Once a week, Mayo Clinic lab technician Roo Yori takes a two-hour trip to Buffalo, so he can practice swinging from rope to rope Tarzan-style and racing up a warped wall.
The gym, " United Ninjas Buffalo," is the closest facility to Yori's home that simulates the kind of obstacles he will encounter as a contestant on NBC's hit television show, " American Ninja Warrior."
Yet, Yori nearly stumbled on the first obstacle the show placed in his path — a simple phone call. This being a reality show, even a call is not so simple: The producers try to squeeze out every last drop of drama out of the show, and each contestant is videotaped by a family member as they're being told they've been selected as a contestant.
But when the show tried to call his wife, Clara, they got Yori instead. The jig was up. Yori knew he had been selected. But the woman at the other end of the line sounded miffed.
"I'm sorry, but it's not going to work any more," Yori recalled the woman telling him. "And I was like, 'Please, you are joking?' And she said, 'I'm just kidding. You're still invited.' And I was like, 'Thank you.'"
'Biggest, baddest obstacles'
The wildly popular show, now in its eighth season, has contestants run through a battery of obstacles — quintuple steps, salmon ladders, curved walls — as they race from A to B as quickly as possible. The craze has given rise to Ninja warrior circuits and Ninja warrior gyms like the one in Buffalo. Yori, a lifelong athlete, found the show and obstacle courses irresistible, so he decided to apply.
"I've always loved running obstacles, so once I saw that on television, I was like, 'These are the biggest, baddest obstacles I've ever seen,'" Yori said. "This looks like fun."
Just being invited to one of the show's six city qualifiers was an accomplishment for the Saint Mary's University graduate, who played soccer and broke the school record for the long jump his first year. The show reportedly draws tens of thousands of applications each year, and Yori will be among hundreds to compete in regional qualifying rounds held in six cities across the country. His will be held in Indianapolis on April 27.
But the show's producers are not only interested in ninja-like athletes. They also favor those who have compelling personal stories. Yori's story likely boosted his prospects in the eyes of the show's producers. Yori has been a dog rescuer for the past decade, taking in abandoned and abused animals that might have been euthanized if not for Yori and his wife's rescues. He is calling himself "K9 Ninja."
The couple took in a pit bull named Wallace, who later went on to be a world- and national-level Frisbee dog champion. Wallace wasn't the fastest or highest jumping dog, but Wallace chased discs with a gusto no dog could match. Most dogs, when they retrieve a disc, lackadaisically lope back to their owners, but Wallace ran back to Yori as fast as he ran out to fetch the Frisbee.
Wallace had at one point a Facebook page with 600,000 likes and was the subject of a book.
"He just loved it so much, and because he loved it so much, he was willing to work at it," Yori said.
They also adopted one of NFL quarterback Michael Vick's fighting dogs. Hector, a pit bull, arrived at the couple's home with scars up and down his chest and legs, with lost teeth and pieces of his ear and tongue missing. But contrary to his violent upbringing, Hector became a certified therapy dog and interacted easily with Yori's other rescue dogs.
"He actually enjoyed other dogs," Yori said. "When he had a choice, he chose not to fight."
Both dogs have since passed on, but the Yoris are now home to four rescue dogs. They've had as many as six dogs at one time, but that was "stretching things a little thin," Yori said.
Given that the show brings together superbly trained athletes, Yori knows he faces extremely long odds in reaching Mount Midoriyama and winning the million-dollar prize money in the finals held in Las Vegas. But he knows the farther his 5-foot-8, 180-pound frame takes him, the bigger his platform becomes. And his hope is to at least get past the first round and reach the city finals that features the top 30 contestants.
"The chances are definitely not in your favor, so I'm realistic," Yori said. "But on a personal level, I do hope to use this platform to encourage people to adopt rescue dogs."