Mason Engnes is known in the gym by his alias, “The Golden Badger.”
Engnes is a 22-year-old “ninja” and youth program coordinator at Obstacle Academy, an “American Ninja Warrior”-inspired training facility in Edina. He teaches young people how to be ninjas.
NBC’s American Ninja Warrior television show, a spin-off of the popular Japanese competition called “Sasuke,” is known for its crazy obstacles, skillful athletes and falls into the water below. The future of the sport is unfolding in local training facilities such as Obstacle Academy, a non-affiliated gym that has developed competitive youth teams.
“They are going to become top- level ninjas as the sport grows,” Engnes said about the youth participants. “In the next five years we are hoping that it is a pretty big national sport, and the kids that are working hard now when there isn’t a guaranteed payoff are going to have the most training experience, the most time competing, and they should be able to do much better than the average person in the sport.”
On American Ninja Warrior, contestants attempt to cross an obstacle course as fast as they can without falling off the course. One by one, athletes attempt to complete the obstacles with faster times than their opponents.
“You get one opportunity on the course,” Engnes said. “So a simple mistake and you fall, you’re done.”
Other facilities, such as Conquer Ninja Warrior and Ninjas United, also have youth programs.
The youth teams at Obstacle Academy, made up of kids ages 6 to teenagers, practice together twice a week. Training sessions are aimed at preparing the Academy’s ninjas for youth competitions, which have been popping up more around the country in the past two years, according to Engnes. Youth members are encouraged to compete in monthly competitions throughout the region.
In preparing for the events, young people are put through difficult training sessions.
The ninjas alternate multiple times between completing a practice course and doing push-ups, pull-ups and core workouts. They try to complete courses while they are tired to simulate a real competition, in which nerves play a factor.
Completing a course is also a mind game. Engnes conditions his young team to decide on a plan of attack before starting the course. They look for places to take breaks, to catch their breath and also for the most difficult part—what the ninjas call the “crux” of the course.
Ethan Robbins, a junior at Eden Prairie High School, is a member of the Academy’s youth traveling team, the “OA Dragons.” He has been training at the gym for about a year-and-a-half.
In October, Robbins said he had been training for about eight hours per week in preparation for a competition in Michigan. He said he’s ready to “push through things, to continue that little extra movement that could help him get the fastest time.”
“You are not going to get better if you just give up where you did last time,” Robbins said.
Before youth competitions, Engnes will give students advice on breathing, relaxing and attacking the course. During competition, he stays on the side of the course, cheering on his gym’s ninjas.
“It is one big family, basically,” Robbins said about competition days. “Everyone is cheering each other on, no matter what.”
Coaching the youth is a serious commitment for Engnes, who competes in ninja competitions himself. His workload often totals 80 to 100 hours per week, he says, but he shows no signs of slowing down.
“I’ve dedicated my life,” Engnes said. “I graduated college with a business degree and could have gone and got a desk job that would’ve made more money, wouldn’t have been as fun. For me, it means a lot because I’ve dedicated my life to not only being able to train and work with kids, but turning this into a sport.”
Two years ago, Engnes started to compete in National Ninja League competitions, but a torn ACL forced him into nearly a year of rehab. Now, he’s back and leading future athletes in the sport by example.
“This sport anybody can become good at,” Engnes said. “Whether you’re overweight, too small, short, never been good at sports – it doesn’t mean that you can’t become good at this.”