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Mighty Kacy Catanzaro is ready to power on

At the Towson University football team's home opener late last month, the loudest cheers arguably came for the smallest athlete on the field.

With the current Towson gymnastics team by her side, 24-year-old alumna Kacy Catanzaro stood in the endzone and waved to the roughly 8,000 fans in attendance.

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"Let's go, Kacy! Let's go, Kacy!" the student section began to chant as Catanzaro — dressed in a black top, denim shorts and boots pulled up to her knees — flashed her megawatt smile.

Nineteen months after she graduated with a degree in early childhood education, the 5-foot-tall Catanzaro had returned to Towson as one of the school's most famous alumni. She quickly became a star this summer after becoming the first woman to advance to the finals of "American Ninja Warrior," an NBC reality competition show where competitors race through a physically taxing obstacle course.

Catanzaro, who was featured on "The Today Show" this summer, described life as "crazy" since becoming a viral sensation. (The YouTube clip of her completing the show's semifinals course in Dallas has more than 8.8 million views since July 14. Her nickname, Mighty Kacy, came from a social media hashtag.)

"It's been really amazing to see how many people it has touched," Catanzaro said after halftime, seated on a gym mat in Towson's SECU Arena. "Every time someone comes up to me or writes me a message saying it's inspired them and now they're getting up and doing stuff, it makes me feel so good. I want to keep that going."

People seem drawn to Catanzaro, a constantly smiling young woman from northern New Jersey who doesn't turn down a fan request. As we walked from the football field to the arena, she was approached more than once for a photo, and cheerfully obliged each time. Even A-list celebrities have taken notice.

"Jessica Biel tweeted at me, and then Justin Timberlake retweeted it and then wrote back," Catanzaro said. "I was like, 'What?'"

More specifically, Biel wrote, "This girl is five feet of 'knock your ass out!' #gogirl #schoolthemboys." Viewers seemed to respond to Catanzaro's size as much as they did her gender. In person, she looks smaller than you'd expect from an "American Ninja Warrior" competitor, but it is also clear the 100-pound athlete is all lean muscle.

When Vicki Chliszczyk arrived at Towson after the 2010 season, the gymnastics coach installed a new three-day-per-week strength and conditioning plan that Catanzaro, a junior at the time, responded to. She said Catanzaro was "always" in shape, but her routines improved after the weight training.

"Kacy was one who definitely benefited from that, and became a lot stronger," Chliszczyk said. "Senior year she was in the best shape of her life."

The work paid off, as Catanzaro was named the Eastern College Athletic Conference Gymnast of the Year and the NCAA Southeast Regional Gymnast of the Year. Chliszczyk called the latter Catanzaro's greatest accomplishment in the program.

"That's voted on by the head coaches in the region, and our region is very strong," she said. "She was up against Olympians for that award."

After college, Catanzaro began researching "American Ninja Warrior." (Years before, she often watched the original Japanese version with her dad.)

"Once I graduated, I was like, 'I've done gymnastics my entire life. I need something to fill this hole that's going to be there now,'" Catanzaro said. "I was watching 'Ninja Warrior' on TV and I was like, 'This is what I need to do next.'"

She started to interact with the show's community, and eventually met her coach and now-boyfriend, Brent Steffensen. Steffensen, who is one of the most successful competitors in the show's six-season history, trained Catanzaro in a Texas warehouse filled with replicas of "American Ninja Warrior" obstacles.

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In May, Catanzaro was ready for the bright lights of network TV. First, she became the first woman to climb the 14-foot "Warped Wall." Then, at the regional finals in Dallas, Catanzaro made national headlines as the first woman to complete the course and qualify for the national finals in Las Vegas.

"I've seen greatness during my NFL career ... and I've been in awe of people, but I've really been in awe of Kacy," said the show's co-host Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, during her Dallas run. "This girl is not human!"

Although Catanzaro failed to complete the Las Vegas finals' four-stage course modeled after the Japan show's Mount Midoriyama (the walls of the Jumping Spider obstacle were too far apart for Catanzaro to gain the footing required to suspend herself in air), she has no intention to stop competing on the show.

"I'll definitely be competing on ["American Ninja Warrior"] as long as they keep taking me back," Catanzaro said. "The ultimate goal is to get to the top of that mountain."

Other shows may have taken notice of Catanzaro as well. On Thursday, she'll be a featured guest on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." Recently, rumors spread online that she would be on the latest cast of "Dancing With the Stars." It did not turn out to be true, but Catanzaro seemed excited by the idea.

"I was definitely on their wishlist of people they would like to have on there," she said. "I heard that this season is all filled up ... but hopefully in future seasons [because] it's definitely something I'd love to do."

With her newfound fame, Catanzaro hopes to inspire others to exercise and eat right. Her friend and former Towson gymnastics teammate Nicolette Vignola said that supportive nature has always been Catanzaro's driving force. She recalled receiving a group text message from Catanzaro, then a senior, inviting her and the freshmen teammates to dinner in order to get to know one another better.

"She might have been the smallest, but she was probably one of the loudest on our team," Vignola said. "If you were struggling with something, during practice even, she would come up to whatever event you were on and be there standing next to you, in your ear, really encouraging you."

Catanzaro, who lives in Texas, said she would like to become a motivational speaker. She said she often receives messages online from viewers inspired by her story.

"It's kind of broken the barrier like, 'Hey, girls are up here, too, and they're kicking butt as well.'

"I get messages on Twitter and it's like, 'I wasn't going to work out today, and then I watched your video' or 'I had this surgery two years ago, and I haven't worked out, and now I'm going to' ... things like that are really improving people's lives because they're inspired by this. That really touches me the most," she said.

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