Hayden’s ‘Science Ninja’ again an American Ninja Warrior star
The thunder rolled, the lightning cracked and, as Mitchell VeDepo waited nervously at the starting line for the American Ninja Warrior city finals course in Kansas City, the rain poured.
“Let’s wait a few minutes,” a producer for the NBC TV show said.
The minutes passed. The rain didn’t, and with that, VeDepo’s long quest to compete in this summer’s edition of American Ninja Warrior extended still one more day.
He’d already been focused on the task at hand for 20 days, 19 of which were spent camping in a line to ensure he’d be one of the walk-on competitors selected to compete on the show’s obstacle course — one comprised of a series of physically and flexibility-demanding challenges.
VeDepo is a graduate of Hayden High School and currently a Ph.D. student in bioengineering at the University of Kansas medical school in Kansas City. He calls himself the Science Ninja, and he first competed on the show in 2015.
He didn’t make much of a splash in his first go-around but was invited to return for 2016 and shined there, surviving a qualifying around and the city finals in Oklahoma City and then advancing to the national finals in Las Vegas.
He was intent on repeating that process in Kansas City, but the first serious obstacle came months before anyone had the chance to negotiate the show’s course. He never got that call and wasn’t officially invited to run the 2017 course.
He was just about at peace with the disappointment, too, when he and some friends banded together to form a line nearly three weeks before the show’s Kansas City date. One friend went 20 days early to the site of the course and set up camp. VeDepo followed a day later, 19 days out, and became the second in line.
By checking in twice a day, every day, and ensuring at least someone was in the line 24 hours a day, seven days a week, VeDepo worked harder to compete in 2017 than he had in either of his other two seasons, by a long shot.
“If it had been anywhere else, I wouldn’t have gotten to do it,” he said, considering his office, just a 10-minute walk away, and his home, not much further. “It was really fun, but I would not recommend doing it.”
Still, when the day finally arrived, he got his opportunity to tackle the course, selected to compete in the city-qualifying stage.
It went fine but just fine. VeDepo fell on an obstacle that’s given him trouble before, the “bar hop,” where he has to swing across a series of moveable bars while dangling over a pool of water.
He’d fallen the first time he met that same obstacle last year, but he conquered it the second time.
“I took it a little too lightly, knowing I’d seen it before,” he said. “I had really, really big hopes for this year. I was the strongest I’d ever been, was feeling great and knew I was completely capable of doing it. I was going to crush that course but then I fell.”
The obstacles he did defeat still qualified him among the top 30 in the city-qualifier stage, but, a day later, as he stood waiting for the green light to take on the city finals course, his confidence was bruised.
Then the rain came. The minutes passed and eventually, the night’s action was called off, pushed off 24 hours.
And when he came back, he was the same confident, bursting ball of energy that’s helped define his time on the show.
“I reversed my mindset,” he said.
The city finals course consisted first of the same obstacles from the qualifying course, then a second more challenging stage.
“Coming in that next night, I knew I could do that obstacle I should have finished the night before,” he said. “Instead of thinking, ‘I have to do well,’ I relaxed, said, ‘It’s a TV show. This is fun. It’s not that I have to do well. It’s that I get the chance to do well.’”
He did very well.
VeDepo flew through the first part of the course and past the bar hop with ease. He tore through the second part of the course, as well, all the way up to the final obstacle of the night. He came within a foot of beating that one too before his arms finally gave in, but he made it further than any other Kansas City competitor, making him the top city qualifier and earning a ticket back to the Las Vegas finals.
That segment of the show will air in September.
Even after that experience, VeDepo isn’t remotely done with American Ninja Warrior or the kind of physical puzzles such obstacles courses present.
“I just continue to really like this kind of stuff,” he said. “I really enjoy moving in weird ways like that, jumping onto things, swinging and climbing, even if it’s not a competition for the show.”
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