Conversations With American Ninja Warrior’s Nati Ninja

James Wilson, 30, is the Nati Ninja—a four-season American Ninja Warrior competitor shown recently on NBC, leaping across the Razor’s Edge obstacle, landing hard, fracturing a rib, and still muscling across (most) of a suspended ring element. The personal trainer went from spectator to ninja warrior, training with his girlfriend Caitlin Wilson, who herself dropped out of contention only after an M.S. diagnosis in 2015. James recently opened the Nati Ninja course at Cincinnati Mills Mall so families can train and play ninja together.

Photograph by Annette Navarro

“I was watching ANW season five, and it was one of those I could do that situations, but I’m sitting there eating Papa John’s. I had to rearrange everything. I’d been a star running back at LaSalle, but I ate like crap. I was just an athlete, thinking I could do what these people do.

My first year, I cruised through the course, but my hair touched the water and I was eliminated. When they called me this season, I was freaking out. To hear now there’s 80,000 applicants, and they can only choose 500?

Everyone has their motivation. Caitlin is a huge part, but I do it for myself as well. I do it for my kids. I do it for the challenge. There’s a lot of obstacles that I’ve had to overcome in my personal life, and I guess this is put them all together, simplify them, beat the course… Hitting the buzzer won’t solve all of life’s problems, but you know, it’s a start.

I was the mall ninja for a while, training [around Cincinnati Mills], running around, jumping over stuff, getting real cool with the security, slacklining on the beams, drawing a crowd. I think that’s what inspired me to open up the facility here.

I wake up in the middle of the night and do the slack line or pullups on beams in my house. Caitlin always gives me a hard time when she wakes up. And I’m like, “There’s someone out there training harder than me right now. I gotta be better than that dude.” ”

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