'American Ninja Warrior' producer: How Kacy Catanzaro changed our show forever

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Could the first American to beat NBC’s Ninja Warrior course be a woman?

Ex-gymnast Kacy Catanzaro first shattered American Ninja Warrior’s plexiglass ceiling by becoming the first female competitor in six seasons to complete the show’s brutal preliminary obstacle course. Then she completed the show’s near-insane semi-finals course to secure a spot in the upcoming Las Vegas finals. The 24-year-old’s inspiring performance became an online sensation, racking up 8 million views on YouTube alone. (If you’re a woman, it makes you want to go the gym. If you’re a man, it makes you really want to go the gym).

Catanzaro is set to run the national finals course on NBC, which begins its Las Vegas coverage tonight (with repeats airing Tuesdays on Esquire Network). We spoke with the show’s executive producer Kent Weed about the history of female competitors on the show and the delicate issue of the contest’s built-in gender skew — the competition favors men, yet it’s the unrelenting physical challenge of the course that also make the contest uniquely inspiring and has led to Catanzaro becoming a break-out star.

EW: One thing that’s interesting about this course, which of course is inspired by the Japanese show Sasuke, is that I cannot imagine an American network designing it. It’s so intensely strength based, and that’s part of what makes it awesome and unique. But as a result, men happen to be much better at it. For instance, on Survivor and Big Brother, the various challenges balance out to emphasize different skill sets, so they’re ultimately gender neutral competitions. But not Ninja Warrior.
KENT WEED:
We welcome females to do the course. But we want to make it hard enough so that it is as difficult as it is, but also fair too. We don’t want to change the course for females. They need to kind of step up. To your point, we also designed some obstacles that are a little bit more gender friendly. The unique part about this course is it’s not your typical bulky, big athletes—the football player-types—who do best. To Kacy’s tribute, I think one of the reasons she was so successful is she was so light. She had such less weight to carry through the course, and her body frame was her biggest advantage. We see that with the men, too. The lighter weight ones, the smaller frames—the guys that are 5’6″ 135 pounds or 5’10” 150 pounds — those are the guys that have a better chance at it because they have less weight to carry through the course.

When you first went to do an NBC version, did the network have any concerns about the fact that the show’s successful contestants skew so exclusively male?
At that time, the answer was, “We don’t know yet.” No one had done it yet [in the U.S.]. We weren’t going to change our standards and how we lay out the course with the obstacles. Everything started with Sasuke. All the original obstacles came from there. We designed close to the specifications they had. We then started designing some of our own. Every obstacle, we test it in the shop, then we take it on the field and we test it again, trying to ramp up or ramp down the level of difficulty because we do want some success. But we want it to be so difficult that only the elite make it thorough. It’s as much mental as it is physical. That’s one of the reasons why so many men fail who should be able to finish this course—they see three people in front of them not make it through an obstacle, and they get psyched out. One reason why Kacy is so special is her background as a celebrated gymnast, a Division 1 gymnast. She had the ability to just really focus on what was in front of her and tune everything out. I think she had the mental game down. A lot of these obstacles are technique more than strength. Once she did that, she was able to conquer it.

But as you had season after season, and not one woman was getting past even the preliminary rounds, that had to have been a conversation with the network. You mentioned earlier that you did more gender neutral obstacles?
It really wasn’t done with that in mind. It was done to make the course more varied. You have to test all aspects of athleticism. So what I meant by “gender friendly” is that the [obstacles requiring balance are] gender friendly, and you’ll see just as many men as women go out on that one. The one obstacle that has sort of been harder for females—the upper body one—I think women are getting a handle on. They’re doing more training, they’re doing more upper body work. But oddly enough the trampolines used to be their nemesis too. What we’ve done is just go out into the community and said, “Listen, these are the skills you need to practice.” Kacy also had a fantastic mentor and trainer, Brent Steffensen, who has been a leader in this for many years.

One obstacle that’s been particularly difficult for women has been getting up the 14-foot Warped Wall. Do you ever get female—or short male contestants—saying, “Hey, that’s not fair for us”?
We talked about doing a course for women only, but we just strayed away from it. We just kept going back to the roots and keeping it organic to what it is. I think that’s one of the reasons why it was such a huge deal when Kacy made it over the wall was that no one had ever done and weren’t expected to do. We didn’t change the rules. So it’s that much more of a compliment, of an accomplishment.

Which is a point I’ve been leading up to—the difficulty for women to complete this course is part of what makes Kacy’s performance so great. What does it mean for the show to have this happen?
It opens the doors. She punched through the ceiling basically and said, “Women, we can do this.” Once we saw that, we saw more women complete [the preliminary course]. All of the sudden, they’ve broken through the barrier. It’s like the four-minute mile. Everybody said, “You can’t do it, you can’t do it, you can’t do it.” Until someone did it and now everybody is doing it. She said, “Okay women, you can get up the wall, you can do it.” It’s really about speed and technique. Sometimes in the show we compare people that run right at the wall versus people who have their eyes pointed toward where they’re intending to go. People who run straight at the wall—you could be 6’10”, and you’re not going to make it up it.

You brought up what I was going to: Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. Proving it’s possible is what makes the biggest difference. Do you think more women will get through next year?
I do. I really do. I think the men get better every year, too. The beautiful thing about this is you never know who is the right type. [Weatherman] Joe Moravsky doesn’t look like an athlete, but he’s the fastest guy on the course. I love that it’s everyday people—that’s what’s so relatable to our audience is anyone sitting at home going, “I could do that.” But the reason why it doesn’t look that hard is that good athletes make things look easy. We always say this, but I think next year we may see someone get to Stage Four. We still have this year to see if that happens. I think it’s building. And I think the success is building.

Which once again brings me to my next question: The other very non-traditional aspect about the course is that it’s never been beaten in the U.S.—which means no winners on a competition show year after year. Has there ever been pressure to make this a course that’s easier to beat in general?
NBC has been fantastic. They totally accept that the sport is what it is. They’re willing to take whatever happens. The beautiful thing about the sport is we can’t write some of these stories—we couldn’t write the finish that Kacy had. We couldn’t have scripted it any better. That’s what sports does: It creates amazing results, and we do a good job of telling stories about amazing people that are here trying to beat all odds, and that they’ve given parts of their lives to be doing this.

The one thing I’d like to see is a live finale—or if not live, at least running on the same night as it was taped. It’s tough to avoid spoilers online for something like this. 
I hear you. We’ve talked about things like that with NBC in the future where we save that last bit and then shoot live.

For those who missed it, or just want to watch it again, here’s Catanzaro on the Dallas semi-finals course:


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