Michelle Warnky from American Ninja Warrior
"There are definitely times I’ve heard negative comments about me not being strong enough, not sure if that was because I am a girl or because they just didn’t think I was strong enough, but I always try to use the negative comments to give me more motivation and not be brought down by them."
I met Michelle at the taping of Team Ninja Warrior in Long Beach, CA. While I didn't chat with her much in person, I experienced her to be sweet as pie, genuinely full of joy and grateful to her fans. Her parents were one of the few family members of any ninja there to cheer for her and every other ninja. They were the most friendly and fun audience members/fans/supporters there! It didn't occur to me to "interview" Michelle while I was there and I wouldn't have wanted to take time away from her competition anyway, so I contacted her afterward. I wasn't able to include most of what she shared for my article on the "Women of American Ninja Warrior" so I've included the full interview below.
What’s the hardest part of an American Ninja Warrior Course?
The hardest part is the fact that you only get one chance on the course, with no practice and no foreknowledge of what the course will be!
Why do you think a woman has not completed stage 1 in Vegas yet?
Stage 1 in Vegas has definitely been a goal for many of us women who compete on Ninja Warrior, and I admit, it’s also been quite a frustration to myself and several others. I know Jessie Graff and I had many conversations and really wanted to beat it and knew we both had the ability to. Time plays a big factor in Vegas. In the regional rounds, most of us women play it pretty safe with time and don’t rush ourselves Wheres in Vegas, women are not able to stall much at all and need to go quickly through the obstacles and in-between the obstacles. Stage 1 is also more dynamic, a lot of trampoline jumps where height and weight tend to be more helpful, and more risky movements. Also, any time a girl does pretty well, history can be made, so I think we tend to focus on the safer and surer ways to do things, which isn’t really possible in stage 1. Also, I know for myself, most of the girls are much newer to doing Ninja Warrior than the veteran guys, and we learn more each year. Each time you fail, you learn and grow as an athlete and ninja warrior. My fails in Vegas were all because of silly mistakes, not because I didn’t have the ability. Would I have made it all the way through without those silly mistakes? I don’t know. But I do think I have the ability to complete it, as do several other girls, we just didn’t make it happen the day it counted. Hopefully we’ll make that change soon! :)
One of the reasons why I love American Ninja Warrior is that the women and the men are competing on the same course with the same rules making gender seem irrelevant to one’s athletic ability.
This is definitely something appealing about the show! I know many people have made comments to me about having a separate Ninja Warrior for ladies. But for myself, and at least for several other ladies I’ve talked to, we like that extra challenge, we like the strength that is required, and we enjoy competing with the guys. When I compete, it’s nice to be one of the top females, but that’s not what I shoot for. I compare myself to the guys usually.
I had two training partners David Bortz and Adam Mihm that I trained with for 1-2 years, and we always raced each other on courses and pushed each other. We were similar levels, each one with different strengths. They both barely got further than me in Regionals in 2014 and were one and two spots away from making it to Vegas that year! That was really brutal for them. I got a wildcard call for Vegas that year, which was nice because I got to compete again, and I was one of the top females, but I still wanted to earn my spot. This year David didn’t get a call back, but Adam did, and qualified for Vegas this year! He made it further than I did in Regionals again, but I got a wildcard spot, so we both got to compete in Vegas together where we both messed up the jumping spider. I grew up playing football, baseball, basketball, etc, with the guys in our neighborhood and always tried to keep up with my brother and others, so it is fun to continue that type of lifestyle and compete alongside the men of American Ninja Warrior.
Do you believe that you are smashing all kinds of gender stereotypes by competing on American Ninja Warrior?
I’ve had quite a few people make comments about how I and other ladies have really inspired people, especially other ladies! That’s awesome, but I definitely don’t think I really realize what’s happening. Honestly, I’ve been mainly focused on opening up a new gym with my fellow business partners and keeping it running smoothly and constantly improving it. That’s generally what I’m thinking about, besides life’s other normal things. I don’t think I’ve stopped for more than a few hours to pause and think about the past few years and how American Ninja Warrior has really changed my life, and that of others as well! I’m honored when people ask me for an autograph or to take a picture with me, but to myself, I’m just another normal human being :)
I have always been pretty strong, so it’s been fun to be able to really capitalize on that. Whereas in running my muscles were generally just extra weight to carry. It’s been awesome to see so many more women coming out to compete both on the show and at local gyms across the country. Three years ago, I would try to get one of my friends to join me on one of my ninja trips and we were usually the only two girls there with tons of guys! I would urge other girls I saw there to compete, but they would usually shied away and just wanted to watch. Now, it’s amazing to see 20+ girls at some competitions and hear that same competitive mindset I have and to see them really push their limits just like I try to. So I have definitely noticed changes, whether it’s because more people know about the show or because they’ve seen some ladies do well and that makes them want to try-either way is awesome!
There are definitely times I’ve heard negative comments about me not being strong enough, not sure if that was because I am a girl or because they just didn’t think I was strong enough, but I always try to use the negative comments to give me more motivation and not be brought down by them.
Hopefully everyone watching us ladies on the show has seen that you can be anywhere on the spectrum, a complete girly girl or more of a tom boy. Jessie Graff and I laughed on the phone one time when we actually had a 20 minute conversation about make-up, something not normal for us to be talking about, ha! It’s been fun to find other ladies that are similar to me! I didn’t know a lot of other ladies like this beforehand; it was always a rare and precious friend when I did find them.
So hopefully the show has helped encouraged many ladies that there’s other women out there who really like to push their limits and try crazy things! And that’s totally fine that not everyone is that way, it’s just nice to find other ladies like that! You can be whatever type of girl/lady you are, and enjoy being a female while pushing your limits. Whether that’s beating a lot of guys as well, or doing better than you did last week, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you are challenging yourself and growing! :)
At this point, the ninjas make the show. I even argue that the women boost the ratings more. I’ve heard a lot of ninjas say they don’t do it for the money, but do you think the veterans, at least, should get paid for it?
This question has come up before for sure! Some people probably think if you’re on TV you make good money. I know myself and many other ninjas have and continue at times to struggle with money and the balance of it, and time and training. We want to train, travel and compete more, and be more prepared to compete on the show. But we have jobs to pay the bills, and many of us do a lot of volunteer things for people that don’t offer money, but do offer people’s gratitude. I’ve definitely struggled in this area, as I love helping and encouraging people! I love speaking at schools, churches, wherever, and I love teaching people about obstacles and more. But time and money are a concern while trying to do these things.
Some ninjas have jobs that are more flexible, so they can do the show and train. Some sacrifice most of their vacation days each year on the Ninja Warrior competitions. So of course, it’d be extremely nice to get paid! Many ninjas like to use the platform the show has given them to do things that they might be able to make some money from. In my case, being on the show has definitely made it much more possible and smooth to open Movement Lab Ohio, the gym that we just opened.
I didn’t open it for the purpose of making money or training more, but because there was a demand for it, and since I was already hosting events every month or two, it just made sense. I prayed a lot about it beforehand and felt like that was exactly what I should do. So the show has definitely helped many of us in different endeavors we have done, but of course it would certainly be a huge help and relieve some burdens for most of us if we got paid. I would love to be a professional athlete and get paid to train (that would certainly justify more training time! Or even have more prize incentives that I have more of a chance of winning but on the flip side, it is an awesome opportunity and experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I am super thankful to be a part of it all! The memories and people you meet are priceless, and the show has already given me and everyone else far more than money can ever buy.
What is your advice for women who are inspired to train for American Ninja Warrior?
Do it!! It is an amazing experience! Train hard, go to local competitions, put together an awesome submission video and share your life in the application. Don’t worry about what others think. Some may be super skeptical, some may immediately assume they will see you on TV. Don’t assume that you’ll get to compete on the show or be shown on TV. There are a lot of people that apply and a lot that compete. Regardless of whether you’re picked to compete on the show or not, enjoy the journey. It is a journey where everyone fails and faces major disappointments. Some never get picked, some are picked and never shown on TV, some are shown on TV-but only for 2 secs, some are shown on TV a ton but are disappointed in their run, some do great one night and then not so well another night. It is easy to get discouraged and we have all faced it!
But enjoy the community that you meet because of training for it, and continue to learn and grow through it all, the ups and the downs. How you do on Ninja Warrior or at a local competition does not define you. Yes, it gives you a reputation, and if you didn’t do as well as you wanted, learn from it and seek to not be discouraged by people’s comments. Instead, use them to motivate you to work harder and be better. Find other women and men who can push and challenge you. If you are the strongest woman you know and you can’t find many other women to train with, no worries. Train with the guys and you may feel average or way below it, but keep pushing yourself! :) It is definitely an adventure with an incredible group of people.