Taking the Ninja Challenge

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“American Ninja Warriors” stars join locals to raise money for Curtis Bartlett Memorial Fitness Center in Galax

By Shannon Watkins

They weren’t teenagers, mutants or turtles, but the American Ninja Warriors came to the Galax firehouse last weekend, and the spectacle they brought was loudly appreciated by residents of the Twin Counties and beyond.


The Ninja Warriors’ visit was a ticketed fundraising event for the Curtis Bartlett Memorial Fitness Center project, which will ultimately put a workout space on Galax High School property in memory of Bartlett, a fitness celebrity, personal trainer and Carroll County deputy who died in the line of duty last year.

“American Ninja Warriors,” the TV show from which they originated, is an adaptation of the Japanese show “Sasuke.” On Both shows, multiple competitors run through complicated obstacles.

The Galax firehouse hosted the event, which had its own obstacle course, brought in for the day. At the end of the course — which featured obstacles designed to test participants’ speed, strength, balance and agility — was a tall black structure, curved on one side, sporting a single handhold, called “The Wall.”

When a participant readied to run up the side, catch the handhold and scrabble to the top, viewers, helpers and Ninjas all chanted as one: “BEAT THE WALL! BEAT THE WALL!”

It was common for non-Ninjas trying the course to not quite make it, or take up to three tries to get it.

“I liked it,” said Austin Hall, 8, a second grader at Galax Elementary School, after his run, which went particularly well.

“I thought he did great,” said his dad, Josh Hall, who notes his son takes training at Galax Xtreme Fitness.

Austin and Rick Whisenhunt — the event’s emcee and one of its organizers, along with his wife, Crystal — “have been working together a lot in the back room, and he comes home and tells us what he’s been doing. We watch ‘Ninja Warriors’ on TV. So I hurried up and got off of work to be able to see him run the course.”

Also on the course was Grace Archer, 10, a fourth grade student at Galax Elementary. “It was fun,” she said. Her mother, Mandy Archer, said her daughter was excited that Ninja Maggi Thorne was there.

Then came a contender from Carrboro, N.C., whose family owns a gym that also hosted Ninja Warrior events, and who traveled four hours to see them in Galax: Trinity Rich, an 11-year-old fifth grader.

Lean and long-haired, she sported a “Team Dougie” shirt, which a pumped-up Devin “Dougie Fresh” Harrelson whooped his approval of. He followed next to her as she took on the obstacles, moving like a ninja herself, and finally stood atop The Wall with one fist raised like a young amazon.

Harrelson, delighted with her victory, greeted her with a high five after she descended.

Meet the Ninjas

Despite their remarkable physical prowess, the Ninja Warriors demonstrated what was probably their most remarkable skill set, even above their athleticism: working with the public, especially kids, as spotters, to help and encourage them tackle the obstacle course.

The roster included Daniel Gil, the faith-based “Kingdom Ninja,” who moved like a lightning bolt and never lit in one place for very long; Grant McCartney, “the Island Ninja” from Hawaii, whose persona was that of a laid-back, friendly surfer dude; high-energy, pink hair-bowed Thorne, the only female Ninja Warrior in attendance, the constant focus of awed little girls who regarded her almost as a Wonder Woman of sorts; and Harrelson, who is known for his flashy color themes and likable aptitude for clowning around.

Also helping, but not in full ninja mode, were Travis Stewart from Rural Hall, N.C., and John Loobey of Abingdon, known as “The Geriatric Ninja.” Into his golden years, he still runs the course and takes The Wall like a trooper.

McCartney, coming up on his fourth year as a Ninja Warrior, has decided to make it a full-time occupation as of this March.

“Each Ninja has something that they hold to as part of their platform,” he said. “For me, I’ve lost a lot of people that I love, and it’s a way for me to not only teach people about how to overcome physical obstacles, but how to overcome emotional obstacles, as well, and hard-time obstacles.

I get to go and speak on things, and help people take heart when they’re like, ‘What do I do when I’ve lost my mom, my grandma? What do I do with these feelings?’ So that’s what I do.”

Harrelson just said he’s all about bringing enthusiasm; the “Fresh” part is just that attitude of fun. “It’s because I have to match with everything,” he said. “If I’m wearing some Ninja athletic clothes, it’s all going to match. I’m gold this year, next year I’ll be platinum and silver, I was bright orange last year. I’m about giving off energy, that’s my freshness.”

Once Thorne has a minute, she explains about her “Rise Up” theme, “It means rising out of your circumstances no matter what your struggle is. I went through a divorce, and I’m a mom of three. I was devastated. For me, it was a moment of picking myself off the ground. But I became myself again, remembered who I was when I was a little girl and anything was possible, and that’s why I wear a bow in my hair. It’s a nod to who I was when I was a kid and thought ‘I can be anything.’ I want to encourage girls to try things, to be healthy.”


After a the firefighter vs. police competition on the course (the police won by a small margin), McCartney and Thorne put on firefighter gear and Gil put on riot police gear to run the course once more.

They did it, they said, to show respect for the obstacles first responders must face every day in the line of duty. Thorne struggled to hit the top of The Wall, but got a little help; McCartney powered through and Gil took it with characteristic speed and fluidity.

Finally, the much-promised “grudge match” competition between Rick “The Whiznut” Whisenhunt and Devin “El Camino” Harrelson took place. In partial firefighter gear and done up in fluffy wigs, both men preened, strutted and snarled for the audience in comical WWE style for a (very plastic) “Ninja Warrior” title belt.

Despite a heated and hilariously over the top competition, “El Camino” came out on top, taking the belt, applause and several hugs from Whisenhunt, after a few histrionics from both men which delighted the crowd.

The event raised $2,500 for the Curtis Bartlett Memorial Fitness Center project.

Fit2Serve122 Campaign

Curtis Bartlett was a veteran, Carroll County Sheriff’s Department deputy, school resource officer and fitness instructor who gave his life in the line of duty in March 2017.

The capital campaign’s goal is to raise $650,000 to build a state-of-the-art training facility at Galax High School, where Bartlett graduated. The facility will be a place where local students, first responders and law enforcement can visit 24/7, allowing them to work out when they are available, to truly be “Fit to Serve” their community.

Since launching last fall, the campaign has raised around $15,000, according to the website. Donations can be made online at fit2serve122.net or mailed to Fit 2 Serve 122, 200 Maroon Tide Drive, Galax, VA 24333. For more information, email Fit2serve122@gmail.com.