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American Ninja Warrior Interviewby Pattye Grippo    

ANW

This is an interview with Jimmy Smith and Matt Iseman on August 15, 2011 about the show American Ninja Warrior.

Question:
What was the most difficult part about the course this year do you guys think?

Matt Iseman:
Part of it is that they don't know what obstacles they're going to face and they never get to try them out. So when you see them on the course, that is the first time they've ever sampled these obstacles. So they don't know how springy a trampoline is. They don't know if a surface is going to be wet. I think we saw the quad steps were surprisingly hard. Jimmy you actually had a little experience on the course.

Jimmy Smith:
Yes. I got to say there's always something every year that separates the people that are just kind of getting through it to those that are real contenders. And I think it was the Jump Hang this year. If you got past that you had a good chance of finishing the course. That seemed to be the kind of dividing line.

When someone was just kind of lucking their way through it, the jump hang is the one that stopped them or slowed them down so badly they weren't contenders. If they got past that they had a good chance. I don't think the jump hang would come to line this year. The obstacle was hard to get to. A lot of people just mis-timed the jump. Like Matt was saying you don't know how springy the trampoline is, can't make the jump. And if you did get over, it was physically really taxing. And the people that took a long time getting over it just didn't make it.

Matt Iseman:
And I think what we saw too, last year the Bridge of Blades really was one of the most difficult obstacles. This year I think a lot of people watched. They pick up some of the technique and they were able to have a much better approach to it. But that jump hang really did. Obviously it comes down to time in the qualifying course a lot of times in terms of moving on. And the Jump Hang again like Jimmy said, really provided the separation.

Question:
It sounds like the show definitely has an element of luck as well as skill to it?

Matt Iseman:
Well I wouldn't say it's luck. I think that if you look at the guys who move on, I will say this, not many guys get through because of good luck. Some guys will go out because of bad luck. The course, they may hit a spot where there's some water from a previous competitor and slip and that's just the nature of it. The course is not going to be the same every time you run it. There's the weather conditions change. The - again, the obstacles may have a little, there may be more dust on it. Something can change. So bad luck can take you out but there's no one getting through because of good luck I would day.

Question:
Could tell me a little bit about how you both got involved with the show?

Matt Iseman:
Well for me I'd enjoyed watching the show. And I think that they were looking for some host who were obviously fans of sport and who were kind of passionate guys for American Ninja. And so they'd reached out to me and asked if I'd be interested. And I jumped at the opportunity. Obviously I love watching. Any test of athletic ability I've enjoyed watching Jimmy get punched in the face on some of his previous shows and his fights. And I like seeing people really, really test the limits of what they can do. So when I had the chance to go with American Ninja Warrior it really was a good fit for me.

Jimmy Smith:
Yes and it was a similar thing for me. They were looking for a colored guy and it was weird because I had been involved in sports that were kind of dangerous and risky and involved a lot of the same physical attributes and friends of mine did similar training. So and I had hosted shows like SyQuest and been a commentator. So they looked for somebody who kind of fit that mold and fortunately that was me and went in and met Matt. We got along great, the chemistry was good and that's really where we went on from there. But it was that I had done similar stuff that I think was real intriguing.

Matt Iseman:
The thing for us that's been fun is this is our second year doing it. And we really we laugh sometimes at how much fun we're having. We get to go to Japan and watch these guys compete on the world's most difficult obstacle course. And I think it's pretty clear if you watch the show Jimmy and I are really having great time. And it's more fun that we're not the ones who have to try to tackle the course too.

Question:
What do you think it is about these finalists that will give them the hope of conquering it?

Matt Iseman:
Well for one I think the American's have really stepped up their preparation. And last year we saw was the best the Americans have ever done in Japan. And a big part of that was that we ended up having the boot camp where they got to go and spend five days training on these obstacles. It wasn't just the experience of working on the obstacles. It's an amazing camaraderie that forms between the competitors, it's so difficult to win the competiveness I think is overcome by a sense of we're in this together.

And it was amazing to watch them figure out obstacles, share tips, share pointers. So as a whole they become much stronger training together. And I can't say here I don't want to tease what happened in Japan but I will say that the Americans are getting stronger and stronger. And in this particular group I think Jimmy can answer some of it. But we have some just phenomenal athletes, some guys who were really suited to this pursuit.

Jimmy Smith:
One thing I think that ties in really well to your previous about how did we get involved in this? And Matt and I were watching the show, had been watching the show previously. And what I noticed when I talked to people after I got the gig was how fanatical people are about this show. I mean if you watch American Ninja Warrior you're a huge fan, you never miss it. You wait for it all year. The athletes now think about it all year and they're focused on it all year and they train for it all year.

It's not a matter of oh it's American Ninja Warrior time, I'm going to go try out any more than you would just wake up and try out for the NFL or any other sport. I mean these guys train non-stop. It's becoming more I would say an athletic pursuit or a sport more than just a contest or a show. It's really something these guys work for all year round. And being a fighter it's that mental and physical preparation I think that separates them and gives them hope.

When people say what do you think about when you're about to fight or to train or get in- you think about your training. You think about what you did to get ready. And you'll see in boot camp, you'll see these guys training videos. The stuff they did to get ready for this course is unbelievable. So the odds of finishing it are tempered by the fact that they really worked extremely hard. It's not just a once a year thing for them. They train year round.

Question:
What advice you would give to somebody who's considering coming on and giving it a try but doesn't really know where to start in their preparation, what advice would you give?

Matt Iseman:
Look, nobody should. It is incredibly challenging. And to give you an idea we had an NFL player come out, a guy who's on the Denver Broncos come out. He managed to complete the course but was blown away, ended up in like 50th place or something. And wasn't even close. And I think it's a testament to the fact that it's not enough to be a great athlete. You really have to try to prepare.

Now again, you don't know what these obstacles are. So the type of workout you need to be doing really is unlike anything out there which is why some of the guys who do very well are free runners, are core practitioners because I think these are guys who are used to sort of running with the environment and responding to whatever they face. So if you're thinking about doing it, I think work on cardio and upper body strength.

Jimmy Smith:
I talk to a lot of the guys who ran. And I said well what do you do to get ready? And a lot of them told me they practice in sequence for different kind of physical attributes they're going to need for the course. The guys were telling we do things like right stepping on things but only for like a fraction of a second like you need on the Bridge of Blades for example. You can't put weight on any one big step. They needed to do a lot of pull up, upper body stuff for the sand ladder. Then we did a lot of balance training.

They don't really attack like okay, this is how I'm going to attack this obstacle. They say okay, here are the physical gifts I'm going to need. And it's speed, balance, light stepping and upper body work. That's what I kept hearing over and over. And I think this year what's highlight - a lot of people ignored it cardio. A lot of people I think Matt will agree were really tired at the end, didn't have the best times because they underestimated the fitness level you need. That of course is tiring, very tiring.

Matt Iseman:
And I think one of the things that's great for a lot of the competitors is again Kay Swiss has stepped up, there's a half million dollars on the line. But other than that there's no financial incentive. If you don't complete the course in Japan you get no money. So for these guys I think what's happened is it's become an unbelievable way to motivate themselves to challenge themselves to have a marker, to every year train for this.

Jimmy and I were both athletes and he obviously took it a little farther than I did. I quite in college. But one of the things I think that sometimes you miss is having some way to test yourself. And for so many people now American Ninja Warrior is becoming a benchmark because it is so physically demanding. And it's a great way for these people to use it as motivation throughout the year to try to train to try to get themselves in great shape because they know if they're not in peak condition this course will eat them alive.

Question:
Since winning or accomplishing the goal is so rare, do you think it changes the way they have to look at this in order to keep themselves motivated?

Matt Iseman:
Yes, again I think one of the things is so many of them, they're not competing against each other. They're competing against the course. They're competing against themselves. This sort of approach, the nobility of the quest, knowing it is almost insurmountable, this obstacle course. And it's amazing to watch these guys push themselves. And for us now this is our second year doing it and we were fans beforehand, you get to know some of these people and you become invested in them. One of the competitors built an obstacle course in his backyard.

David Campbell. It's unbelievable the dedication that they have. And so I think that you really become invested in them and them doing well and them feeling like they've improved. Whether they win or not it's that sense of improvement because ultimately it is so incredibly hard.

Question:
So it's kind of like a mix between a competition show and a regular series in that you do see faces that come back that you can really root for and hope to see them improve?

Matt Iseman:
Yes absolutely. Absolutely. I know again, Jimmy and I we found last year we got to go to Japan and we took ten Americans there and we got attached to these guys. We got to know them. We spent a lot of time with them and they're phenomenal guys. They really are humble, down to Earth great guys. This year when we were out in Venice watching the qualifying we felt like nervous parents when some of them would step on the course because again we know how much they've put in.

And I think that the show does a good job of letting people get to know these competitors and become invested in them. Some of the things that they've gone through in their lives, one of our contestants just faced an unbelievable tragedy and came out and still competed on the course. And it was just again, for a lighthearted show, a show that's fun. It was one of those moments that was just touching. And to see kind of the triumph of the human spirit that these guys have, the dedication it was a lot of fun I think.

Jimmy Smith:
Yes totally. And another thing that to go back to the could you, it was something that's unattainable, is it still a goal for them to finish, Matt and I see these people go through the course. They go then first they're hey, I'm just happy to be in Japan. It's just great being here. And then they get past stage 1 and they go you know what? Maybe I can do this. And then stage tow and maybe I can do this.

And then stage three it seems unattainable but it's in four stages. And when people get a hold of the course and run it, then they start going and I can do this. When you see David Campbell, Brian Orosco, all the guys they had last year, get to stage three, that's one stage away. So it may start off when you get there as oh this is unattainable, there's no way they can do this, Matt and I see the athlete's start realizing the dream. They start seeing it get closer as they complete parts of the course. And that's when you get so personally invested.

A big difference between this and other shows that, involve the obstacles, it's not fun to watch them fall. It's not great to see people wipe out. That's not the whole point. The point is you feel horrible when these guys fall. You feel terrible. And we're just like oh, you want them to succeed so badly. And that's a big part of the hook. You really get invested in these guys and you want to see them do well.

Matt Iseman:
Having seen these guys in Venice, having seen them at boot camp and see them training even outside when we've gotten to know these guys, the reality is we know for the most part they are physically capable of getting through every obstacle. But that is the challenge. It's doing them all on a single day and doing them when the conditions vary and doing them when you're fatigued.

And it is just this feeling of they can do this. You just have no room for any mental lapse. And if you're not physically prepared, if you haven't gotten the good night sleep that can be the difference. And it's just so frustrating when you realize that there's just no room for error. And I think but that's what makes it great is we were talking earlier about luck, nobody is going to luck into this. If you do this course it is because you have put in hours, months, years or hard work and you were unbelievably focused.

Question:
Am I correct that there haven't been any females to finish the American Ninja Warrior, even the trial? Is that correct?

Jimmy Smith:
Yes.

Matt Iseman:
That is correct. And we've had log rolling champions. We've had gymnastic champions come out and they're getting closer. I thought this year we had a couple who made it who just had a couple lapses. And again it's tough. But I think we're close to getting a woman through. And what's amazing is even versus last year how many more women are getting into this.

Question:
What was the reaction like from your fans in Japan to your fans here in the United States?

Matt Iseman:
It's interesting, in Japan, we have many more fans who come out in America. Our course was open. In Japan, Mount Midoriyama is actually located in this field outside of Tokyo near a television studio so the access is actually controlled. They're very selective on the people who come out. But the ones both in Japan and in America, the people who come out, the fans are like the Raider's fans. They're fanatical. They're nuts, a little not scary but I just wouldn't want to have them angry at me.

Jimmy Smith:
Oh completely. Well and the fans are A, totally nuts. And it's funny because in Japan they have a PA system over when people are running the announcer is charging them up and he's telling them to cheer at certain times and he's really hyping up the people in Japanese. We have no idea what they're saying. There's kind of a synergy between the fans and the event itself because they're going cheer for so and so and they go totally nuts. And then they go oh so and so fell. I mean the whole crowd goes oh. And it's kind of all together in both instances. The crowd is really part of the event.

Matt Iseman:
And there's a lot of showmanship in Japan too. When people are introduced there are a lot of people, there's a guy who brings a hand glider out. There's the octopus man who actually is a sushi chef so he brings lots of raw fish out. They're magicians who do magic tricks before they run. And sometimes the clock is started. And we're sitting there going okay, I don't know if they're serious competitors cause right now the clock is ticking. But they really want to appeal to the crowd.

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