Joe "The Weatherman" Moravsky was only three obstacles away from becoming the first person ever to clear stage three of the national finals on “American Ninja Warrior.” The 25-year-old contestant ran out of gas and dropped from the “hang climb” into the water, ending his season on the NBC show.
Hitting the water, a thought crossed Joe Moravsky’s mind -- quitting. “I thought I might just call it,” Moravsky told International Business Times.
Moravsky competes on “American Ninja Warrior,” an NBC show based on the Japanese show “Sasuke,” in which contestants attempt to navigate a series of physically demanding obstacles. After initial casting, tryouts and regional qualifying rounds take place off camera, the show picks up each season with the regional finals courses and, subsequently, the national finals, which consist of four stages of obstacles. A competitor must complete all four stages without one hiccup to earn the title of American Ninja Warrior, but six seasons into the show, no one has been able to do it.
After bowing out on stage three for two consecutive years, the prospect of another year’s training and pressure weighed on the 25-year-old athlete. “This takes a lot out of you. It takes a tremendous amount of not just physical strength but mental strength. You’re just so tired. It’s a lot of stress,” Moravsky told IBTimes.
Considering what Moravsky has put into the competition, it’s not hard to imagine the exhaustion. Back in early 2013 Moravsky applied for Season 5 of “American Ninja Warrior.” When the show called, he put a promising career in meteorology on hold to train for the show, opting instead to continue working at the Connecticut gym where he has been for five years so that he could train more easily.
Moravsky has spent the last two years dedicated to training, honing rock climbing skills two days a week, reviewing old runs, reliving his struggles with failed obstacles and scouring episodes of “Sasuke” for new obstacles that “American Ninja Warrior” might include.
For the past season, Joe had to balance training with planning his wedding, a factor the ninja identified as a “good distraction” from the competition, but one that may have played a part in his early exit this year. When his wedding ceremony conflicted with the Las Vegas national finals, Moravsky and his wife Stephanie moved the wedding. (Moravsky said his wife was “very understanding.”)
It is the kind of dedication fans are accustomed to hearing about from any elite athlete, but competitors on “American Ninja Warrior” are not exactly athletes. “American Ninja Warrior” is a television show, not a conventional sport, a distinction with more than a few consequences for those competing.
Moravsky is one of the best competitors “American Ninja Warrior” has ever had. In only two seasons on the show he has become the first person on American soil (the show held the finals in Japan in earlier seasons) to reach stage three twice, and his dominance in earlier rounds -- in the Season 6 regional finals, Moravsky pulled the “rumbling dice” off the track and still completed the obstacle -- has earned him the popular meteorology-inspired nickname “The Weatherman.”
Moravsky, however, is not even guaranteed a spot in next season’s competition. “We still have to submit our videos. We still have to be selected,” revealed Moravsky. “American Ninja Warrior” is, for lack of a better word, a reality show and therefore casts for each season. While it is unlikely Moravsky, or any other perennial finalist, would not be selected they must still create an original submission video each year.
Chris Wilczewski, another Season 6 national finalist, has another reason the television show hampers the athletes -- respect. “I do think most of the ninjas would like to see it become more of a sport because it adds legitimacy to it,” Wilczewski told IBTimes. Moravsky suggest the CrossFit Games as a model that "Ninja Warrior" could follow.
The legitimacy of the athletes becomes a bigger question as increasing ratings and the emergence of bona fide stars like Kacy Catanzaro raise the profile of the sport. Catanzaro made waves in Season 6 when she became the first female competitor to complete a regional finals course.
“It’s great to have recognition coming to the show,” said Moravsky. “This is the first time ever that Ellen [DeGeneres] picks up something, we have Jimmy Fallon talking about it on his show. Everybody is talking about it. So, it’s really good for the sport to have Kacy break through.”
Catanzaro’s impact has been huge -- Wilczewski said that girls now make up half of the members of the parkour and ninja warrior gym he owns -- and while the show’s biggest star has landed an advertising campaign with Fairfield Inn & Suites, compensation for her fellow athletes remains a big question mark.
“American Ninja Warrior” may seem like just another competition show or reality show, but there are some major differences. Unlike other shows in which a winner is crowned every season, the format and nature of the competition on “American Ninja Warrior” is such that, technically, no one has ever completed all four stages of the national finals and won. To even come close requires a level of physical fitness that demands nearly a full-time job’s worth of training throughout the year. To the casual viewer at home it appears that the ninjas are just ordinary contestants on a game show, not well-seasoned athletes.
Wilczewski, speaking about his gym, said, “A lot of people come in and find they can’t do one obstacle and leave. They thought it looked easy on TV, and then they realize it’s not.”
NBC depends not on a new cast of personalities as in a reality show but often on the same group of well-trained athletes competing each year. The majority of Season 6’s national finalists had competed on previous seasons of the show. Yet, the show offers very little in terms of financial compensation to its athletes.
“I would like the sporting side of [the debate about the show’s format] more because there would be a lot of endorsements that could come out of it. Barely any of us are sponsored and that’s because the show does not allow logos. If the show allowed sponsorship, there could be a lot of money there,” admitted Moravsky.
Wilczewski says the show does compensate for travel expenses and grants a per diem common for reality show contestants, but Moravsky says that amounts to “basically nothing.”
As for prizes, Moravsky said, “There are a few cash prizes to the finishers who get first place in each regional round, but to win the grand prize, you have to beat the course [all four national finals stages], not just go the furthest.” This does not even address the hours of uncompensated training the competitors put in during the offseason each year that contribute to the show’s high-level competition and success.
Questions of compensation, however, do not seem to be a deterrent to competing for the ninjas. "At the end of the day, it’s a television show and whatever they have to do to get ratings is fine with me," says Wilczewski, "I’m not in it for the money. I love the sport."
Moravsky, who says he’s fine with the television show aspect of “American Ninja Warrior” is too determined to worry about money too much. “This course has beaten me three times [counting the “USA vs. the World” special],” said Moravsky. “That’s not in my nature. I can’t accept that.”
Back in Las Vegas during the national finals in Season 6, Moravsky had a change of heart just minutes after considering quitting. “I got out of the water, did the interview, sat there with a towel watching Elet [Hall] run, and thought, ‘I want this so bad,’” remembered Moravsky. “I’m not going to stop until I beat it.”