University student competes on “American Ninja Warrior”

Known as the “Human Dung Beetle,” UMN student Eric Middleton is working on his Ph.D. while competing on “American Ninja Warrior.”

Eric Middleton trains at a playground on the Saint Paul campus on Monday, July 16. Middleton is participating in American Ninja Warrior Season 10.

Tony Saunders

Eric Middleton trains at a playground on the Saint Paul campus on Monday, July 16. Middleton is participating in American Ninja Warrior Season 10.

by Amie Stager

When he is not collecting insects and researching the habitats of bugs, University of Minnesota graduate student Eric Middleton can be found climbing walls, swinging from ropes and jumping over obstacles. 

In between his coursework for his Ph.D. in entomology at the University of Minnesota, Middleton trains for the sports competition show “American Ninja Warrior.” He has been competing on the show for the past three seasons and has earned the moniker “The Human Dung Beetle” for his obsession with insects.

Middleton has shown an affinity for both fields since childhood. 

“[Eric] was often jumping over fences, picnic tables and garbage cans,” said his mother Marjorie Chan. “He was interested in natural life and bugs early on — not afraid to pick one up or let them crawl on his arm.”

Middleton became interested in “ninja” obstacle training when he moved to Minnesota for graduate school. He wanted something to focus on besides academics, and found the perfect hobby in the Twin Cities obstacle course gyms that he still frequents. He even works weekends at the Conquer Ninja Gym in Woodbury. 

“The way he trains is a lot like how he does his graduate school work,” said Ben Wales, Middleton’s colleague at the gym. “He is focused and analytical.”

Middleton is careful to balance his time between training and studying. When he isn’t in the gym, he works in several labs at the University — planting habitats for insects that pollinate in order to support them in agricultural landscapes and working on ways to control pests by using insects that kill other insects with their larvae. 

“My hypothesis is that he doesn’t sleep,” University etymology professor Ian MacRae said. “He probably puts the same level of dedication in his scientific pursuits that he does in his athletic pursuits.”

Since joining “American Ninja Warrior,” Middleton has gained attention for his bug-loving attitude and habit of eating insect-based cuisine on air. Notable dishes include tarantula tempura, his favorite. 

“[The show is] always looking for stories,” Middleton said. “In Western cultures we don’t eat insects, but almost everybody else does.”

He said being on the show is nerve-wracking, but his nervousness disappears as soon as he steps onto the course.

“As a general rule, you don’t get to try [the course] beforehand, so you need to be very adaptable in your training,” Middleton said. “A lot of it is knowing how much strength you have in your arms and legs, and when you are going to be out of breath.”

When Middleton is competing, his parents are always watching from the crowd. 

“I get very tense when I watch him,” his father John Middleton said. “[Chan] tends to get more exuberant.”

Middleton last appeared on the show earlier this month, when he cleared the Minneapolis city qualifiers. If he clears the city final round that will air in August, he will advance to the national competition in Las Vegas, Nevada.