Swinging from crank to crank like the monkeys he grew up with at the Metro Richmond Zoo, Justin Andelin seemed at home on the next-to-last obstacle on the “American Ninja Warrior” course.
But on the third swing, the “Zoo Ninja” lost his grip and splashed into the water below, ending his run but not his time on the show.
Andelin, a Chesterfield County resident who works as a zoo manager, and Zach Barefoot, a Midlothian resident and Virginia Tech student who goes by “Barefoot Ninja” as a play on his last name, both ran the show’s obstacle course in Baltimore well enough to advance to the city finals.
After taking on obstacles with such names as the “Double Twister” and “Crank It Up,” Barefoot ranked 17th and Andelin ranked 21st out of a pool of 99 contestants. The very next night, the two competed again with the others who finished in the top 30.
The results will air in August, so neither man is allowed to disclose how their second chance at the course ended or whether they’re among the top 15 that will advance to the national finals in Las Vegas.
Contestants run the qualifier course, consisting of six obstacles, until they fall. And most of them fall — only 12 of the 99 ninjas in Baltimore made it to the final obstacle of the night, a climbing challenge called the “Warped Wall.”
Obstacles include the “Dangerous Curves,” where contestants have to show immense upper-body strength to maneuver up, across and down a series of elevated curved planks with precarious precision, and the “Hazard Cones,” where they hop across four large cone-shaped features pointing different directions with no clear footholds.
All those who make it to the final obstacle are ranked by time, followed by those who finished on the second-to-last obstacle, and so on.
Andelin and Barefoot dropped into the pool of cold water beneath the “Crank It Up” obstacle, the fifth one on the course and an extreme test of upper-body strength and finesse.
Competitors must swing through three sets of handles and a bar, cranking the handles to gain momentum and move them forward to be in position to jump to the next one. Crank It Up proved to be tough, with 14 of the 26 who made it to the obstacle failing to finish it.
Andelin and Barefoot honed their upper-body strength while training — Andelin in the swings of the primate enclosures at the zoo, Barefoot on rock walls and ropes courses at a summer camp where he worked and with Virginia Tech’s outdoor recreation team.
Andelin had competed previously in the Miami qualifiers last season, finishing four spots out of the finals. This year marked Barefoot’s second year applying but first year on the show, and he’s already said he will be applying again for next season.
Andelin said he was feeling confident going into the Crank It Up and successfully reached the first and second handles before realizing fatigue was setting in. As he moved to transfer to the third crank, he knew he was in trouble.
“I just had this thought like, man, I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to hold on,” Andelin said. “And sure enough, I landed it, [but] my grip failed. I think I was just too gassed on it and sure enough, later, I’m in the water.”
Despite the mishap, Andelin felt confident his time would qualify for the city finals, and happy when his inkling proved true. Contestants have no way of analyzing their performance other than memory, since city finals are recorded the next night. The July 1 episode was his first time seeing footage of his run.
While Andelin and Barefoot fell on Crank It Up, they pursued different strategies to tackle it in the finals. Andelin felt he sped through the previous obstacles without taking the offered 30-second breaks between them and vowed to go more slowly, whereas Barefoot came to the opposite conclusion.
“My plan going into the finals run was to go into it a little bit faster leading up to that obstacle, but then to take a little bit of a break before I started it,” said Barefoot, whose performance was not shown on Monday’s episode. “That way I could save energy by not spending quite as much time on some of the other upper-body obstacles and save that energy for the Crank It Up.”
Course efficiency is necessary for the city finals, in which an additional four obstacles are added, bringing the total to 10 and making conserving energy that much more critical.
Watching other contestants run the course was helpful for both ninjas. Andelin said taking cues from others is a fine line to walk, because he could learn new moves and approaches from them but didn’t want to stray too far beyond his plan and unique strengths.
From watching other contestants execute each Crank It Up crank in two moves — a big “back swing” and a “belly roll” — he learned a new strategy.
As a first-time contestant, Barefoot said he asked for advice from more experienced ninjas, including some he has looked up to for years. He found their tips about “the mental game” to be particularly helpful.
“The main thing they told me was to map out the course in your head and plan out each individual step very meticulously, so that when you’re out there, there’s nothing mental blocking you and it’s just physical,” Barefoot said. “The main problem a lot of people have, especially when they’re running the course for the first time, is they let the mental side get in their way.”