YMCA summer campers receive dose of reality

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By Chris McCarthy/Editor

Local youngsters recently learned life lessons on doing their best and not giving up, courtesy of a pair of reality television participants.

Jo Jo Bynum and Eddy Stewart, Alabama residents who currently are competing in the NBC series American Ninja Warrior, spoke to Coosa YMCA summer day campers on Monday (June 20). They later showed their ninja prowess on a temporary obstacle course set up in and around the YMCA pool pavilion.

This year marks Bynum’s third appearance on ANW, which is in its eighth season. Over 3,500 athletes have participated since the series began in 2009.

“There’s a lot of strange stuff we do on the show, like hanging and jumping on things,” said Bynum, a Cedar Bluff native who works as a software engineer in Huntsville. “But I train with a partner, Eddy, who tells me that I can hang on longer if I try a little harder. In life, you’ll face a million challenges, just like a ninja warrior. You can give up or you can keep going.
“Just like you have obstacles in the ninja warrior show, you have obstacles in life. The main thing is, you’ve got to prepare yourself in whatever you do, just like when you do your homework at night in order to prepare yourself for school the next day.”

Bynum competed in baseball and track and field at Cedar Bluff High and played baseball for Alabama A&M University in Huntsville. He said that ninja’s wide range of training exercises drew him to the discipline.

“If you’re training for one sport, the workouts are very specific in regard to building up a certain type of muscle and stamina. With ninja, you’re doing all types of [training] that builds up core strength, explosiveness, agility and endurance.”
“The reason that me and Jo Jo train together is that we all have different strengths and weaknesses,” said Stewart, a firefighter for the City of Birmingham in his second year on the show. “We push one another and encourage each other whenever one of us run into difficulties, and that’s what you have to do with the people in your lives. It’s like when you first learned how to ride a bike; you fell off a few times, but you kept trying until you could do it.

“If you give up at something, you’ll never know what kind of potential you have. So in whatever you’re doing, always get back up and try again while at the same time lifting the other person up.”

Bynum and Stewart met last year during a regional ANW competition in Orlando, Fla., and decided to train together. They were among the 100 qualifiers for this year’s city finals in Atlanta, Ga., and were among 30 competitors selected for the national finals, which will be broadcast next month from Las Vegas, Nev.

While in Orlando, Bynum and Stewart met up with 2005 Gaston High graduate Jimmy Bogle, a three-year ANW competitor who was unable to attend Monday’s demonstration.

Bogle did not make the cut this year but is already training for next season. The three athletes meet up to train about once a month.

“This year [the show] had 75,000 applications and they only took 500 people, so it’s really hard to get in,” said Bogle, who works at Northeast Orthopedics in Gadsden. “I’ve actually built a ninja course in my backyard, so I do a lot of my training there. It’s really the new big thing going on right now.”

A graduate of McAdory High, Stewart was a member of the school’s football, wrestling and baseball teams. He noted that the obstacle course in the ANW Orlando competition was the first one he’d ever attempted.

“That kind of got me hooked on the ninja training, because it showed me that there’s more to fitness than weightlifting. You can lift all the weights in the world, but when you get on an obstacle course, a bench press is pretty much thrown out the window. In the ninja, you have to do a lot of different things and you have to do them quickly.

“Training with Jo Jo and Jimmy and just being in the ninja community in general, I’ve come to realize that it’s a competition with each other as opposed to against each other. We want to show these kids that it’s important to encourage and help each other when someone falls.”

As far as training facilities are concerned, there are no in-state ninja gyms. Instead, most area ninja competitors keep a sharp eye out for local natural and man-made structures that provide an obstacle-style workout, such as a small space between houses or buildings that one can scale up and down.

Bynum and Stewart acknowledged that the mental aspect of American Ninja Warrior competition is just as important as the physical challenges, noting that there are none of the second changes or re-starts that exist in other competitive sports.

“Once you make a mistake, you’re out,” said Stewart. “That’s the downside, but at the same time, it helps keep you focused.”

“I think that’s the overall appeal of the sport,” added Bynum. “Even if you make it to the national finals, you have to perfect. In baseball, I can get one hit in three at-bats, and that’s a great average. Here, there’s absolutely no margin for error. A key thing we want to teach these kids today is number one, know yourself, and number two, find ways to improve yourself.”

YMCA camp director Jim Bogle, Jimmy’s dad and head volleyball coach at Etowah High School, shared an inspirational passage that he took to heart as a youngster.

“It says, ‘Be not concerned or be surprised if what you do is criticized. There always fault, you usually can, find some fault with every plan. Mistakes are made, we can’t deny, but they’re only made by folks who try.’ So, you’re going to have times in your life when you mess up, but you fix them and then you get up.”

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