out the Movement Lab for a birthday party.

“It was a surprise for my dad’s 42nd birthday,” Melina says. “He’d joke about wanting to be on the show, so he got to try all the obstacles. We all did.”

But the whole family liked it so much, it turned out one party wasn’t enough.

“My brother and my dad started taking classes,” Melina says. “They seemed like they were having a lot of fun, so I tried it and got hooked.”

For an adolescent girl having some trouble with confidence, conquering the course was an instant cure. “Being able to push through and do things I had no idea I could do made me so much more confident,” she says, “and the community is really supportive and welcoming.”

Melina’s dad ended up competing on 3 seasons of the TV show, and he then became an instructor at the Movement Lab.

“He’s my coach,” she says. “I train with him at least twice a week at the Lab and more at home. We have a course in the basement and one in the backyard.”

It takes that much training, explains David Michael Howarth, to face obstacles that require you to cling to ledges and ladders with just your fingertips and propel yourself through the air toward landings that seem totally impossible to hit. But while it’s hard work, he encourages Brynn to remember she’s still just a kid, and it’s still just a game.

“I always say, the second you stop having fun, let’s stop doing this,” he says. “But she’s hyper-focused. It’s just part of her personality, she’s lasered in. I want her to succeed and do well. I see that she has potential, but I also don’t want to rob her of her youth.”

But the lessons Brynn and her fellow ninja competitors are learning go well beyond knowing how to push themselves physically.

“She’s learning strength and balance, but also dealing with defeat,” David adds. “You’re just constantly failing, all practice. It’s so much failure. When you bring it all out on the course and fall on the first obstacle – which can definitely happen – it’s devastating.”

Sometimes, Brynn says, she needs to walk away from training, just for a minute. She tends to duck into the locker room to give herself a quick pep-talk. “I’ll say, ‘Just breathe, keep going,’” she says. “I know I’m going to fall, but I keep doing it anyway.”

So much of the sport, Melina says, boils down to that mental toughness.

“Fear training is important,” she says. “I used to hesitate for so long before every obstacle, because I was so afraid to fail. It’s hard not to overthink the small things, but the more you hesitate, the more likely you are to fall.”

But falling is inevitable, she adds, and it won’t stop her from competing. In fact, she’ll tell you it makes her a fiercer competitor.

“Everybody falls. You won’t complete every obstacle you encounter,” Melina says. “I remember in the beginning, during my first competitions, I’d fall and be upset, and sometimes I’d cry. But now I feel like every mistake I make I can use. I know what to train now.”

It can be tough to watch, says David, as a coach and – especially – as a parent.

“They work so hard and they just keep coming back,” he adds, “When you look at a course you see an obstacle and think, ‘Oh, there’s the chokepoint – that’s going to be the end for my athlete today.’ More often than not, Brynn surprises me. She’s real crafty with coming up with ways of doing things.”

And at every competition, Brynn has had to get comfortable competing with both girls and boys. “In the competitions there’s at least twice as many boys as girls,” David says. “For Brynn, it’s an empowering thing to know, ‘I can do this, and I can do it better than you.’”

Melina’s also gotten used to being one of the only girls in the ninja gym, but she says that’s a ratio that’s slowly shifting. “I’ve been competing for 5 years now, and the number of girls who are joining, competing and beating the boys is growing,” she says. “I love that.”

September 2021
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