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'American Ninja Warrior' tryouts come to Baltimore

There are many obstacles along the path to becoming a ninja warrior.

One must dash up the steps, slanted at 50 degrees, to reach the platform above, or perhaps run along the 14-foot curved wall — all without falling into the pool of water below.

"If your foot skims the water, you're done," said 30-year-old Tony Torres.

Torres, will be one of hundreds trying to land a spot on the TV show "American Ninja Warrior," which holds tryouts Friday and Saturday at Rash Field in the Inner Harbor. Now in its fifth season, "American Ninja Warrior" was developed from the Japanese show "Sasuke," and is a test of strength, flexibility and endurance — skills used in the sport of parkour. Baltimore is one of four cities holding tryouts (the others are Venice Beach, Calif, Denver and Miami).

At least 15 of the best contestants from each city will advance to finals in Las Vegas June 21 to 23. The show airs on the Esquire Network, formerly G4, and NBC, on Sunday and Monday nights this summer.

"Baltimore has a great location with the harbor right there," said Kent Weed, the show's executive producer. "It'll draw people from all over."

Torres and his 27-year-old brother, Edwin, own Alternate Routes Gym in White Marsh, where several members as well as out-of-town contestants are training for the tryouts by honing their skills in the little-known but up-and-coming sport of parkour.

Developed in France, the sport only came to America in the past decade, Torres said. Parkour is done at higher levels in Europe; in America, there are only 15 parkour gyms nation-wide, and Alternate Routes is the first one in Maryland, Torres said.

"Most people will describe it as ... getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible," Torres said. "What we teach is developing yourself, strengthening yourself to overcome obstacles. It's not just strengthening yourself physically, but also mentally."

To try out for the show, prospective ninjas submit videos in advance. Walk-ons are accepted, but not all are guaranteed a spot, due to time constraints, organizers said. Friday, about 125 to 150 people will get to compete on a course of six obstacles, and anyone who finishes that course — producers expect anywhere from 30 to 50 people to complete it — moves on to the second course on Saturday, where four more obstacles are added.

The finalists will move on to Las Vegas. Those who complete the course in Las Vegas can win up to $500,000, but the course is "next to impossible," Torres said.

In fact, no one has ever completed the course in Las Vegas, Weed said.

"We want to find the first American Ninja Warrior to complete this course," he said.

It will be the Torres brothers' third time trying out. Brad Martin, 31, and Chad Riddle, 23, who also train at Alternate Routes, will be trying out as well--Martin for his third time, Riddle for his first.

The Torres brothers didn't make it past the first round last year, but Martin got to the second-day semifinals.

To prepare, the men are working on obstacle training, strength and conditioning workouts and cardio.

Demographics for "American Ninja Warriors" and parkour in general "run the gamut," Torres said. Participants in "American Ninja Warriors" must be at least 21 years old to try out, but last year the oldest competitor to complete the course was 53 years old, Torres said.

At Alternate Routes, there are 8-year-olds who come in already knowing the names of the obstacles and top competitors, Torres said.

Torres and his brother developed an interest in parkour from watching "American Ninja Warriors" and documentaries of people doing parkour, but thought they were superhuman, he said.

"Then, as ['American] Ninja Warriors' got more and more popular, I started seeing more and more guys who were doing well in it," Torres said.

This inspired the brothers to start training, and it became a passion that led them to open Alternate Routes in September 2012.

"Sitting on the couch it looks pretty easy, and then when you build the obstacles you realize it's not so easy," Martin said.

Martin is hoping that having regionals in Baltimore will make him less nervous—last year, they had to go to Miami for try-outs, and the year before, Venice Beach, Calif. His interest in parkour came from watching the show.

"We all love it for the same reason," Martin said. "You challenge yourself against the course and see where you are. When you fail, and most everyone does, you see this is where it is, can I do better. It's like a never-ending challenge to yourself."

cjaskot@baltsun.com

If you go

Tryouts for "American Ninja Warrior" start at 8 p.m. on Friday and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at Rash Field in the Inner Harbor. Tickets are free, but there is a waitlist. To join the list, go to http://on-camera-audiences.com/shows/American_Ninja_Warrior.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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