Justin Andelin, the son of Metro Richmond Zoo owner Jim Andelin, grew up with his six siblings at the zoo. The animals he was raised alongside taught him about his passion — climbing.
Now, Andelin, known as the “Zoo Ninja,” will be moving from the Great Ape Exhibits to the course of the TV show “American Ninja Warrior.” Andelin competed in the Baltimore qualifiers and will be appearing on Monday’s episode airing at 8 p.m. on NBC.
“American Ninja Warrior” features contestants attempting to complete strenuous obstacle courses in a variety of cities for a chance to move on to the national finals.
More than 70,000 ninja hopefuls per season apply to be on the show. Andelin was one of 700 selected to compete in qualifiers, and one of 100 to compete in Baltimore.
Having grown up around animals, Andelin now works as a manager at the zoo.
As a child, he would spend time watching the primates climb and try to mimic their body movements. In addition to traditional venues like rock-climbing gyms, Andelin climbs with the primates in their enclosures and in the zoo’s zipline and adventure park.
Primates have the ability to brachiate, or swing between trees in an arm-over-arm fashion using only their upper body. While humans can only “kind of” do it, Andelin said, he practices the techniques he learns through observation, whether it’s brachiation or orangutans’ ability to hang from tree branches for hours.
“Primates are six times stronger than man,” Andelin said. “Watching them and their body movements — some of it’s not possible for a man to do, but some of it is.”
It’s not just the primates. Andelin said each animal has a unique characteristic that he can learn from as a ninja, even the less “exotic” ones. Goats, for example, have incredible balance on tight ledges, while leopards have extraordinary leaping ability.
“Every animal has their unique abilities, and just growing up around them is really cool,” he said. “[They] make me want to get to my peak self because some of them have such peak attributes that are just really cool.”
Andelin, 31, also enjoys climbing around Richmond, particularly the downtown area, because there are so many features, including light posts and bridges.
Monday will mark Andelin’s first appearance on the show but his second time tackling the course. He was selected to take part in 2018’s Miami qualifier but was never featured on the show. This time, producers called to tell him he would be making two appearances in the Baltimore episode.
Also competing in Baltimore was Zach Barefoot of Midlothian. Barefoot, 22, a Virginia Tech student known as the “Barefoot Ninja,” first got some exposure to climbing when his parents held his 12th birthday party at local rock-climbing gym Peak Experiences. He enjoyed it so much that he repeated the experience for his 13th birthday and ended up joining the gym’s training team and eventually making his way to the competitive team, vying in local events all along the East Coast.
Barefoot grew up watching “American Ninja Warrior” and was chosen to compete this year after being told to try again last year. He’s unsure if he will be making an appearance in Monday’s episode — only about 30 of the 100 contestants who compete in each city’s qualifier make it to the screen, he said.
An unexpected challenge of going on the show is the shooting schedule, Andelin said. His episode was shot from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. on April 28-29, and contestants watch others compete until their name is called sometime in the middle of the night.
Barefoot agreed that the late shooting schedule was hard to adjust to; he didn’t run the course until 4:30 a.m.
“I was exhausted at that point,” he said. “The adrenaline kicked in right before I ran the course, so I didn’t feel it when I was on it, but beforehand I was thinking to myself, I could fall asleep just standing up right here.”
In terms of the obstacles, Andelin said he was most nervous for the balance-related features, because one slip could result in a major setback.
“My balance is very good, but still, one little trip and you’re down and that’s it. You get your one shot and you’re done,” he said. “The whole process is rather challenging.’