By Janet Lee
If you know what a salmon ladder is (Hint: NOT a device to help fish get upstream), you might be a fan of American Ninja Warrior (ANW), which features competitors pitting themselves against a series of exhausting physical challenges. The obstacle course competition first aired on NBC in December, 2009, and is still going strong.
Ken Singletary, a 1990 Clinton High School graduate who now lives in Baton Rouge, has just returned from his second stint as a warrior, going against hundreds of others trying to achieve their personal best against the daunting obstacles.
Unlike some other competition/reality shows, ANW contestants may apply and compete multiple times. As the show begins airing its thirteenth season in late May, only two of the thousands of competitors have achieved the ultimate $1 million prize.
But it’s not the lure of prize money that draws many of these competitors. Many large cities, such as Houston, Chicago, and those on the east and west coasts, boast gyms devoted to obstacle course training. But Singletary trains on a homemade course of ropes, ladders, slides, and other apparatus in…his backyard, often cheered on by his daughter, the inspiration behind his interest in obstacle course challenges.
Singletary, a soft-spoken man who originally entered LSU on a full music scholarship, now works on population science at Pennington Biomedical Research, an extension of LSU. Though not a typical athlete, he is the exactly the type of competitor American Ninja Warrior seeks out, one with a compelling personal story.
Ken Singletary moved to Clinton and Countrywood Circle with his family when he was in middle school, enjoying an idyllic smalltown upbringing, climbing trees and building treehouses, and playing in Clinton’s renowned high school band as a teenager.
But as a four-year old, he had been diagnosed with childhood leukemia (AML). He endured months of chemotherapy treatment, went into remission, then experienced a reoccurrence. More treatment followed at UMC. Since those childhood years, he has been cancer-free. But the emotional and physical toll was exhaustive, both on him and his parents.
“I didn’t realize until later,” he says, “what my parents endured and how hard it was on them.” The “later” for him came when he was told that because of the years of chemo, it was unlikely says, “what my parents endured and how hard it was on them.” The “later” for him came when he was told that because of the years of chemo, it was unlikely to become the best playmate he could be for his child. With input from a friend whose parenting skills he admired, Singletary began to get in shape with an obstacle course challenge called “Tough Mudder.” He worked on ropes and ladders, building strength and endurance, as his daughter cheered him on.
Now ten, Theresa designed the course her father used in his audition video for this year’s American Ninja Warrior. She is also featured in the video as Little Squirrel Singletary, as she and her father, the Flying Tiger, swing from rope to rope and demonstrate their agility. Obstacle course challenges require tremendous upper body strength, endurance, and bursts of explosive power to complete multiple pull-ups on the ladders. The salmon ladder is two vertical pieces set four feet apart, with pegs or rungs on each one at about twelve-inch intervals. The object is to pull oneself up from each rung using a bar to advance to the next set. And there’s carrying weights. Flying Tiger Singletary admits his neighbors may shake their heads at his running up and down, back and forth, in the neighborhood, carrying five-pound buckets of gravel or sand.
Now 48, Singletary has gone up against competitors half his age, who’ve been participating in more sophisticated obstacle course training than he. Yet, he says the competition is really against the obstacle course itself, not other people. There is no cutthroat behavior or underhanded tactics, as participants encourage one another to conquer the challenge and beat the clock.
“We even have a code of conduct,” says Singletary, “which includes encouraging one another and not disrespecting anyone. I’ve made some really great, life-long friends among the contestants.”
The number of contestants was much less this time than in 2018, as many of the large gyms had been closed due to COVID-19 constraints. Thus only four hundred made the elimination trip to Tacoma, Washington. And even though his wife and daughter could not accompany him, giant television screens at the event enabled his Baton Rouge support group and Mississippi parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to all watch in real-time as he gave the American Ninja Warrior course, version 2021, his best effort.
But even he won’t know if his episode will air on NBC-affiliated stations until the new season begins May 31. However, being on tv is not the ultimate goal, he says.
“The project I’m engaged in at work now is studying childhood obesity and coming up with a plan to educate families on how to help their children become healthier and continue to lead healthier lives. I really to want to encourage healthy living and to give back to the community.”
Ever mindful of his own battle with childhood leukemia, he tries to raise awareness of the work being done through a local branch of St. Jude’s. He continued, “I also try to incorporate some kind of fund-raiser whenever I compete, too. I’ve been able to raise $5,000 so far for childhood cancer research.”
Even though ANW is the ultimate obstacle course challenge, Singletary will continue to compete in other events, as he can find them nearby. Meridian has hosted one such event, and he hopes to engage in others in the Southern states area, particularly as Theresa gets older and stronger and competes, as well. Baton Rouge is now home because of his work and his wife’s family, but he firmly maintains, “I’ll always have a foot in Mississippi, too.”
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