8 youths to compete on ‘American Ninja Warrior Jr.’
HAMDEN — “American Ninja Warrior” may not have been even a glimmer in the public consciousness when they were born, but now the budding sport will bring eight young people from the area to the national airwaves.
Kody Hazan, 13, of Hamden; Blake Feero, 14, of Cheshire; Jay Lewis, 14, of Cheshire; Jackson Horwedel, 13, of Shelton; MaryAmma Blankson, 11, of Madison; Peace Lopez, 14, of Wallingford; Sean Arms, 10, of Clinton; and Collin Cella, 10, of Milford, all of whom train under Drew Dreschel at New Era Ninjas in Hamden, were selected to take part in “American Ninja Warrior Jr.,” which is set to debut Saturday on NBC’s Universal Kids network.
The youths and their families flew out to Los Angeles in July to film the television program, as they tested their mettle against kid-sized versions of obstacles from “American Ninja Warrior,” where Dreschel was a competitor and was dubbed the “Last Ninja Standing” earlier this year.
The young people have taken a particular interest in “Ninja.” In addition to visiting Dreschel’s gym, they’ve created home courses and participate in competitions around the region.
The chance to be on television, though, was remarkable, they said.
“It was really surreal, because all of us had been watching the show for a while and we’ve been training. We didn’t expect to have this chance that we had for, like, another five years,” Jay said. “But now that it came, it’s superawesome.”
“Being able to see yourself on national television, doing what you love — it’s amazing,” Blake said.
They said they were drawn to “Ninja” for a variety of reasons, including the novelty and the chance to test one’s limits in a supportive, rather than competitive, endeavor.
“It’s different. It’s untraditional. Not a lot of people know what it is, and when they do, they’re like, ‘Wait, that’s a thing?’ ” Peace said.
Jay said he likes how the competition pairs physical and mental abilities.
“The community is the best I’ve ever been in (as well),” he said. “I’ve made so many friends from this, and it’s something that I’ve really not found with any other sport that I’ve done.”
Kody said you’re never just doing one thing.
“There’s a lot of variety in it and it’s always changing,” he said. “You’re always overcoming different challenges.”
For their parents, suddenly being a part of a television show was striking — “surreal,” they said.
“Knowing that our kids made history on the first show ... is super-exciting,” said Steve Feero, Blake’s father.
“(It was) completely surreal,” said Lisa Lewis. “It was an incredible experience — once in a lifetime.”
Melissa Arms and Mary Blankson said the sport has benefitted their children. Arms said it helped her son build confidence. It’s also allowed her to be a part of a community, making friends with other parents at competitions, she said.
“I don’t think I ever imagined, not only (Sean) being as passionate as he is, but what it’s done for him in the outside world,” Arms said.
Blankson said it helped her daughter become more comfortable with failure; it’s given her a framework for how to respond.
“She knows she’s not going to be perfect for everything,” Blankson said.
Steve Feero said the sport had given him a chance to bond with his son as they build obstacles together. Both are interested in science and engineering and enjoy looking at the elements of the course through that lens, he said.
Dreschel served as a coach and mentor on the show — both on-camera, as he worked with Collin and Sean — and behind the scenes for the rest of his young proteges. He said he’s been working with most of the group for nearly four years.
It was a pleasure to see the young people he has come to know take up the challenge and thrive, he said.
“These are my kids. I see them a couple times every week, and I’ve been working with them for years,” Dreschel said. “To see them out there, doing what they love to do and what they’ve been training to do — and doing well at it — it was incredible.”
From left, Peace Lopez, 14, of Wallingford; Kody Hazan, 13, of Hamden; and Collin Cella, 10, of Milford; go through their workout Wednesday at New Era Ninjas gym in Hamden.
Sean Arms, 10, of Clinton, goes through his workout Wednesday at New Era Ninjas gym in Hamden.