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Engineering Their Way to American Ninja Warrior Success

Engineering Their Way to American Ninja Warrior Success

Three University of Maryland students harness brains and brawn in a popular obstacle course show.

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University of Maryland students Marcos Colon-Pappaterra (left), Kevin Merrick (middle) and Delaney Jordan (right) will compete in "Team Ninja Warrior: College Madness," which premieres Nov. 22.

Image credits:

Courtesy NBCUniversal

Monday, November 21, 2016 - 14:45

Chris Gorski, Editor

(Inside Science) -- Three students representing the University of Maryland in College Park in the new show "Team Ninja Warrior: College Edition" think they have a secret weapon for tackling the strength, balance and endurance challenges familiar to fans of the American Ninja Warrior franchise.

They're all engineering majors.

"Knowing how physics works and how stuff works is a really good advantage for the show," said Marcos Colon-Pappaterra, a junior studying mechanical engineering.

Joining Colon-Pappaterra are junior computer engineering and mathematics major Kevin Merrick, and senior materials science and engineering major Delaney Jordan. Merrick and Jordan are both members of the university's Gymkhana acrobatic and gymnastic performance group. Former wrestler Colon-Pappaterra trains in parkour, a type of unstructured outdoor gymnastics in which the participants often jump and flip their way over walls and around obstacles.

The trio trained for the competition at a gym in White Marsh, Maryland that's equipped with versions of many of the show's obstacles. For each challenge, the students combine their strength and athletic abilities with their insights into the physics of each part of the course.

"By understanding the principles of engineering or physics or biomechanics, I think you can get through a Ninja Warrior obstacle most efficiently, and maximize your chances of actually achieving it," said James Smoliga, who researches sports performance and injury prevention at High Point University in North Carolina. "If you're using as little energy to do a given task, especially for something that requires endurance, you're a lot more likely to make it through the entire task."

Some body types present challenges or advantages for certain obstacles. For example, one of the show's signature obstacles is the warped wall, in which athletes ascend a sharply curved ramp before jumping to grab and then pull themselves atop a platform that's at least 14 feet high. For the 6-foot, 4-inch Merrick, it's easy. But for the considerably shorter Colon-Pappaterra, impeccable technique is crucial.

The strategy is all about generating momentum on the flat part of the ramp, and transforming that speed into a vertical direction to ascend the wall, explained Colon-Pappaterra.

"A lot of people when they start to do the warped wall, they'll just start running really fast," he said. "Once it starts inclining up, they'll just kind of hit the wall and not have the momentum up. … You almost want to lean back and run along the incline."

Thinking that way can be helpful throughout the course. "I am always thinking about physics," said Jordan. "Gravity is always in the same place, so think about where you are and where you are throwing your arms and throwing your legs." Creating the right forces can save a competitor from falling off an obstacle, she said.

In addition, completing challenges often requires finding creative ways to make forces work for the athlete.

For example, one obstacle in the show requires competitors to climb aboard a giant swing before jumping to grab a cargo net. Merrick said this is tough on tall athletes because their centers of gravity are too high to swing far enough to reach the net. But after watching many other competitors, he decided to crouch.

"I had to get really low on that one to make sure I would trace out the full path from start to finish, so I could actually grab the cargo net," said Merrick.

Strength is crucial to overcome the many obstacles that require contestants to propel themselves using only their arms. But that doesn't mean body builders are winning Ninja Warrior. Many of the most successful contestants on the show are mountain climbers -- strong but compact. For events like the cliffhanger, in which athletes grip narrow ledges to swing across a wall, or the pole graspers, where competitors swing from pipes hanging from a large monkey bars-like structure, pure strength isn't necessarily as helpful as being strong relative to body size.

Science isn't a substitute for training, the team stressed. Whether it's an attempt to build endurance for strength challenges, or to develop better body awareness for balance obstacles, practice is still essential.

"The big problem is endurance and making sure you have the energy to go from obstacle to obstacle," said Merrick. "The only real solution is: Train it harder."

What did the team take away from the competition? They wouldn't share the results before the show airs, but they did say they enjoyed themselves and were thrilled to represent science and engineering.

"You don't have to just pick one thing to be. You can be smart and you can be strong," said Jordan. "I think that the three of us are good examples of that, especially for any kids watching the show."

"Team Ninja Warrior: College Madness" premieres Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. EST/PST on Esquire Network, with the first of five episodes.

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Chris Gorski

Chris Gorski is an Editor for Inside Science and runs the Sports beat. Follow him on twitter at @c_gorski.