Harford children bring ninja moves to the national spotlight

Harford County residents Carson Brown, Lila Hodgson and Nikko Sohn are your typical busy students, but with a twist: This summer they competed nationally as junior ninja warriors.

Carson, Lila and Nikko were selected to be among the 192 competitors on American Ninja Warrior Junior, the new youth version of the Emmy Award-nominated American Ninja Warrior.

The program will air Saturdays at 7 p.m., starting Oct. 13, on the Universal Kids channel, a division of the NBC Universal Cable Entertainment network.

The show features junior ninjas from across the country, facing off on the same Head to Head courses in three age brackets: 9-10, 11-12 and 13-14. The courses will feature iconic American Ninja Warrior obstacles, including Sonic Swing, Tic Toc, Spin Cycle and the Warped Wall. Three final winners, one per age bracket, will be crowned the first American Ninja Warrior Junior Champions.

Carson, an eighth grader at St. James Academy, competed in the oldest age bracket. Carson was first exposed to ninja warrior activities at Alternate Routes gym in White Marsh when he attended Nikko’s birthday party in October 2016. Carson went on to participate in the National Ninja League (NNL) circuit, competing in the NNL Finals in February 2018.

Carson said the ninja warrior community is like a big ninja family.

“Everyone is warm, welcoming, encouraging and here to celebrate every accomplishment along the way with me,” he said.

When Carson is not in the gym, you can find him building and racing go karts at Sandy Hook Speedway. He works on his welding and engine rebuilding skills in his home workshop. Carson is also involved in 4H, where he presented Mini Rex Rabbits at the Harford County Farm Fair and found time to win Grand Champion for his indoor welding exhibit and the lawn tractor race.

Lila is a fourth grader and competed in the 9-10 age bracket. She lives in Bel Air with her mom, Kara, her dad, Ryan, her brother, Eli, and a menagerie of pets. Lila is a member at Harford Gymnastics, where she is competing in level 4. A two-time champion in All-Around at the Harford Trophy Meet, Lila has medaled in multiple events over the past two years. She enjoys swimming, jumping on the trampoline, dancing, singing, writing and playing Fortnite. Lila hopes to compete in more ninja events and to begin Crossfit training.

“The American Ninja Warrior Junior experience was beyond amazing,” said Lila’s mom, Kara. “Meeting fellow junior ninjas from all over the country, as well as the ninja mentors, has created memories that will last forever. We feel so grateful that Lila was given this opportunity.”

Nikko, a sixth grader at Fallston Middle School, was also exposed to ninja warrior at a birthday party at Alternate Routes and now trains 1-2 days a week. Nikko placed 20th in the NNL national championship for his age group earlier this year and is believed to hold the record for youngest person, at age 9, to scale the 14-foot warped wall.

Nikko enjoys hanging out with his brother, Alex, another ninja warrior-in-training, and spends his off-season playing lacrosse with the Fallston Lacrosse Club. He competed on the show with the nickname his lacrosse coach gave him, Neek Da Freak.

Nikko is always willing to demonstrate his approach to obstacles and appreciates the accessibility of the sport.

“I love that everyone is willing to help each other in this sport,” he said. “I will try an obstacle several times before I succeed and learn from my mistakes to get better. If I can do it, anyone can. It just takes commitment.”

Alternate Routes bills itself as “Maryland’s first gym dedicated to Parkour, Freerunning and Tricking.” Owner Tony Torres coached all three kids to prepare for the competition. Nikko and Carson attend weekly classes and open gym, and both are very appreciative of Tony’s commitment to the sport.

“Tony Torres is the best,” said Carson. “He loves the sport and I could not do this without him.”

Nikko echoes that sentiment, adding, “Alternate Routes has a nice community. Tony is a really good guy and helped me get to the level I am at today.”

Torres competed on five seasons of American Ninja Warrior before focusing his efforts on building Alternate Routes five years ago.

“It’s been my passion to share and grow this sport. Initially, when I opened Alternate Routes it was to help adults train for the actual show.”

But after realizing how much the sport impacts kids, Torres switched gears and now primarily coaches kids. “I love seeing not only what it does for their physical selves but the confidence it gives them,” he said.

Alternate Routes recently moved into a facility that more than doubled the size of the original gym, enabling Torres to expand his ninja warrior horizons.

“With the size limitations of the old facility I was struggling to keep up with where the sport has gone,” he said. “Now with this new bigger state-of-the-art facility, not only can I keep up with the growth of the sport, but I can create any obstacle course that I (or the show) can dream up.”

The new Alternate Routes facility will host a kids NNL event on October 27th and an adult event in January. In the meantime, Torres is looking forward to watching what his students will achieve.

“I think you’ll see some pretty amazing things from our students,” he said. “I am proud of Carson, Lila and Nikko and can’t wait to watch them compete. Stay on the lookout for our athletes!”

All three athletes have Instagram accounts and readers can follow their ninja and other adventures at @mechanic.ninja, @lilathebabybull and @neek.da.freak.

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