After he lost his home and his girlfriend, Andrew Lowes decided he'd go for it.
The gymnastics coach from Grayslake made an audition video and submitted it to "American Ninja Warrior," NBC's extreme obstacle course competition show.
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"American Ninja Warrior"Airs 7 to 8 p.m. Mondays on NBC, and 8 to 9 p.m. Sundays on the G4 cable network
The video got him invited to the Season 4 tryouts, but Lowes found himself up against some of the strongest men he'd ever seen. While he made it past the qualifying round, he couldn't conquer the next level.
But he might conquer it this year.
After a year of intense training, Lowes competed in the Season 5 qualifying rounds, which aired Monday night on NBC. His story wasn't featured, but his name was listed at the end of the show as one of the 30 athletes who finished the course and will advance to the nationals. Lowes finished 11th of the 112 athletes.
That means he's still in the running for a trip to Las Vegas and a chance to win the "American Ninja Warrior" title along with a $500,000 grand prize.
"(This show) has been a life changer for me. It's given me personal direction," said Lowes, 30, who splits his time between the suburbs and coaching gymnastics at gyms in Indiana and Pennsylvania.
Lowes has spent his life turning bad situations into good ones. As a kid growing up in Winthrop Harbor, he excelled at gymnastics. But at age 10, his truck-driver father was laid off and the family could no longer afford his gymnastics program.
"Gymnastics isn't cheap," Lowes said.
As soon as he was old enough to work, he took jobs as a gymnastics teacher and coach, working after classes at Zion-Benton Township High School. Among his employers were American Eagles Gymnastics in Round Lake Beach, Ultimate Gymnastics in Gurnee and The Gymnastics Factory in Grayslake.
It was hard work. Sometimes Lowes went two or three months without a day off, putting in long days coaching gymnasts and helping children learn to do cartwheels and handstands.
After work, Lowes would plop in front of the TV and watch his favorite late-night show, a Japanese obstacle course competition called "Sasuke" -- the inspiration behind "American Ninja Warrior."
Then, a tough turn of events inspired him to be more than just a viewer.
In 2011, while living in Grayslake, Lowes' landlord sold the building he lived in. He and his roommates had only a few weeks to pack up and find a new place to live.
Lowes and his girlfriend, also a gymnastics coach, accepted job offers at a gym in Fort Wayne, Ind. Shortly after they moved, signed a lease for an apartment and started work, they broke up and she moved home.
Now alone in Indiana, Lowes discovered "American Ninja Warrior," a show that had already aired for a few seasons on the G4 cable network.
"I was feeling down," Lowes recalls. "As something to shoot for, I sent in an application video."
After his eye-opening experience in Season 4, he trained for Season 5 with an intense, six-day-a-week regimen that included things like weighted rope climbs, pinch grips and pull-ups.
"I kinda geeked out on the training. I started loving it more than I should," he said.
"American Ninja Warrior" camera crews filmed some of his training at The Gymnastics Factory in Grayslake. Owner JoAnne Alam said she's had many gymnasts leave for successful gymnastics careers, but Lowes stood out.
"Andy was the one who worked the hardest, as far as scraping by ... and even living out of his car sometimes, I know," she said. "His persistence is unbelievable."
The Grayslake gym now has a sign telling everyone about Lowes' televised "American Ninja Warrior" tryout, and the students and staff there are all cheering for him.
"All the kids know him," Alam said. "We're his fan club, so to speak."
Lowes draws inspiration from the kids he teaches. Before handing over his phone to start the Season 5 obstacle course, he stared at his screen saver -- a group photo of the 6- and 7-year-olds he coaches.
"When you think of all those people who are behind you, it puts more gas in the tank," he said. "The training stuff, I can't help but be drawn to it. It's given my life direction and meaning. I wanted to take it a little further than I did last year."
After "American Ninja Warrior," Lowes plans to keep coaching gymnastics and maybe open his own gym.
He encourages dedicated athletes to consider trying out for the show.
"The thing people think when they watch the show is, 'I can do that.' I like to tell people they do have a chance. If I can do it, you can, too," he said.
-- Jamie Sotonoff
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