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Local dad competes on American Ninja Warrior

Madison Heights man hopes to inspire discipline, healthy habits in sons

June 6, 2014

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Elija Kamal Sansom, of Madison Heights, is one of the challengers on the new season of the TV show American Ninja Warrior, currently airing on NBC.
Training at Rosie’s Park in Madison Heights May 31, Elija Kamal Sansom demonstrated a wide range of exercises focused on upper body strength, agility, balance, power and focus.

MADISON HEIGHTS — In the early hours of the morning at Rosie’s Park, when only a few people are out walking their dogs, one might see a man hanging from the top pole of the swing-set. He’ll fling himself into the air and catch himself on the way back down, repeatedly, or move from one end of the pole to the other, his arms locked at 90 degrees. He’ll do “muscle-ups” — pull-ups where he moves the whole upper half of his body over the pole — and he’ll jog, jump with precision from boulder to boulder, and climb up and down the underside of the baseball bleachers using only his hands.

This man is Elija Kamal Sansom, 38, of Madison Heights. He’s training to conquer American Ninja Warrior, a TV show on which contestants challenge a timed obstacle course and try to get the farthest, the fastest. The courses involve running, jumping, climbing, swinging, sliding, balancing and clambering along narrow ledges with one’s fingertips. The courses increase in complexity with each round, so much so that in the show’s six seasons so far, no one has conquered the final obstacle course, Mount Midoriyama. In the 30-season history of Sasuke, the Japanese show off of which ANW is based, only three contestants conquered Mount Midoriyama.

The new season of ANW premiered on NBC from 9-11 p.m. May 26, following a one-hour countdown. The show opened with qualifiers in Venice Beach, California, and was followed by the Dallas qualifier June 2. Sansom was in the St. Louis qualifier, which at press time was set to air June 9. His nondisclosure agreement kept him from saying how he did, but there will be reruns on Esquire, and more qualifiers in Denver and Miami. More than a hundred athletes are invited to each qualifier, with more walk-ons the day of the event. Those who do the best will challenge the four stages of Mount Midoriyama during the national finals in Las Vegas. 

Elija has had his eyes on that mythical peak for a long time. He’s always been a competitive athlete, rock-climbing indoors and outdoors, around the state and country. As a physical therapist in Southfield, he knows how to push the limits of his body. He even specializes in injury prevention, something he taught at Planet Rock, a climbing facility.

“When I first saw Sasuke, back in the early 2000s, I said, ‘Wow, I’d love to do that,’” Elija recalls. “Three years ago, I ran into a co-worker of mine, another physical therapist, and he said there’s an American version. I said, ‘No way!’ So I turned it on, started watching and got hooked. I knew I had to try it.”

Elija started training for ANW two years ago, but he and his wife, Shanna, were expecting their second son. He put his ninja ambitions on the backburner for the time, only to resume his training a year ago. Encouraged by his wife, he started training before work each day, getting up at 5 a.m. — gulping down a nutrient-rich smoothie made of fresh fruits, kale and egg whites — and working out. He often hits up the Planet Fitness by Oakland Mall, focusing on his strength, agility and balance, and sometimes he’ll mix in visits to Rosie’s Park.

He even found someone on Facebook who didn’t make the cut for ANW but who was willing to let Elija train on his homemade obstacle course. Elija has also been watching hours and hours of past ANW episodes to see where each contestant came up short. 

There are many types of challenges in ANW. One is the Warped Wall, where the contestant runs across the floor and up a vertical surface that curves back into a ledge. The goal is for contestants to run up the wall and grab the ledge with their fingertips, hoisting themselves up and over. Another challenge is called the Quintuple Steps. There are five platforms, positioned like wall panels and angled back, and the contestant must wall-jump from one to the other in a continuous run.

Each challenge throws something different at the contestant.

“Upper body strength is one of the most important aspects, but if you have just that, you won’t get through,” Elija said. “It’s also about balance, agility, power. There’s no one aspect of athleticism. And focus is huge, too, since at any given time, if you take a break mentally, boom, you’re gone.”

Elija said the St. Louis qualifiers were rained out the first night. When the event finally got underway, however, he said the excitement was palpable.

“You have the crowd, and the studio lights making it hyped up,” Elija said. “You’re in the midst of all these competitors who are feeding off each other’s energy, even when they’re not saying anything, because they’re all anticipating the course. And then you have groups of people reconnecting from past years, and people making new friends.

“After the contest, I was talking to the other ninjas and I came away with this: Every step is an obstacle,” Elija said. “From the moment you put your foot on the platform, up until the moment you finish, there isn’t one spot you couldn’t mess up. I’ve seen people mess up every step of the way.”

Through it all, one thought is never far from Elija’s mind: His sons, ages 2 and 3. Elija wants to inspire them and show them anything is possible with discipline, hard work and respect for one’s body.

“I see the kids running around the backyard, climbing up the tree and leaping from one thing to another, like they’re on a mission,” Elija laughed. “It’s cool to see my sons get into it.”

His wife said the kids have definitely taken note, even at their young age.

“It’s been inspiring,” Shanna said. “To see (Elija) display that kind of perseverance and discipline and focus is inspiring, and it motivates everyone around him. I’m serious — everyone wants to be healthy and work out. Our living room is now an obstacle course for the kids. … Kids certainly try to emulate their parents, and there’s all the desire and joy that comes out of competing and staying fit and athletic. They’ve taken that all on.”

About the author

Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski covers Madison Heights, Hazel Park, Madison District Public Schools, Lamphere Public Schools and Hazel Park Public Schools for the Madison-Park News.

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