by Gary Levin, USA TODAY
The ninjas are back.
American Ninja Warrior, a grueling obstacle-course competition, returned for a fifth season Monday on NBC (8 ET/PT), again sharing the series with small cable sibling G4, which began airing its own original episodes Sunday (9 ET/PT).
The show is based on Sasuke, an annual Japanese tournament that has aired on G4 as Ninja Warrior.
"It's like a hard-core Wipeout," says host Matt Iseman, comparing it to ABC's pratfall variation on the obstacle-course genre, which is played for laughs. "Ours is more challenging; it's the greatest test of all-around athleticism," he says. "And there are no do-overs. You only get one chance"
Until last year, the show sent its finalists to Japan to compete on the course in Yokohama. Now there's a replica in Las Vegas, where the four-stage championship round was taped last week and will air in early September. No American has ever completed that course, and only three Japanese have done so in its 16-year history.
But the increasing popularity of obstacle endurance courses such as Tough Mudder and Alpha Warrior have brought new currency - and competitors - to this contest, for which some participants camped out for a chance to compete. (Others submitted videos or attended open-call auditions.) Six hundred participants ran at least part of the course this season.
Early weeks of the show feature footage from tryout rounds held in Venice, Calif., Baltimore, Miami and Denver. Later episodes return to those cities for regional finals, followed by the championship round. This year brings new, tougher challenges, especially the "flying nunchuks," in which competitors leap to grab steel pipes attached to a swaying frame and swing over a pool of water.
"In every city, there are three to four new obstacles," says executive producer Arthur Smith. "We continue to find new ways to test these guys." Could Ninja Warrior become an international competition, with global contestants competing on the same course? "We're thinking about it," Smith says. "It could happen."
In addition to Ninja veterans, such as professional stuntmen and parkour enthusiasts, the show's wider exposure on NBC - which drew 5 million viewers to last summer's finale - has brought more everyday contestants, including several women and couples, an Idaho cattle rancher and an emergency-room doctor. A number of athletes have joined the competition, including the NFL's Shawne Merriman and Kahlil Bell, UFC fighter John Dodson and several Olympians. Others have overcome personal obstacles, such as cancer, diabetes or Tourette syndrome, and some build miniature courses in their backyards.
In Monday's episode, one contestant dislocated his shoulder running the course, happily repaired by that ER doc and rock climber, who was about to compete.
"People are dedicating their lives to training for this show," says Iseman, who is joined as co-host this year by sports analyst Akbar Gbaja Biamila. "It makes me feel lazy when I can't get to the gym."
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