With a line of boys waiting their turn behind him, Andrew Donaldson, 8, jumps on a trampoline last month during a Ninja class at True Gymnastics in Castle Shannon.
Owner Alyssa Durkin helps Rory Doran, 7, to swing on a rope in a Ninja class At True Gymnastics, a new gym in Castle Shannon..
Owner Alyssa Durkin instructs children in a Ninja class At True Gymnastics, a new gym in Castle Shannon.
Owner Alyssa Durkin helps Lucy Achmoody, 7, in a Ninja class At True Gymnastics, a new gym in Castle Shannon.
By Anya Sostek / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Like the American ninja warriors that he watched on television and YouTube, first- grader Christopher Rayburg was swinging through the air on a rope, gliding from one obstacle to the next.
Unlike them, Christopher was in a second-floor gymnastics studio in Castle Shannon, receiving instruction and encouragement from a gymnastics teacher.
“Look at your bellybutton, friends,” called out True Gymnastics owner Alyssa Durkin to Christopher, 7, and five other young ninjas as they attempted somersaults on a long trampoline. “That’s how you roll.”
In seven years, the television show “American Ninja Warrior” has grown from a Japanese import on an obscure cable network to a summer ratings blockbuster on NBC. Its influence is now reaching beyond the small screen, translating into big business for gymnastics clubs offering “Ninja Warrior”-inspired classes.
“We’ve lost the boys, unfortunately, in the sport of gymnastics,” said Paul Spadaro, president of the United States Association of Independent Gymnastics Clubs, based in New York City. “This is a chance to open the doors. The potential is tremendous.”
As soon as he saw the show, where adult men and women compete to conquer elaborate obstacle courses, Mr. Spadaro said he instantly thought about the possibility of drawing boys back to gymnastics. The USAIGC, which represents 175 gymnastics clubs nationwide, has formed a “Warrior Committee” to puzzle out the details of developing the sport. Their first meeting, in State College in October, tackled issues such as competition structure, instructor training and officiating.
“We really are on the ground level for this,” said Mr. Spadaro, noting that any competitions would be at least 18 months away. “There’s no such thing as a warrior instructor. There is no vocabulary. Everybody speaks in different languages.”
While many gyms, such as True Gymnastics, have developed their own ninja curriculum, others have signed on with a “Ninja Zone” franchise developed by Indianapolis gymnastics club owner Casey Wright. In less than two years, Ninja Zone has opened 130 franchises in 42 states, enrolling 8,000 boys, including in Pittsburgh. “We want this thing to be bigger than Little League,” said Ms. Wright. “We think it provides more lifelong benefits.”
Perfect 10 in Ambridge started offering Ninja Zone classes in May. For years, co-owner Melissa Yeck had watched boys walk into her gym as spectators instead of participants. “They are bringing their sister anyway, and the boys are up in the balcony doing homework,” she said.
Perfect 10 has about six boys in regular gymnastics classes, compared to nearly 400 girls. For several years the club has offered “Gridiron Gymnastics,” which draws about 25 boys looking to improve their football skills.
Already, Ninja Zone has eclipsed that class in popularity, with 66 boys enrolled. “We started registration Dec. 1 and one class was filled Dec. 2,” said Ms. Yeck. The franchise prefers that the classes begin as boys only, with the option to later add girls classes. “We’re teaching gymnastics but we’re not emphasizing stretch and point your toes — boys aren’t interested in that,” she said. “They just want to go.”
Gymnastics equipment manufacturers are starting to manufacture specialty ninja equipment for kids, such as foam pillars and slanted steps. Mr. Spadaro said he’s started to receive international interest, with a representative from India calling recently to inquire about the program’s development.
Ninja Zone started hosting competitions this summer in Chicago and Indianapolis — part speed-driven obstacle course and part video-game style combat routines, with a television show feel. The crowd is encouraged to get involved through counting push-ups and cheering, and hired sideline reporters interview the headband-clad young competitors.
Part of the appeal of Ninja Zone is that Ms. Wright pre-arranged insurance coverage — one of the trickier issues for ninja warrior classes. In the past, standard gymnastics insurance has balked at covering offshoot sports, such as ninja warrior classes and parkour, a type of free-form street tumbling that originated in France.
Mr. Spadaro believes that insurers will accept his warrior program but knows that it might take some marketing.
“We went with warrior fitness or just warrior,” he said. “They don’t want to hear the name ‘Ninja Warrior.’ They look at the TV and just the set alone is crazy.”
Ninja programs for kids, of course, will not be on the scale of the television show, where adult contestants propel themselves through the air on sideways trampolines, hang from obstacles by their fingertips and crash into pools of water.
Steel City Parkour in Delmont offers the closest thing in Pittsburgh to a TV-worthy ninja warrior course — so close that when NBC filmed the show in May at the Carrie Furnace in Rankin, about 30 contestants trained there. Owner Steve DiGirolamo opened his gym specifically for parkour, but has added ninja obstacles because of the popularity of the show.
He believes that ninja-type gymnastics are both challenging and beneficial for kids today. “A lot of times in school now they’ve shortened recess — they have no arm strength, no leg strength, they don’t know how to fall,” he said. “We get them some confidence.”
He does caution, though, that young children who believe that they will be able to do what they see on television may be disappointed.
“Certain obstacles require you to have strength that a kid who has not hit puberty cannot possess,” he said. “People get upset.”
At True Gymnastics, none of the children in the class, who average about 8 years old, can come close to moving the bar to scale the salmon ladder — an obstacle used on the TV show where contestants propel themselves up vertical rungs holding onto a metal bar. Nor will they likely be able to do it anytime soon, said Ms. Durkin.
But like all gymnastics skills she teaches, it’s about advancing through small progressions — they might first learn to hang on the ladder, then do a pull-up, then do a pull-up with enough force to move the bar.
The lone girl in the class, Mt. Lebanon second-grader Lucy Achmoody, effortlessly reels off names of her favorite TV ninjas. When the class started, she could climb the rope only halfway — now, she can make it to the top.
Kim Rayburg, of Baldwin, has seen changes in her son, Christopher, who eagerly does “ninja practice” through the week, jumping off his bed and flipping around the kitchen.
“His coordination has improved, and it’s also helped his attention span,” she said. “He talks about it all week and counts down to Mondays.”
Anya Sostek: email@example.com or 412-263-1308.
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