The With Leather Interview: Jenn Brown Talks ‘American Ninja Warrior’

The newest season of American Ninja Warrior is underway, airing Mondays at 8 PM ET on NBC and Sundays at 9 PM ET on G4, and this is very exciting news for us, because we love watching Average Joes and random professional athletes try to accomplish what so few people before them have ever done. Of course, I’m talking about conquering Mount Midoriyama, the world’s most difficult obstacle course, made famous by the original Japanese series Sasuke and duplicated for our enjoyment on American Ninja Warrior.

Only three people have ever completed the legendary obstacle course, which is what has made it so attractive and tempting to people across the world for so many years. This season, TV personality Jenn Brown has joined Matt Iseman and former NFL defensive end Akbar Gbaja Biamila on American Ninja Warrior as a co-host, and she was more than kind to give us the scoop on what makes this show so awesome.

She also invited me to Miami to try out next year, but I’m going to be sick that day. I already feel the cough coming on.

With Leather: First and foremost, and completely irrelevant to this interview, I wasn’t aware until this morning that you grew up in Orlando, so I wanted to ask if you’re a Magic fan, because I’ve been trying to compile a list of our celebrity fans and right now it’s blank.

Jenn Brown: Well, the good news is, yes, I grew up a huge Orlando Magic fan. We were good friends with Pat Williams, so we would go to games back in the days when they had Nick Anderson, Shaq, Penny Hardaway and Dennis Scott, and we never missed a home game. So yes, I was and am an Orlando Magic fan even though I live in Los Angeles with the Lakers and Clippers.

I’ve adopted the Dodgers, because we didn’t have a baseball team when I was growing up, because Miami was a world away. So the Dodgers – that’s my baseball team out here.

WL: You’re currently co-hosting American Ninja Warrior, which is one of the greatest shows ever created. How would you describe it to the average person on the street who has no idea how awesome it is?

JB: The cool thing about our show is that you see the NFL and NBA, and these higher-level sports, and you don’t think to yourself, “I can go do that.” You don’t think, “I’m gonna go run routes and catch passes.” You appreciate what they’re doing, but you’re never going to go do that. What’s different about American Ninja Warrior is that the people who watch the show – you have a shot if you can train. People legitimately train and come out to do our show and they have a shot.

It’s funny how every fan who sits on their couch and watches the show can think, “You know what? That’s something that I can train for this year and actually come back next year and be on the show.” It’s an attainable opportunity to compete on the world’s most difficult obstacle course. Who wouldn’t want to go try and see where they rank?

And the neat thing about this is that there are NFL guys like Shawne Merriman or Olympic runner Dee Dee Trotter and other athletes that people look up to who compete, and you can go and see where you stand against them. I mean, you’re not going to get to run 100m Dee Dee but you can at least try to beat her on American Ninja Warrior.

WL: You’ve had the privilege of covering a very wide variety of sports and competitions, from college football and basketball to professional poker. What kind of similarities and differences do you see between the more traditional athletes and these “Average Joes” competing on American Ninja Warrior?

JB: Before I was on the show, I watched it and I was the kind of person who looked at an obstacle and though, “I can do that.” So when I got the opportunity to come on the show and work on it, I pitched to the producers that I should try some of the obstacles and it was not easy. To compare them to the athletes that I’ve covered, the thing that I learned really quickly is that these athletes who train for American Ninja Warrior are no different.

The other hosts on the show, Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja Biamila, and I have talked about the level of commitment and what these guys have been through to train for endurance. They might be considered average because we don’t know who they are, but they are certainly putting in the hours and the workload like a lot of professional athletes. It’s really impressive.

For me, the thing that I took away after working on the season, is that these athletes are very committed, and you’re going to see that when they go up against the pros like Dee Dee and Shawne.

WL: What do you think is the most difficult obstacle that the competitors have to go through on the show?

JB: In Venice Beach, we had a new obstacle called the “Flying Nunchucks,” and for me, personally, I thought that was the most difficult of all the obstacles, because you’re hitting a mini-tramp and you have a six-foot gap, and you’re catching vertical nunchucks. If you don’t have the grip strength and you don’t make a perfect catch, then you are done. Just getting one is so extremely difficult, and then you have to swing to the next one, and cover another gap of a couple feet to catch the next nunchucks.

I think that was the most difficult that we’ve seen so far, but we’ve got some coming up – I don’t even know if I’m supposed to talk about them. Basically, every city has one obstacle that is the difference maker. But so far it has been the Flying Nunchucks.

WL: What kind of advice would you offer someone if they were preparing to run the obstacle course?

JB: The thing that I realized, like I mentioned, is that these athletes do train. It’s not that they just watch the show and come out – well, some do – they’re extremely athletic and the people who do train for the show in some capacity end up doing well. There are people with rock climbing experience who come on the show and do well, and there are now places where people can train at rock climbing all over the country, so I think it’s important that people have trained at rock climbing on some level before they come on the show, because that’s such a big part of it.

We saw that when one of the Baltimore competitors had built almost the whole course in his backyard, but he hadn’t built the warped wall and, sure enough, he wasn’t able to make it up. So if you’re really serious about wanting to compete, I would say find one of these places – they’re all over – and work on a rock-climbing wall. Athletes that have prepared a little bit have the tendency to do better.

WL: Are there any inside tips about the obstacle courses that you’ve picked up along the way that would help a competitor out if you slipped him or her a little sheet of paper?

JB: We watch so many competitors run so many obstacles, so as I’m down there on the sidelines I really get to analyze what did or didn’t work. Certainly you start to learn more and more as you watch, so if someone is attempting the Quintuple Steps, if you can use a one-footed approach and stay on your toes, that seems to be the best way.

What’s so crazy about the obstacle course is that I’ve seen each obstacle be attempted and successfully completed in so many different ways, it just really depends on what works for you. I learned what worked for me, and what frankly didn’t work for me, when I attempted a lot of obstacles, so I think it’s more about knowing what your strengths are, whether you’ve got great core strength or really long legs or you can hit a mini-tramp well. There are just so many different approaches to all of the obstacles, there’s not really one right or wrong way.

WL: Do you have to deal with people stopping you in public and telling you that they think they could complete the obstacle course? And what’s your go-to nice way of responding, “Sure you can”?

JB: Now that I’m on the show, when I’m among family and friends, who may not have been diehard American Ninja Warrior fans but certainly are now, they’re really funny about it. My little brother is 14 and thinks that he could do the whole course. I don’t want to crush his spirits, so I tell him that I think he can do it as well, but he has to be 21 to do it, so he has another seven years to prepare for the show.

I do get a lot of people who come up to me and think they can do it, and all I can do, like I did with you, is encourage them to come try out. But I also get a lot of people who recognize how difficult it is. I think that since we’ve never seen an American successfully complete Mount Midoriyama, and only three competitors in Japan have ever completed it in the 27 seasons that it has been around – that’s impressive.

But there are people who are like, “That show is so easy, I can do.” And to them I just say, “Then come on, come try out. We’d love to have you do it.” That usually shuts them up.

WL: How did you prepare for the job of co-hosting this show? Did you simply draw on your experiences from the sidelines and studios or did you have to sit down and cram with hours of videos of Sasuke?

JB: The first thing I did was go to the tapes and sit down and watch all of last season to really familiarize myself with the show, but I took a different approach, obviously, because there’s a difference between working on the show and being a fan and watching it. We also get profiles on all of the competitors now, and I just try my best to study everything with peoples’ back stories.

That’s the thing that I really love about this show is that you get to learn about people and feel good about their back stories, and the troubles and challenges they’ve had in getting there. We could have a teacher, whose students are at home watching, or a garbage man or a lawyer – I just love learning their back stories. It gives you insight into why they’re there competing and makes you want to cheer for them.

WL: You’ve mentioned it already, but you have actually tried some of the obstacles. How did you fare against them?

JB: It was something that I suggested to the producers. I played softball at college and was an athlete growing up, and my family coached and taught gymnastics for many years, so I grew up a total jock. So for me to look at this course, I wanted to try it and get an appreciation for how difficult it was when I was talking to these athletes. I like understanding why it’s so difficult.

So I got to do two to three obstacles in each city, and I’m very proud that I was able to successfully complete three obstacles. Like I said, it gives you an appreciation for how truly difficult the obstacles are. But I’m proud of the three that I did, and I want to train a little big this year so that I can maybe successfully do a few more.

WL: If the producers came to you and said, “Jenn, we want you to design your very own obstacle that we would forever call the Jenn Brown,” what would it be?

JB: I would probably do something where you don’t have to be tall and you don’t have to use a lot of hip strength, because that’s definitely not a strength of mine. But an obstacle that I’d incorporate would be the spider climb, in which you have to wedge yourself between two walls and climb, because that was something that I was good at. So I would do something, maybe, where you have to walk a narrow beam – to use my gymnastics skills – and then have to do some sort of spider climb. That would be my obstacle.

You really put me on the spot with that one, I’m going to have to think about it. Now I want to create the obstacles.