University student competes to be on ‘Sasuke’

Mark Witmer went to Los Angeles on Sunday to try for a coveted spot on the Japanese show.

by Tom Moran

What does it take to be TV’s next Ninja Warrior? Competitors just need to outwit, dash across, leap through and scale up four stages of the world’s most difficult obstacle course.

Mark Witmer, a Russian senior, left for Los Angeles on Sunday for a chance to attempt that course on the popular Japanese game show “Sasuke,” also known as Ninja Warrior.

The Japanese show features four stages of an obstacle course. It has attracted professional athletes and amateurs for more than a decade, but only two entrants have defeated all four stages.

“I try to explain it to people, and I mention MXC,” Witmer’s friend, Adam Wells, said, in reference to another Japanese game show. “It’s like that, but double the difficulty times about 5,000.”

The obstacles are unusual – for example last year contestants had to leap from a trampoline and plant their feet on two parallel walls. Contestants then had to move ahead across the walls with no floor. This obstacle was only one of several in the first stage.

“The hard thing about the obstacles is you can’t necessarily train for them,” Witmer said. “They are so bizarre and so strange that you’re not going to be able to find a replica.”

Wells first introduced Witmer to the show and the competition for admittance, hosted by the television station G4, last year. But he said the idea of competing in the challenges became reality only when he received a phone call from the show’s producers about two weeks ago.

“A week and a half ago my life was normal,” Witmer said.

Witmer, who competed on the Gophers gymnastics team until this year, earned his admittance with a video he created with Wells.

Days before the registration deadline, Wells, a communication studies junior, convinced Witmer to make the video that would be posted online for fans of Ninja Warrior to vote on. The top six vote-getters would travel to Los Angeles.

In 14 degrees below zero temperatures, the two shot, edited and submitted the video in one day – Sunday, Feb. 3. Wells said they uploaded the video 15 minutes before the deadline.

Witmer said he was surprised by the attention his video was getting by the following Tuesday.

“I was just blown away because I didn’t think anything was going to happen,” he said.

After voting started, Wells and Witmer launched a campaign to get votes through social networking sites.

Wells said the word-of-mouth took off and there was an upwelling of support from Witmer’s fellow members of The Rock – a nondenominational religious student group – and residents of Middlebrook Hall, where Witmer is a community adviser.

Will Hines, a University alumnus who met Witmer through The Rock, said he isn’t surprised of the support he received on campus.

“People rally around Mark just on his character; it’s so strong and compelling,” he said. “When you’re around him it’s just really good.”

Witmer will compete with the five other finalists of American Ninja Warrior on “Attack of the Show” on G4, which will air March 3-7. Only two contestants will advance to Japan.

Even though he no longer competes for the Gophers, Witmer is still a gymnast at heart – with the equipment hanging from his room. He said he hopes that will give him an advantage on the course.

Witmer said he has been struggling to train for such a bizarre course despite his athletic background. He wakes up at 5:30 a.m. three days a week to train outside, or can be found swinging, climbing and flying through Cooke Hall, where gymnastics equipment is located.

Witmer said he is trying to not make a big deal of the competition and looks forward to his return to normalcy afterwards.

“Game shows, it’s just not that important. You should really focus on the big questions in life,” he said. “It’s fun, I’m going to give it my best shot, and a lot of people helped me get there, so I’m going to try real hard.”