How two suburban firefighters made it on 'American Ninja Warrior'
"American Ninja Warrior" is an individual competition that challenges elite athletes with a series of extreme obstacle courses requiring strength, speed, balance, stamina -- and a certain willingness to sacrifice their bodies -- until only the winner remains.
But two suburban firefighters have made a name for themselves on NBC's TV show by working as a team.
Aurora firefighter Dan Polizzi and Streamwood firefighter Brandon Mears have become known as "The Towers of Power" since they first met during a taping of the show's fifth season in 2013.
This year, for the first time, each made it to the national finals in Las Vegas during the same season. Their individual performances were taped in June for broadcast beginning Monday night.
The two friends train together, motivate each other and cheer for one another. They've brought that camaraderie, and matching T-shirts complete with a logo, to the program -- sometimes with humorous effect.
"One year we were calling each other 'Bro' all the time," said Mears, a 37-year-old St. Charles resident. "We had these bro-isms and stuff like that. The show loved that."
"The Towers of Power" have competed on the program for seven seasons. But while Polizzi and Mears each have made it to the national finals in the past, this is the first time they qualified to compete in Las Vegas together.
"When it finally happened, it was a great moment," said Polizzi, a 37-year-old Oswego resident. "It's something we've been wanting to do since the beginning."
They are among at least six athletes from the suburbs, and 90 overall, to qualify for this year's finals.
Starting Monday night and continuing for four weeks, America will see how the firefighters -- along with Jesse Labreck and Chris DiGangi of Naperville, Sem Garay of Carol Stream and Michael Torres of Mount Prospect -- did in their quest to win the "American Ninja Warrior" title along with the $1 million grand prize.
Facing the challenge
Polizzi and Mears took similar paths to the show. Both started as fans of the early Japanese version of the show called "Sasuke" on the now-defunct G4 network.
Mears, who grew up in Villa Park, says he was "super-skinny" and "not very athletic" after graduating from Willowbrook High School. But he enjoyed roller blading, snowboarding and stunts "that would all translate to Ninja Warrior life later."
After watching the Japanese show, he was enthralled. He got a pullup bar and started training.
"I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen," Mears said.
Growing up in Naperville, Polizzi was a multisport athlete who loved climbing and challenging himself.
When he saw contestants on television facing warped walls, rope swings and other obstacles, he was impressed.
"It's like these people are just getting thrown in there and seeing what they're made of," Polizzi said. "I thought it would be cool to prepare myself to try to defeat something like that."
Polizzi and Mears each set aside their Ninja Warrior dreams for years to focus on becoming firefighters.
They had never met before, they both got accepted for the show's fifth season and competed in Baltimore.
They've been friends and training partners ever since.
Going into this season, Polizzi and Mears each had advanced to the show's finals in Las Vegas, but not during the same year.
"One of us would make it and the other would do something silly -- like a weird mishap," Mears said.
This year, everything went according to plan.
NBC has announced the national finals will be shown during four episodes airing at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept, 2, Sept. 9 and Sept. 16. During the finals, the athletes face a four-stage obstacle course with challenges that get progressively harder, including the final 75-foot rope climb. The competitors are prohibited from sharing details about what happened. But Mears said competing with Polizzi was an "awesome" experience.
"There's been years where he's made it and I just went to kind of support him," Mears said. "But for us to both be there -- to be in that pressure situation and kind of help each other calm down -- was huge. It was such a huge thing."
Other suburban 'Ninjas' in the finals There are at least four other competitors from the suburbs who made the finals of this season's "American Ninja Warrior." A quick look:Jesse Labreck
The 28-year-old from Naperville manages Ultimate Ninjas and started an Elite team at the gym with her fiance, Chris DiGangi. She enjoys teaching kids and riding her Suzuki GSXR 600 motorcycle. She's a return competitor who appeared on "Ninja" in seasons 8-10 and was a Las Vegas finalist each year.
The 28-year-old from Naperville is a software developer who recently got engaged to LaBreck. He has a master's degree in Aerospace Engineering from George Washington University along with bachelor's degrees in math and economics. A self-taught musician, he is a former lifeguard and pole vaulter. He appeared on "Ninja" in seasons 4-6 and 8-10 and is a three-time Vegas finalist.
The 19-year-old from Carol Stream is a Ninja instructor and professional wrestler who's also an artist who draws Marvel characters. A former high school wrestler and baseball player, he says he saved a friend who couldn't swim after the boy fell through the ice on a frozen lake when they were in eighth grade. He's a first-time competitor on the show.
The 23-year-old from Mount Prospect is a manager at Ultimate Ninjas Gym who left his full-time job in 2017 and moved across the country to pursue ninja full-time. He grew up playing baseball, tennis, basketball, wrestling, football and track. He's been using his skills as a craftsman to build ninja obstacles. He appeared on "Ninja" in seasons 8-10 and is a two-time Vegas finalist.