Matt D was born on the Fourth of July according to his Facebook profile, a suitable date when you consider the consistent supply of fireworks in his trunk. Matt D grew up with A.D.D. like the rest of us and so he kept on the move, climbed trees, houses and made up games that often involved a Roman candle or twelve. Around ten years ago, Matt D saw Japan’s Sasuke—a ninja-athlete competition—on YouTube. “That looks so cool,” he thought. “I’d love to go to Japan and try it.” That was the problem: going to Japan. At seventeen, Matt D had neither the money, time or legal papers necessary to hop the pond. Instead, like all good ninjas, he studied his competition and bided his time…
Then they set everything up in America. “I wasn’t aware that we were doing that here. I don’t watch TV and I guess it was on TV. They had the first American Ninja Warrior contest. Didn’t even know that. They’ve had it in America for four years, but this was the first time they brought the full four-stage course.” Before all of that, they qualified athletes stateside and took everyone to Japan. Each year they exported more and more Americans until an American company bought the rights and shipped the course to the states. “It was a good time to try it. It was here in America, I felt I was decently ready for it, so I might as well try it at least once.”
Traditional sports like baseball, basketball and football never appealed to Matt D. He’d play with friends but was never “super competitive or really into it.” Such sports gave him an excuse to play with friends, nothing more. Normal activities bored him. “Little things like standing on Andy’s roof and shooting a bow and arrow, playing with fireworks and having to get out of the way, just making up little quirky games was always really fun for me.”
Back in Louisville, Illinois, Matt D taught a line of us boys how to ninja roll off the roof of a church building. He would, on occasion, drive out to a pond in Salem and practice dodging Roman candle fireballs. I asked him if he remembered how he and another guy loaded a skeet shooter with a machete, shot it into the air and tried to dodge it. He denied memory of the event, but did remember tying a whiffle ball bat to the selfsame skeet shooter and dodging swings, as well as catching arrows shot from a bow. Since he spent so much time dodging and catching things, dodgeball, killball and ultimate frisbee filled up large chunks of his summers. Among that group of friends, we also made up games like Friscart—a combination of ultimate frisbee and figure-8 go cart racing—as well as the infamous Birthday Ball, invented on Andy Nash’s Birthday:
Birthday Ball gets more and more ridiculous as we make up more and more rules to make it weirder. That’s why I love dodgeball. It’s so unorganized half the time. You can’t control the game. You’ve just gotta keep on your toes, keep aware of what’s happening. It’s not one ball you’re dodging, [it's] multiple balls, multiple people and a lot of movement.
In Birthday Ball you have one [racquet] ball, your teams line up on different sides of the half line like a dodgeball game. The difference is the backline’s the goal and you get an arsenal of tools to use. It can be anything and everything—a tennis racket, a broom, a dustpan, a fishing net, even a stick off the ground or a piece of wood—anything you could use to propel or catch the ball because you can’t use your hands or feet. You can use a Pringles® can or a tube and launch the ball. It makes it fun because you have a ton of people standing there with all of these objects trying to score points.
Matt’s unorthodox training led two of his friends—Dane Hunter and Corey Fuhrhop—to create a Matt D meme for his Ninja Warrior debut:
(As a side note, I highly recommend we add our own creations).
Matt D rock climbs two-to-three times per weekend at the local gym. Though dodgeball and rock climbing are his staples, once a week he’ll also do parkour, go to the gymnastics center, rope climb, play softball or kickball—whatever he can do to have fun and stay active. Endurance games like running and bicycling bore him. Hell for Matt D would look like the Iditarod—twelve hundred miles of mushing. Adrenaline-evoking games keep his attention.
That’s exactly what went through his mind when he first saw the Ninja Warrior course: adrenaline. Two-hundred people qualified to compete. They narrowed it down to the thirty fastest times and whittled those thirty to the fifteen that will go to Las Vegas. Marathon runners, MMA fighters, gymnasts, and all sorts of people who do different activities showed up to compete. After they called Matt D’s number, they counted down from five and yelled “go!” If he did good enough, he’d came back for the next day. If not, he went home.
“I was just excited to see the course. I wanted to see how much of a challenge it was. I thought, ‘I can’t wait to try these things. I’ve been watching them for years.’” He ran the qualifying course and was surprised at the ease with which he overcame the obstacles. He expected the first few to be harder. In the semi-finals, they were—especially since they didn’t start filming until three in the morning. Matt’s turn came at five A.M., while everyone was groggy. “The challenges get harder as you make it farther, like that curtain thing was pretty weird. That’s something you can’t train [for], can’t practice unless you build it yourself. You have to really commit to going into the obstacle and swinging your first time. If you mess up in the slightest, it’s hard to correct your mistake. That’s what they’re designed to do.”
Without practice or even the chance to touch the course, Matt committed to beat the obstacles and charged forward:
(watch the video here) http://www.nbc.com/assets/video/widget/widget.html?vid=1404069
In retrospect, Matt had run up bigger walls at skate parks. He watched others on the pull-up ladder and borrowed their technique. As for the ball handholds, others gripped them as if milking a cow or as if making an O.K. sign. Matt relaxed his skeleton and pretended he was back on the old monkey bars, skipping two at a time.
He hit the buzzer and asked for his time.
They pulled him aside for the interview.
Again he asked for his time.
“Don’t worry, you got first place,” they said.
“But there’s still other people,” Matt said.
It wasn’t until it aired that Matt D realized he beat every contender by a minute. We couldn’t be prouder of the man who kept us active, on our toes and ready to season life with fun in high school. Great job, Matt.
He’ll head to Vegas to compete with all the other qualifiers. We all expect him to give them a run for their money in all of the years ahead. After all, other than Matt D, who else can say they were born a ninja warrior?
PS> If you have spent a significant amount of time on something, you might be an expert worthy of an interview. Send an email to lanceschaubert [at] gmail.com – I will take on all kinds of people from celebrity to lone wolf, filthy rich to newly bankrupt, foreign or domestic. “But Lance, what if everyone that knows me has no clue that I’ve spent so much time on this?” Email me anyways.