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July 10, 2014

Will Pitt lay claim to the 1st American Ninja Warrior?

Joel Brady, a faculty teaching consultant in the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education and part-time Pitt faculty member, competes for a $500,000 prize on TV’s popular “American Ninja Warrior.”

Joel Brady, a faculty teaching consultant in the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education and part-time Pitt faculty member, competes for a $500,000 prize on TV’s popular “American Ninja Warrior.”

Don’t let his scholarly demeanor fool you. Joel Brady is one tough professor.

Brady, a 33-year-old faculty teaching consultant in the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) and part-time Pitt faculty member, is competing for a $500,000 prize on TV’s popular “American Ninja Warrior.”

Clad in his classroom uniform of khakis, tie and sweater vest, Brady tackled the qualifying course in Denver in an episode that aired last month. His performance in the Denver finals is scheduled to air in early August.


Photos by Adam Larkey/NBC

The American show, now in its sixth season, is modeled after a long-running Japanese TV obstacle course competition that has been conquered only four times by three people in its 30-season history.

In the American version, top competitors in five cities — Venice Beach, California; Dallas, St. Louis, Miami and Denver — move on to the national finals in Las Vegas, where they will attempt to be the first to earn the American Ninja Warrior title by completing a four-stage obstacle course modeled after the Japanese show’s “Mt. Midoriyama.” The U.S. seasonNUP_163857_2205.JPG finale is set to air Sept. 15 on NBC.

Brady has followed the Japanese show since he was a teen. “I was interested in the athletic side of it,” he said, adding that he spent time in Japan as a preschooler while his parents were missionaries there.

“It’s an interesting show in that there has never been a winner in the American version. And in the Japanese version, only three people have ever won it, over 30 seasons. If you lump the Japanese version and the American one together, you’ve got 36 seasons and only three winners. One of them won it twice, so there’s actually been four seasons where it’s been won,” NUP_163857_2243.JPGBrady said.

And, in the American version, no one even has made it to the course’s stage four, the rope climb, he said.

A former pro rock climber, Brady’s interest in trying out for “American Ninja Warrior” was piqued when he interviewed several friends from the climbing circuit for a magazine feature about their participation on the show. “The whole time that I was interviewing them, I was thinking, ‘I need to finally do this,’” he said.

Brady, who quit competing in major climbing events in the early 2000s, said that “American Ninja Warrior” has become known among climbers as their “senior circuit” since “we’re all kind of over the hill for professional climbing competition.”

NUP_163857_2215.JPGBecause strength and agility make climbers and parkour runners particularly well suited for the obstacle competition, they outnumber the mixed martial arts competitors, snowboarders and other athletes on the show.

“There’s a bit of a friendly competition on that level: Who’s better, parkour or climbers?” You’ve got to be skilled in both areas. Generally the earlier stages are more parkour intensive and the later stages are more climbing intensive,” he said.

NUP_163857_2229.JPGAmong the contingent of climbers in the current season’s “American Ninja Warrior” are fan favorite Noah Kaufman, an emergency room doctor, and Brian Arnold, famed for being the American who has gone the furthest against the obstacle course.


Tens of thousands of people apply to compete on the show, but only about 500 are chosen, Brady said, noting that the producers are looking for participants who have a engaging story or characteristic — a firefighter single mom, cancer survivor or diabetic, for instance.

“They take people who can do impressive things athletically. But they also are people who have a compelling story to tell or something that sets them apart in their biography,” Brady said.

“The appeal of the show is that people can identify with the competitors,” either to cheer for them or be inspired by them.

NUP_163857_2253.JPGBrady, with the help of fellow CIDDE staffer David Cherry, produced an audition video that played up his role as the professor who teaches “Vampire: Blood and Empire,” a literature course in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

“We had fun with it,” Brady said, quipping, “It was a fruitful collaboration.”

Brady’s 3-minute audition video ( intersperses scenes from his office and classroom with action footage from Pitt’s climbing gym (clad in his classroom attire) and on rock walls.

Introducing himself as “the professor,” in the video, he admits: “Teaching about vampires is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the material is a lot of fun and I get to talk about vampires with my students all day. On the other, I’ve completely lost the professional respect of my colleagues, not to mention my friends and family. So, six of one and half a dozen of the other.

“I mean, it’s not like I go around pretending like I’m a vampire … much” he deadpans to the camera, striking a Dracula-style pose from behind his corduroy jacket, with fingers as fangs.

While vampire professor may be the most compelling hook for TV purposes, Brady, who earned his PhD in religious studies at Pitt in 2012, also has led the University teaching practicum for graduate student instructors and teaches a variety of courses in the Slavic, religious studies and history departments.

“I’m someone who actually fits the stereotype of the person who’s locked away in their ivory tower and is only concerned with their books. I am that. I’m someone who takes my research and my studies and my teaching seriously. But I’m also an athlete,” Brady said.

“I came across on the show as maybe looking like an underdog. Because I was looking professorial, I didn’t look like someone who would be able to do this, but never mind that I’ve been rock climbing for 20 years semi-professionally,” he said.

“It’s obviously a bit schticky,” he admits, “but I’m myself. I’m sort of like a costumed character, except that I’m literally wearing what I wear when I teach. It’s just out of context.”

And there’s been the unexpected benefit of generating publicity for the Slavic department. Prospective students have contacted the department, with some connecting with him directly to inquire about Pitt and its vampire course.

Brady isn’t teaching the vampire course this fall. Instead, he will be behind the podium for the Slavic department’s course on cross-cultural representations of prison in the 20th century.


Despite his confidence in his skill and the appeal of his vampire professor persona, Brady feared he hadn’t made the cut when other regional competitions passed with no response from the show’s producers. Then, about three weeks before the Denver competition, he got the call to compete there — a bonus, given that several climbing friends live there.

To prepare, “the main thing that I drew upon was my 20 years of rock climbing experience,” he said.

“I’m still in relatively good rock climbing shape and I maintain that,” he said. “I’m an athlete in that I’m a rock climber but I’m not an athlete in any other sense generally: I don’t run, I don’t swim, I don’t bike. I just climb, basically.”

His preparations included campusing — a climbing skill that uses hands only — to prepare for the obstacles in which participants are forbidden from using their feet. “You have to be able to do a lot of those kinds of things in a row,” he said.

A freak snowstorm hit Denver just before the qualifying round, Brady said. Although the snow had melted, the course conditions were complicated by the cold. “It was so cold and after a while, you have so many competitors that fall in the water and splash the obstacles, that you’re dealing literally with ice,” he said.

“I was huffing and puffing in Denver. The altitude definitely hit me,” he said, adding that the temperature was hovering around 30 degrees on the night the qualifying round was filmed.  “So in addition to it being high altitude, it was extremely cold, which also affects your wind. So that was definitely a challenge,” Brady said.

His choice to run in khakis and his trademark sweater vest proved fortuitous. “A number of athletes came out there with their shorts and short sleeves. I was actually dressed for the occasion,” he joked.

“The announcer, one of the first things he said was, ‘Kids, when you get to college, this is what your professor will look like.’ It was, like, too perfect.”

While much was made of his “cerebral approach” to the course, Brady attributed his strategy more to his climbing background than to his level of education. “There’s a bit of that, but quite frankly that has more to do with us being rock climbers who plan it all out beforehand,” he said, adding that he and his climbing buddies discussed their strategies at length.

In climbing, “You have to look at the route that’s before you. You have to plan out how you’re going to move. A lot of times, the way you will move on say, the fifth move, may be dictated by how you moved on the third move. So you have to plan in advance and sequence it out,” he explained.

Climbers also plan for trouble, he said. “If you get into something where you’re almost going to fall off, then what do you do in that situation?

“You have to think strategically, too, because in these city rounds, time is a factor. So you can get through without completing the course, but it’s dictated by how quickly you completed your last obstacle. But if you go too fast, you might screw up or you might get overly tired because you didn’t rest enough in between. So you have to balance these things out,” Brady said.

“It’s all about all of this planning and then fundamentally it’s about executing it physically.”


The qualifying course in Denver was made up of the quintuple steps — a series of angled platforms positioned on alternate sides over a water pit; the cat grab — a jump to vertical walls; the spinning log; spikes into cargo — participants must swing by rope to a cargo net; the devil steps — an inverted V that must be traversed hand over hand from beneath, and the warped wall — a steep quarterpipe that contestants get three tries to scale.

The obstacles that require leg strength tend to be more difficult for climbers because climbing doesn’t develop lower-body strength, he explained. “You just use your legs strategically and twist your knees to take weight off your arms, but that doesn’t result in a significant amount of weight being shifted to your legs. It’s probably less intensive than walking for your legs, so that’s why climbers always have skinny legs and can’t do the lower body stuff very well, can’t jump very well.”

In the Denver qualifying round,  “My technique wasn’t as refined as it needed to be” in his failed attempt to scale the 14-foot warped wall, Brady said, adding that he faced the obstacle for the first time during practice in a Boulder parkour gym the night before the competition.

“The hardest part, at least in the city qualifiers, was those quintuple steps because they were so icy,” Brady said. “Obviously, I didn’t complete the warped wall either. That was the other big challenge. Certainly after coming so close — I had my fingers over the top and I couldn’t quite hold on — that was a big area of concern and a challenge for the next night because in the finals you run all the same obstacles, but they tweak them a little bit to make them slightly harder,” he said.

The obstacles weren’t the only thing that were tweaked for the finals. Brady said he tweaked his knee on the first night’s warped wall attempt. “It was an issue of concern for the Denver city finals,” he said.

While episodes are aired in rotation — the qualifying rounds from each of the five cities, followed by the final rounds — each city’s qualifying and final rounds were filmed on successive nights.

On the second night, conditions were better for the Denver finals, he said. “Temperatures got at least into the upper 30s,” but the course was extended and some obstacles were made more difficult.

For instance, one of the spikes was eliminated to make the jump to the cargo net farther and an obstacle was placed in the middle of the spinning log.

And in the finals, “after you get to the top of the warped wall, you keep going,” he said.

In Denver, the salmon ladder — in which the contestant hangs from a bar that must be popped up a series of pegs — and the devil’s knobs — in which the contestant hangs from and traverses doorknobs arranged in an arc — were added.

“The big climactic thing is the spider climb,” Brady said. “You basically get into two walls on either side and go all the way up” to the top of a tall structure, using hands and feet in parallel.  “You’re at the top of this big thing, towering over everyone. You slap the button and smoke comes out.”


Brady said he and his climbing buddies set a collective goal of all qualifying for the finals in Las Vegas, which were filmed in mid-June. “And actually our goal was to all be standing at the top of the 70-foot rope together at the end,” he said.

“We all shared our strategies and cheered each other on. And there was the sense of ‘If you fall, you’re letting the whole group down,’” Brady said.

“The interesting thing about the show is that there is a pretty strong ethic among the competitors that it is you against the course, not you versus other competitors. And it really isn’t you versus other competitors because you don’t win unless you beat the course. And no one has ever won.”


So how did the climbers fare?

All Brady will say is: “Tune in because the climbers are going to put on a show.”

Is Pitt’s vampire professor the first American Ninja Warrior?

Under a $1 million per incident penalty for divulging details about the show’s outcome, he can’t say whether there’s a $500,000 check in his sweater vest pocket.

“I could do a lot worse than having a beautiful wife and three kids, teaching classes on vampires and prisons and madmen, and competing on ‘American Ninja Warrior,’” he said. “I feel very blessed.”


Details on the show, including videos, are posted at

—Kimberly K. Barlow