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The Big Interview: A few minutes with American Ninja Warrior Brian Orosco

Aug 1, 2011, 3:08 PM EDT

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G4 American Ninja Warrior

Our Josiah Schlatter was lucky enough to sit down for a phone interview with professional freerunner Brian Orosco, who will be competing in the American Ninja Warrior, which premiered last night on the G4 Network.

So when did you figure out in life that being a Ninja Warrior was what you were destined for?

It looked like fun. I had been watching the show for a couple year prior and when I learned that it was an open competition I decided to give it a shot. When you’re sitting at home watching the game shows you’re thinking, “Ah, I can do that!”

It’s really fun for me in that it’s not you versus the next guy, it’s every man against the course. It doesn’t matter where you’re from and what you do, essentially we’re all on the same team.

What I found amazing about the Ninja Warrior competition is the cheering. There’s non stop cheering in Japan, while in America we wait around for something exciting to cheer. We don’t give it out to everybody.

Ah yeah, exactly. It’s a reflection of the culture. The first time I went to Japan I was blown away by, eh, honorable they are to everybody in the competition. Very polite, very clean. Competitions are very wholesome. It’s not about the prize at the end but the experience of being there.

In America, if somebody fell off the course we’d have already developed villains and heroes, and if somebody we hated fell off, like Terrell Owens for example, we’d shower them with boos and jeer them off the field. In Japan, does anybody ever boo?

No. Never. It’s definitely cool because even when you fall everybody still cheers for you because even if you aren’t having the greatest day, they appreciate how difficult the process is.

And how you took all that time out of your schedule to go out and perform for them. They’re appreciative. I love that.

Yeah, oh yeah. What’s great is it’s the every day American who goes out there to perform. These aren’t multimillion dollar athletes, these guys are the same as you. That makes it easier to cheer.

Whenever I’m watching the show it’s one of those things where I accidentally flip on the G4 Network, I see two or three runs and then I’m sucked in for three hours, sitting there wondering what the heck happened to my day.

Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of like potato chips. You can never sit there for one run.

I guess you see lots of potential for the sport’s growth?

I almost look at it as perpetuating a tradition, something that’s really honorable that’s been around for awhile, and it’s changed and evolved so much over time that it’s more to the point where we’re trying to keep an old tradition alive. I think it’s really cool from a production standpoint to get to watch every competitor.
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For working out and practicing, do you go out and look at the blueprints for the course and then simulate obstacles that mirror them to get an understanding of the task at hand?

Getting specific obstacles to train for has always been minimal, because as a free runner we try to triangulate the situation and we basically train to be useful in any circumstance. It’s useful on the path, but I think over my last couple trips I failed on the third stage and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve exhausted free running’s usefulness and now I need to get into specific training situations, like doing exercises that are more upper body based. Free running is usually more core and lower body so I would say not up until the last year or so have I done any kind of specific training, just free running.

Let’s imagine a world where Ninja Warrior takes off in America and LeBron James all of a sudden says “Ooh, it’s the offseason. Maybe I’ll be a ninja warrior and try and conquer that course.” Is that possible?

Yeah. The thing that’s cool about it is that it’s for the every day man but there have definitely been some celebrity appearances on the Japan side. There’s a portion of the competitors that are dedicated to entertainers and public figures. Gymnasts go over there, people from the Olympics. People that already have recognition. I could definitely see some top tier American athletes give it a go.

So how would LeBron James do on your average ninja warrior course?

He would do really well on the first stage but honestly his size may be his detriment. The thing I found, most people think the big strong guys will do really well but it’s really the small asians and Japanese because their so compact, their power to weight ratio is so high, they’re actually much better suited for the course. At my modest weight I still think I may be too heavy for the sport. I’ve been trying to drop weight.

How about a guy like Mike Vick?

He’s definitely got a great level of awareness being a quarterback. He could determine solutions quickly but I think for the most part, traditional sports don’t translate well. Just being a good athlete doesn’t mean you’ll do well at all in the next. I was an expert at free running, and I tried to transfer that over to a simple sport such as yoga and it’s really hard for me. Incredibly difficult. I think trying to transfer football to ninja warrior, the strength and conditioning help but he’d probably have to alter his training for a more full body awareness.

Is that a reason it’s so popular in Japan, the compact nature of their bodies make them suited for Ninja Warrior?

Yeah, absolutely.

So the perfect athlete for this sport would be a 5’9″ gymnast-type?

Yes and no. I think it would be a cross between a cross between a gymnast, a decathlete and a, well, free runner (laughs).

Gymnasts are usually small, really strong guys with great balance. But the variety of the course makes the challenger have a very wide skill set. Free runners usually have that ability.

What’s crazy about this sport to me, is that in baseball if you strike out you get three more at bats. In Ninja Warrior, you fall, your day is over. Go home, no more sport for you. You did all that training for nothing.

I think that’s something to be appreciated. In many things in life you only get one shot. It’s forcing competitors to compete at the highest of levels at every second because there’s so much at stake. It exercises a different part of your competitive spirit. When you know you’re given enough tries, you have something to fall back on. Not having that makes you prepare completely for it. Like taping a TV show versus a live television show. You can’t mess up. You practice until you can’t get it wrong. That’s the beauty of ninja warrior. As frustrating as that can be, all or nothing. It’s the best way.

It’s very gladiator like in that regard. You’re out there in front of all those people and if you mess up, the game’s over for you. They’ll move on to the next competitor, you’re done for.

Right, right.

What are the emotions when you mess up on the first course?

It’s definitely tough. The first time I went over there, I screwed up on the first stage on the water and I was REALLY REALLY angry with myself. It wasn’t because I was tired, it wasn’t because I wasn’t capable of completing the course, it was a simple brain fart. I started thinking about the end of the course instead of conquering the obstacle at hand. Having to deal with it that night, I was extremely upset with myself. I actually didn’t sleep at all.

I basically thought of all of the ways I could have done the course better until I couldn’t hold my eyes open. It was kind of a blessing in disguise because we left immediately the next morning and as soon as I got on the plane I fell asleep and woke up 10 hours later in LA. I think anybody who prides themselves on being an athlete will take failure so early on very hard.

One thing I see as a roadblock to our sport is the fact that we as Americans are very lazy as athletes. If LeBron James went out there and messed up on the first course he’d probably have a hissy fit along the lines of, “What the hell! I don’t get another try at this crap?! This sport is stupid, I’m outta here!”

That’s the one road block, we want another chance. We like having games with multiple failures.

Oh yeah, definitely.

You see the sport coming to America any time soon?

Ah, well if it came to America it’d be totally different. The reason it is the way it is is because of the Japanese culture, which is night and day with America. We’re more materialistic, it’s not about the experience, it’s about ‘what do I win’.

Yep. “How much airtime am I going to get on the TV?”

Yeah, exactly. If we get the games to America, I know the essence of the competition will change. Bringing it to America culture would probably marginalize the experience. Take away the honor involved.

They’d have to ensure that the crowds are one of those fake David Letterman, late show crowds where they aren’t going to booing when they see something they don’t like. A crowd that will cheer at anything, like the Japanese do for real. Booing would ruin the sport. That ever happened to you?

Getting booed? Oh, never. Everybody’s so positive about everything. Booing often comes from a lack of entertainment, and it’s foolish for people to do that. If you can’t appreciate what athletes are going through and to belittle their efforts, that’s awful. If a competitor is trying to rip the obstacles apart for the hell of it, that’s the time to boo. And it just doesn’t happen in Japan.

Are Japanese people inherently nicer? What’s going on here?

Seems that way, absolutely. Walk down the streets here in America and you’ll be lucky to see someone take their eyes off the sidewalk. We’re very self centered, we won’t even consider saying hi.

Do you see the Ninja Warrior course hitting the mainstream? Is it something that excites you?

I don’t know. I’m worried it would become like any of the other obstacle course shows we have, like WipeOut. The first few seasons, the honor may stick, but as the seasons progressed will it evolve into something where we jeer the competitors? It’s not about cheering them on anymore.

It’s laughing about them falling.

Yeah, yeah. What kind of entertainment can we get out of their failure? It’s not about success, it’s about failure. I don’t want to go that route.

We love to watch our fellow man fail, for some odd reason. There are probably thousands of psychological studies that delve into the American way of thinking.

Yeah, yeah. Completely true.

Can you talk about the atmosphere during the event? One big party?

Not one big party, one big family. It’s intense, it’s a competition. It’s great to shoot the shi* with people, reminisce about past competitions and joke around. They all seem to love one another, and it really helps me take my mind off of the anxiety going into the competition.

I bet it’s pretty fun to sit there and explode with the crowd as you cheer on your friends.

Oh yeah, oh yeah. When you have that special connection with the crowd and the athletes, it’s like nothing else. My older brother and dad used to race cars and I could watch 10 other races, and it would be cool. Nothing special. But when my family was on the course I’d be running back and forth, trying to keep track of the time, living and dying with every second. Making a personal connection definitely helps change the passion and emotion.

Everybody wants someone to cheer for.

Yeah, exactly.

I guess the next step is to find some Ninja Warrior stars.

Yep, being easily recognizable when your face is on the television. It’s an everyman’s sport, and it goes a long way because when you have 100 competitors, you have people creating buzz by saying, “Hey! Watch my son!”

One of the problems is the runs are so short, like the Kentucky Derby. The biggest problem is it’s two minutes long.

Yep, it’s real short. Just like when you watch track and field in the Olympics, it’s a sunburst. But it’ll be a really exciting sunburst.

And performances live forever on Youtube!

That 45 seconds turns into infinity, very true.