Bolivar native Madelynn McNeal went from watching her favorite show to competing on it this year. The 2014 Bolivar High School and recent Southwest Baptist University graduate made the cut to appear on "American Ninja Warrior" and was cast for the Indianapolis, Indiana, regional. McNeal earned a Bachelor's degree in psychology and sociology from SBU.
From gymnast to ninja
McNeal, a gymnast and gymnastics coach at Tumbles Gymnastics in Bolivar since age 16, said she was always a big fan of the show and admired what the athletes could do on the obstacle courses. She admired the show so much, she applied for her chance to be on the show's 10th season.
Her interest in the show only piqued more after attending a live taping of "ANW" in Kansas City three years ago. McNeal quickly realized that making it to "ANW" would take more work than she thought.
"I started training and realized that this was the hardest thing I've ever done," McNeal said. "It's going to involve a lot of work. I gained a lot of respect for the sport with all the work that went into it. I started to look up to those athletes and their skill level."
McNeal quickly found out that getting ready to compete on "ANW" was far different from being an armchair ninja.
"I always thought it was amazing to see what those athletes could do," she said. "Admittedly, I thought it would be easy if I just went out on the course. It's easy to be judgmental when you're sitting on your couch and when they fall off an obstacle, you're going 'Why didn't they go faster? Why did they do that?'"
McNeal said the audition process involved submitting a three-minute video highlighting her "personality and skills for the show." She also had to fill out an extensive online application that had questions ranging from where she was from, her background, back story and anything interesting about her.
"You have to sell yourself," McNeal said.
There were 80,000 submissions for potential "ANW" constants, but only a few hundred are selected for each region. McNeal was one of the few that got the call to be casted on the show during her first year of eligibility.
"It was pretty amazing to get a call from them," McNeal said. "This is my first season submitting. The fact I submitted my first season and was called was a big step for me. It was pretty cool."
Training for "ANW"
McNeal said athletes need to be a well-rounded for "ANW". Also, she has focused on upper-body work since most of the obstacles will test athletes in that manner.
"It's a lot of upper-body with everything you're hanging from," McNeal added. "You want to be strong with your grip. You want to be confident with hanging for long periods of time. Basically, throwing your body weight around."
Most of her training was done at a ninja warrior gym at first in Bolivar, then in Republic. She was with Bolivar Warrior Sports three years ago, then moved to Republic Warrior Sports in 2016. She trains along with her boss John Taylor.
"I work with him. I actively train with him," McNeal said. "We're just one big ninja family."
Republic Warrior Sports is an indoor obstacle course that is offered for more than just "ANW" training. McNeal said they also set up courses for open gyms, birthday parties and even host a junior warrior class for future ninja warriors.
Watching vs. competing
McNeal was part of the Indianapolis region for this year's "ANW". One battle she had to fight before she even faced an obstacle was her own nerves.
"I struggled with nerves a lot, so I had to take a lot of time to myself to picture what it would be like and to calm myself," McNeal said. "That took days and months of preparation. I've always been afraid of one obstacle and that's the salmon ladder. I had to take a lot of time to train for that one if I had it on the course. The work I did beforehand and all the support I had, I was able to let go and have fun. I really wasn't nervous when I stepped up onto the course. I was ready to go."
Another factor was the mystery of the obstacles McNeal would be facing. She knew two obstacles for sure would be featured, the floating steps to start and a warped wall to finish.
"That's a guessing game each year. You know there's going to be a warped wall, there's going to be steps, but you have no idea what's going to be in between" McNeal said. "You have to train for everything. You just try to make yourself better and target your weaknesses. The courses are all different, so that someone competing after that doesn't have the knowledge of what's coming."
Even with the mystery, McNeal said rumors spread about what possible obstacles could await her.
"There (are) secrets that float around the ninja community, but it's a guessing game," she said.
Add in a live audience watching, co-hosts Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila providing play-by-play and sideline reporter Kristine Leahy doing post-run interviews, the pressure on the ninjas starts to mount.
"It's a lot to take in. It would be easy to be overwhelmed if you didn't prepare for it," McNeal said. "This being my rookie season, I had to imagine what it would be like to compete in front of a live crowd with announcers. I knew it would be chaotic."