Interview with an American Ninja Warrior

Interview with an American Ninja Warrior

In 2015, Richard Shoemaker, MD, an emergency room physician living and working in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, found himself in the national spotlight while competing on American Ninja Warrior. On this NBC show, competitors battle through a series of challenging obstacle courses in both city qualifying and city finals rounds across the country.

with Richard Shoemaker, MD

Last fall, Richard Shoemaker, MD, an emergency room physician living and working in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, found himself in the national spotlight while competing on American Ninja Warrior. On this NBC show, competitors battle through a series of challenging obstacle courses in both city qualifying and city finals rounds across the country. Those who successfully complete the finals course in their designated region move on to the national finals round in Las Vegas, Nevada. In this Q&A interview, Dr. Shoemaker shares his experiences on the show, how he did in the competition and how he used the national platform to share his faith.

CMDA:

So we can get to know you a bit, tell us about yourself, your work in healthcare, your family, your involvement in the local community and church, involvement with CMDA, etc.

Dr. Shoemaker:

I am 39 years old, living in Philadelphia with my wife Ana and four children. I grew up in Cheltenham, a suburb of Philadelphia, went to college at Juniata College in Central Pennsylvania, attended Temple University College of Medicine for medical school and then Drexel University for emergency medicine residency. I practice at Crozer Keystone Hospital System.

We live just a few blocks from our church, where I am an elder. In many ways, it would be much easier to live outside the city, but we want to be a part of what God is doing through our church in the local community. I have been on the CMDA Council for Philadelphia, but stepped down a few years ago and currently work with Medical Campus Outreach, a local ministry that works alongside CMDA in a few cities and is run through Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. I have discipled medical students
for about eight years now.

CMDA:

How did you first get involved with American Ninja Warrior (ANW)?

Dr. Shoemaker:

I had never seen the show prior to fall 2014. I was asked almost simultaneously by my cousin and a close friend to apply with them for the 2015 season. I have been rock climbing for 20 years, so I felt like my fitness level was where it needed to be for an ANW course. After I applied and submitted my video in November 2014, both my cousin and friend backed out and did not apply. I did not hear anything until April 2015 when I got a phone call informing me I would be running in Orlando in four weeks! Fortunately, I had been training for climbing all winter, but I had never been to an obstacle gym and was unsure if I could do the obstacles. There are a few obstacle gyms around Philadelphia and I found the best one about 45 minutes from my house. My first day there I was able to complete all the obstacles I attempted.

CMDA:

What kind of training did you do in order to prepare for the competition?

Dr. Shoemaker:

I have a long history with rock climbing, which left me way ahead of the curve for competing on the show. But I wanted to make sure I did my best. Being almost 40 years old meant I needed to train hard. But being a husband, father of four, full-time emergency room doctor and elder in my church meant I did not have a lot of time. I work nights, so I would work out every morning for 30 minutes after my overnight shifts before going to sleep all day. On Mondays I would go to the obstacle gym, on Wednesday nights I would go to my local climbing gym and Fridays were known as “Fearful Fridays!” My friend, who had asked me to apply with him then backed out, decided he should repay me by training me on Friday mornings. I would meet him at the climbing gym after having worked all night. Most of the ANW courses take about four minutes to run, so he would put me through various exercises for four minutes with no rest, then 10 minutes of rest and then do it again for two hours. When I ran the course in Orlando, I ran at 5:30 a.m. after waiting around all night, but my body was quite used to working hard on no sleep.

CMDA:

Tell us about your journey through American Ninja Warrior.

Dr. Shoemaker:

My journey through ANW was surprising. I did not expect to have so much fun and make so many new friends. After arriving in Orlando, Ana and I immediately met a few other athletes who are very open about their Christianity, and as the day went on, we met more and more Christians, from Shaun Murray, the famous wakeboarder, to Travis Rosen, who has competed on every season of the show.


On Sunday, May 10, more than 100 athletes ran in the city qualifiers in Orlando. (I missed the group prayer that Travis Rosen led that night, but I was able to take part in an intimate time of prayer before we ran the city finals course the following night.) I beat the course for the city qualifiers, but my time left me in 12th place out of 30 athletes going on to the city finals, which took place the following night. I was confident I would beat the city finals course which was simply to repeat the six obstacles from the city
qualifiers, plus four new upper body obstacles. Unfortunately, I unexpectedly fell on “Cannon Ball Alley.” However, only six of the 30 athletes were able to get further than I did, so it came down to our fastest times to determine the top 15. I ended up in 13th place and was on my way to the national finals in Las Vegas, Nevada.

CMDA:

What happened when you went to the finals in Las Vegas?

Dr. Shoemaker:

NBC paid for me to fly and stay in Vegas for a week in late June, and my wife and two sons came out as well. Interestingly, I met more Christian ninjas in Vegas. There are four stages of the Vegas national finals. A total of 100 athletes run the first night to try to beat Stage 1. On night two, the remaining ninjas run Stages 2, 3 and 4. On the night we ran Stage 1, I was number eight, by luck of the draw. I made short work of the first three obstacles and was having a great time when I found myself staring down the Spider Jump. In this obstacle you have to run up to a trampoline, jump off it over an eight-foot span of water and stop yourself by compressing your body in a four-foot wide hallway with one hand and foot on one wall and the other hand and foot on the other wall. I felt a little nervous as I ran up to the trampoline and felt myself studder-step as I approached it, which took away some of my momentum. I flew through the air and locked my body in the four-foot hallway, making contact with all four limbs, and then I was all wet. I still don’t quite know what happened, but I had fallen into the water. I was out of the competition.

CMDA:

The show focuses quite a bit on the camaraderie that develops between the competitors. Did you experience that camaraderie?

Dr. Shoemaker:

From my first interaction with the other athletes through the end in Vegas, the camaraderie was like nothing I have ever experienced in athletics. I thought I would be stewing in a seething cauldron of nerves while waiting to run. But when all the competitors spent the night strategizing with me about how to tackle the obstacles and then stood on the fence cheering for me, my nervousness melted away. The times of prayer we had before running the courses were more than just camaraderie. I keep in touch with many of the athletes from Orlando and Vegas.

CMDA:

As a physician, you have a lot of responsibilities on your plate. How did you balance your training schedule with your responsibilities at work, at home, at church, etc.?

Dr. Shoemaker:

I’m not sure how I do what I do and keep life in balance, but by God’s grace, I believe I am able. I ask my wife regularly, “How am I doing?” “Are you getting enough of my time?” “Are the kids getting enough of me?” She will tell me if I’m overcooked, but most of the time she tells me I am doing ok. In some ways, it is physical activity that helps me keep life in balance. As an ER doctor, my sleep schedule is in constant flux. If I can make sure I get a hard workout in, I don’t have to worry about how I am going to sleep that night/day. So staying active is a survival strategy. Having weekdays off when the kids are in school and friends are at work leaves me with time for thinking, private prayer, Scripture reading, reflecting and other responsibilities. It also leaves me with time to get to the gym without neglecting family and friends.

CMDA:

Why was the training and competition important to you?

Dr. Shoemaker:

To be honest, it was not all that important to me at first, but it became important. In my submission video, I stated that my motivation for applying was that I have seen many young men and women in our culture delay career and family in order to play and have fun…as if a career and family would prevent those things. I wanted to show younger folks that, through family and career, life is much more exciting. I still have a ton of fun, not in spite of my career and family, but in and through them. When I ran the courses, one of the greatest experiences was having Ana and the kids on the sideline walking the course with me. The image I have of my wife and daughter as I got up the warped wall and hit the buzzer is hard to describe. A close friend from medical school, one of my partners in the ER, a physician assistant, a respiratory technician and two nurses flew to Vegas to watch my run, as well as my extended family. Standing on the starting platform before my run, with family, friends and coworkers just a few feet away in the stands sending out their love, was perhaps my most memorable moment from the whole experience. It is important to me that young men and women see me as an example of someone whose life did not stop when I got married, had kids and started a career. Investing in relationships will never make life dull; rather, it enhances all the experiences we have.

CMDA:

Did your faith have any impact upon the overall experience? If so, how?

Dr. Shoemaker:

My faith definitely connected me to the other Christian athletes. Before we ran in Vegas, a few of us from Orlando decided to pray again before we ran. What started with three or four people turned into about 40 athletes gathered for prayer to Jesus. We asked for courage, strength and a positive testimony about Jesus whether we succeeded or failed. It was very powerful to be a part of that time.

My faith has helped me manage the hype. In the aftermath, I got a lot of attention from local media, friends, neighbors and even random people who would recognize me on the street or in the ER. I have never been asked for my autograph before, but since the Orlando episode aired, I have been giving out autographs weekly. My faith has helped me keep these 15 minutes of fame in perspective, and I asked others to pray against an inappropriate sense of self-importance. In the end, it’s just an obstacle course and I am just a man. Saving a life at work or praying with my children should get me much more excited than someone wanting my autograph, but giving autographs is novel and made me feel more important than it should.

The Lord put it on my heart that our proudest moments are ones we want to record and watch over and over again, or even post on social media to show others. In essence, we want to re-live the moment over and over. Christ’s proudest moment was an event that His Father turned away from and His best friends and mother could hardly stand to watch. If it was on video, it would not be something Jesus would want to watch over and over in order to re-live. Why are our proudest moments so qualitatively different then our Lord’s? This has humbled me, as attention comes my way.

CMDA:

What’s the biggest takeaway you have from the experience?

Dr. Shoemaker:

God can use any experience you have for your good and His glory. I had no idea what was in store for me going into this competition. I actually thought it might be a waste of time and money. I can see now God’s hand governing it all. Ana and I have had one of the competitors stay with us for the weekend while we competed in a local obstacle race. She is a Christian and is going through some personal struggles. We were able to pray with her and encourage her. The owner of the obstacle gym wants to talk to me about faith issues. In a very strange way, it has brought to light some conflict issues in my extended family that have been lying dormant, so we are now able to address them. Only moving ships can be steered. As Christians, we should be moving in our culture so God can steer our lives in the direction He chooses.

CMDA:

Do you think you will compete on the show again?

Dr. Shoemaker:

I just submitted my application for Season 8. At first the decision was easy, as my friends and family all wanted me to re-apply and so did I. I had a few injuries in the fall that left me a bit discouraged, but ninjas overcome obstacles—that is the point of the show. But above that statement, followers of Jesus, by His grace are strengthened to do whatever He calls them to do. So Lord willing, pending any injuries, I will be competing again in 2016. Please pray for me!

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