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CEDAR FALLS — As Scott Behrends spoke inside his Ninja U gym in Cedar Falls, a boy ran by.

“That’s my son, Ben. He was on ‘American Ninja Warrior Junior,’” Behrends said.

After this summer, Ben will be able to introduce his dad in much the same way.

Behrends, who co-owns an obstacle training gym modeled after the very obstacles on the popular NBC show “American Ninja Warrior” and its kid counterpart, Universal Kids Network’s “American Ninja Warrior Junior,” got the call to tape a qualifying round for the show in Tacoma, Wash., May 10-12.

If he’s lucky, he’ll appear on an episode of Season 11 of the show in August or September.

“This ol’ dad got the call last night to be on #ninjawarrior,” Behrends posted to his Facebook page, “Backyard Ninja Kids,” last week, along with a video showing his and his kids’ reactions. “I get to be like my boys and run the course! Thanks for all your support!”

And Behrends isn’t alone: Hudson native Jackson Twait, a junior at the University of Northern Iowa studying actuarial science and economics, will also tape his qualifying round in Cincinnati over Memorial Day weekend, with that episode potentially airing in July.

Twait heard about Behrends getting on the show, but didn’t get his call for days.

“I thought, ‘Oh, next year,’” Twait said.

But his phone rang with a Los Angeles area code while Twait was working at a Hudson soccer tournament, and he knew right away what it was about.

“I sprint away from there and am jumping up and down,” he recalled. “I was on top of the world all weekend long — just through the roof.”

Ninja U, tucked into Blackhawk Village off University Avenue in Cedar Falls, has only been in operation since September. But with two kids and now two adults appearing on national television shows, plus its first highly-successful ninja competition last month drawing almost 100 participants from around the Midwest, it seems the gym is on the precipice of big things to come in the “sport of ninja,” as Behrends calls it.

“I think it’s a fun way to stay in shape and play with your kids,” Behrends said. “For me, I always loved recess, playing on jungle gyms — it’s a way to still do that in an active way.

“Ninja is a young sport, but there’s a growing interest.”

First strike

Behrends’ sons — Ben, 12, and Jason, 10 — were “too shy,” Behrends said, to play team sports. But they loved being active in their own backyard.

One day, the family tuned in to watch “American Ninja Warrior” and were hooked.

“We were like, ‘What’s this?’” Ben said. “It was in the summer, and Dad was like, ‘Wanna make an obstacle course in the backyard?’ And we started the YouTube channel.”

That channel, “Backyard Ninja Kids,” encouraged other obstacle-loving kids and taught them techniques and tricks. It quickly amassed a large following for the Cedar Falls family.

Exactly two years after the YouTube show launched, Behrends and Jacob Pauli opened Ninja U, officially moving indoors and into a space they could safely share with the general public.

Ben and Jason were the first to get accepted onto “American Ninja Warrior Junior,” the spin-off of the adult version. Ben Behrends remembered the call vividly.

“We were downstairs — Mom and Dad were folding clothes,” he said. “Dad was like, ‘Wait a second, I got a call from Los Angeles’ — and he knew exactly what it meant. I didn’t know. But then I was jumping up and down.”

The brothers have different obstacles they’re better at — Jason likes the balance obstacles and is speedy, while Ben is “an upper-body nerd,” he said — like his dad. But though they successfully tackled all obstacles during their July taping, that wasn’t their favorite part.

“We got to meet a lot of other kids,” Ben said.

“And now we’re best friends with them,” Jason added.

“Now, if we see they got first place, we’re like, ‘That was my friend,’” Ben said.

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The boys didn’t get much airtime from the venture, but Ben got into the top 32 of competitors in his age bracket, while Jason placed in the top 16.

“It was awesome,” Ben said.

Scott Behrends, his wife and younger daughter cheered the boys on last year. Now, they’ll cheer for Scott.

“Come on Dad — keep those knees up,” Ben shouted as Behrends navigated an upper-body obstacle Wednesday at Ninja U.

Second wave

This year was the second year Behrends applied for the show, which must include a three-minute video highlighting an athlete’s abilities and a backstory.

He’s excited to tape this year, as it will be the first year “American Ninja Warrior” is taping indoors and during the day. Previous episodes have taped between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. outdoors, where the weather factors into the run, Behrends said.

“I’m excited I don’t have to mess with my sleep schedule or worry about weather elements,” Behrends said.

Though he doesn’t know exactly what obstacles he’ll be tackling on the show, he does have the ability to create courses at Ninja U to try to mimic what he thinks might be likely for him to encounter in Tacoma.

But it will be what the show teaches him that will benefit Behrends in the long run, from outfitting the obstacles at Ninja U to helping others apply for the shows in the future.

“I’ll have a better understanding of what the show wants from a story and video standpoint, but also from the competition aspect. I’ll be able to bring that to my gym,” he said.

Future ninjas

Appearing on “American Ninja Warrior” is the fulfillment of a dream Twait has had since eighth grade when he first caught a glimpse of the show back when it was on the G4 network.

“I was just kind of like, ‘I want to do that,’” Twait said. “Since ‘Ninja U’ opened, I’ve been here.”

Twait was always a physically active kid, he said — he was a receiver on Hudson High School’s football team and a captain on the soccer team. But he was also involved in nontraditional sports like the Waterhawks water ski team, and loved doing pull-ups and rock climbing.

“I like to go against the grain and be my own person,” Twait said.

Last year, Twait didn’t get his application done in time and tried, with no success, to walk on to the show when it came to Minneapolis. But he did get a contact with the show’s producer and had success at later competitions in the area, which spurred him to try applying again this year.

In preparation for the Cincinnati trial, however, Twait is taking it easy.

“I’m not really training,” he said. “I’m nervous to train too hard — I had problems with pulled forearms.”

He’s been running to build his endurance, and said he’s mainly working on his balance, because that’s his biggest weakness — and he knows from watching the show two balance obstacles of some kind will be in play.

“My specialty is definitely just upper-body stuff,” he said. “If I can stay off my feet, I am happy.”

He’s also pushing himself more when he does obstacles.

“I want to make sure I fall,” Twait said. “If I’m falling, then I know I’m pushing myself, I’m not letting myself get comfortable.”

For Twait, just like for Ben and Jason, the camaraderie of the sport of ninja is what keeps him coming back.

“The community’s great — it’s a bunch of goofy nerds that bring their Nintendo Switches and play ‘Super Smash Bros.’ while they wait,” Twait said. “And ‘goofy nerds’ is meant to be a compliment.”

UPDATE: The article originally said Ninja U had been open for two years. It has been open since September 2018.

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Staff Writer

Staff writer at The Courier 2005 (college intern), 2007-2012, 2015-present. Graduate of UNI 2006. Three-time Iowa APME award winner (investigative reporting 2008, lifestyle feature 2016, business feature 2018)

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