Suburban firefighters compete on 'American Ninja Warrior'
Fellow firefighters like to razz Brandon Mears and Dan Polizzi about being contestants on "American Ninja Warrior."
"Only every single day, seven days a week," said Mears, a Streamwood firefighter and finalist on this season of NBC's obstacle course challenge show, which airs at 7 p.m. Mondays.
They'll always say "Hey, ninja!" rather than call them by name. Once, as a joke, Streamwood firefighters hung cutouts around the firehouse of the petite woman who beat Mears.
But no one can joke about what fierce physical shape these two men are in. They're nicknamed "Towers of Power" for good reason: at 6'6" and 180 pounds, Mears is a cobra-shaped man with a 32-inch waist and lean muscle. Polizzi, an Aurora firefighter, is 6'2" of solid muscle.
Though "American Ninja Warrior" is an individual competition, they brand themselves as a team, and both made it to this season's semifinals in Kansas City.
Mears went on to the next level, but Polizzi suffered a finger slip on the rings that knocked him out of the competition -- a moment that both tortures and motivates him.
They train together at Chicago Ninja Academy in Carol Stream, practicing the obstacles that look easy on TV but are extremely difficult. They can jump onto beams with their fingertips, run up and climb over a curved wall, and smoothly swing their bodies around on rings, bars and ropes.
"I have a lot of people say, 'Oh, I can do that. No problem.' But then they come in here and try it and realize how hard it is," Polizzi said.
"It's a mental game, too, on top of the physical challenge," Mears added.
Mears and Polizzi are among five men from the Chicago Ninja Academy gym to qualify for the show's regional competition this year -- an impressive feat, given that only 600 people are chosen from the original 50,000 who submit videos. The others who made it were Mike "The Stallion" Silenzi of Antioch, Tavares "The Neon Ninja" Chambliss of Wheeling and Ethan Swanson of Chicago.
Of that group, only Mears remains in the running.
The academy is run by Nate Aye, a former contestant and Marine from St. Charles. He designed the gym specifically for "ninja training" and has replicas of many of the show's obstacles, like the "Spider Jump" and the "Cliff Hanger." That's drawn "American Ninja Warrior" contestants and wannabes from all over the area. The gym even started hosting ninja classes for kids this year.
"American Ninja Warrior" alumni teach classes there. Mears and Polizzi sometimes pop in, especially on the kids classes, where they hope to be role models and promote healthy eating and lifestyles.
"If I can get just one kid to put down a pop, and grab a water instead, I'll be happy," Mears said.
The Towers of Power work out six days a week, two to four hours a day, and stick to a disciplined diet. No fast food. No soda. No added sugar or artificial sweetener. Lots of lean meats and protein shakes.
"Once in a while, I'll cheat and have a Mountain Dew," Polizzi said. "It doesn't taste as good as you think it did when you're not used to it."
The hardest part of training, they say, is avoiding injuries -- or "ninjuries," as they call them. While working out last week, Mears was struggling with elbow pain and Polizzi had a jammed finger, making training even harder.
Mears and Polizzi have so much in common, they call themselves brothers: They're both 33, firefighters, health nuts, good-humored but intense competitors, like to motivate people, and are lifelong suburban residents (Mears grew up in Villa Park and now lives in Elgin; Polizzi grew up in Naperville and now lives in Oswego).
Both became fans of the show as teens, watching the early Japanese version on the now-defunct G4 network. Mears remembers being 18 years old, sitting on the couch with no job and no direction. His sister asked him what he was going to do with his life, and he said, "I'll be a ninja warrior."
He bought a pullup bar, and an obsession began. It transformed the shy, unathletic, uninvolved kid -- who weighed 130 pounds when he graduated from Willowbrook High School -- into a confident, strong, goal-oriented man.
"It literally changed my life," Mears said.
Polizzi, on the other hand, was a multisport athlete and had a knack for climbing and adventure.
They both became firefighters, inspired, in part, by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, their paths didn't cross until they met at an ANW competition in Baltimore. They've been friends and training partners ever since.
"We both love adrenaline. You have to, to be a firefighter," Polizzi said. "But we're just normal guys."
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6 things you might not know about 'American Ninja Warrior'According to suburban "American Ninja Warrior" contestants, there are a few things people don't realize about the show, including:1. It's much harder than it seems, and the hardest part is doing the obstacles one right after the other.
2. The shows are always filmed in the overnight hours so the background is dark. Contestants sometimes have to wait to do their run until 4:30 a.m.
3. They have to do the course in all kinds of weather. It could be 35 degrees, or 85 degrees. Sometimes it's wet or icy, making the course more challenging.
4. On TV, you only see a small fraction of the competitors. Some "warriors" have competed for four years in a row and never been shown on TV. There were 150 people in the semifinals this year, and they showed only 30 of them on TV.
5. When you do the "American Ninja Warrior" course, you're so focused, you don't even hear the crowd cheering or the announcers shouting.
6. The contestants don't know what the obstacle course will involve until they get there.