When the opportunity arose for members of the Ninja Academy community to travel to the United States and represent Australia in the National Ninja League, eight athletes put their hand up right away, with one more the follow down the track.
The rules were simple, to earn a shot to compete alongside American Ninja Warrior legends Drew Drechsel, David Campbell, Joe Moravsky and Jesse “Flex” Labreck, our intrepid Aussies had to complete the International Qualifying course at Apex Movement NorCal in the time limit.
In true Sasuke fashion, it was purely ninja vs course – if everyone cleared, then everyone made it through.
With most of the ninjas having arrived in the Bay Area a few days prior to allow time to rest and recuperate, it was a confident group who rolled into Apex in the early afternoon of March 1 to tackle the qualifier.
The course set by Brian Kretsch – one of a handful of ninjas to have competed on all nine seasons of American Ninja Warrior – began with ascending quad steps, then a gumball slider to a platform, a floating set of monkey bars, a trampoline to trapeze bar, then a transition to a thick pipe before reaching the balance section of the course. Starting from a wooden box, competitors had to step across four soft balls in tyres and transition to a big spindle wheel, which they had to roll with their feet to a crash mat before making a long Tarzan rope swing between platforms and finally climbing the Warped Wall.
The male competitors had 70 seconds to complete the course, while the female competitors had a time limit of 100 seconds.
The order was randomized and was book-ended by Australians, with retired Olympic gymnast Olivia Vivian up first and Ninja Challenge League commissioner Mark Ravi running last.
Having flown in from Seattle the night before, Vivian was the only Australian not to have tested out the facility at all and it showed during her run as she was hesitant and often confused about where was going.
Her lack of urgency ultimately cost her as she timed out attempting the final obstacle, but can take solace in the knowledge that she conquered each of the obstacles and might have been able to finish with better preparation, but going first is always a tough situation.
The next Australian was aborist Donny Byrne, known for his incredible hanging strength from years spent in the trees, but just as much for his difficulty with balance obstacles – making the course a daunting one for his skillset.
Having learned from Vivian’s time-out, Byrne took no rest between obstacles, blitzing through the first four with ease, but took a moment to collect himself before starting the balance obstacles.
The balls proved no challenge, but the father of two had a close call with failure after transitioning to the spindle wheel, almost falling backwards before managing to regain his balance and steadily rolling it towards the crash mat.
However, Byrne’s caution on the balance obstacle had made the clock his greatest challenge, but with his nemesis behind him, the 32-year old raced through the final two obstacles and dropped onto the finishing platform with only a few seconds to spare to become the first Australian to qualify for the NNL Finals.
The relief was evident on Byrne’s face, having under-performed in both the Ninja Challenge Finals in 2016 and the first two months of the NCL season, he needed a win.
The next Australian on deck was Josh McMurray, the last man standing in the inaugural Ninja Challenge at Ninja Academy, fresh off his dominant victory in the February NCL path.
Full of confidence, McMurray was blitzing the course, but his run almost came to an end on when he jumped from the spindle wheel to the platform and just barely avoided his foot touching the ground.
Having survived that, the carpenter had some difficulty with the rope swing, but was still able to easily finish the course with about 20 seconds to spare.
The next Australian on the card was Dave Ravi, the accountant turned ninja who created Ninja Academy.
Ravi’s run started smoothly enough as he methodically worked his way through the first four obstacles, but the cracks started to show on the transition from the trapeze to the pipe, with his first attempt coming up short and costing him valuable time.
He managed to nail it eventually, but he had to really push to avoid timing out. He was quick through the balls, but, feeling the pressure of the clock he decided to jump to the crash mat from the spindle wheel.
Unlike McMurray, the older Ravi’s foot landed in the “water” and his run was over.
Up next was the youngest Australian, Michael Perrella.
Coming from a rock-climbing background, he was confident about the hanging obstacles, but his nerves about the balance section was evident on the starting line.
It didn’t help that Perrella and the Ravi brothers had gone on a five and a half hour cycle around the Bay Area the day before, but all his worry was for nothing, as the 23-year-old electrician cruised through the course with his signature cool and had an easy run through the balance section, finishing with time to spare.
The next Australian, Gav Wilson, was proudly displaying his West Coast Eagles colours, which proved fitting as he was flying through the course.
Despite being the oldest of the Australian competitors, Wilson was set to be one of the fastest, but he hesitated at a crucial moment on the rope swing dismount and his foot slipped into the “water”.
Luke Shelton, whose stated goal was to get the fastest time, rushed his dismount on the rope and also failed to stick the landing.
All too quickly, it was time for the final runner, Mark Ravi aka the Commish.
The younger Ravi brother looked smooth through the first too obstacles, but managed to trip up on a crash mat between obstacles, perhaps feeling the effects of the day before’s long ride.
However, he recovered and made short work of the bars, but got caught up transitioning between the trapeze bar and the big pipe.
Eventually making the transition and the dismount, time had become a factor as he rushed to the balance obstacles.
Making it to the end of the four balls, the 26-year-old’s transition to the spindle wheel caused him to overbalance and he put a hand out to catch himself on the wheel, which would have resulted in elimination.
Remembering in time, he pulled his hand back, but was unable to recover his balance and his back foot slipped off, ending not only his own run, but the entire qualifier.
With the dust settled on the competition, only four of the nine Australians survived through to the NNL Finals.
To see the action live for yourself, check out the stream:
A recap of how the four Australian Finalists performed in the Final will be coming in the next few days, so watch this space!