Check out ‘American Ninja Warrior’ at Atlanta’s Turner Field

Cool shot

Course testers try out the first challenge, which is a variant of Quintuple Steps. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Friday, March 18, 2016

Sure, an Atlanta Braves baseball game at Turner Field on a bright beautiful Sunday afternoon can be magical. The sounds of organ music. The sights of kids laughing. The smells of hot dogs wafting in the air.

But on Thursday afternoon, two weeks before the start of the final season of baseball at the stadium, the Turner Field plaza looked like a very different magical place. NBC had spent the previous nine days building a 200-yard obstacle course for its hit summer series “American Ninja Warrior,” now in its eight season.

Cranes were everywhere. Crew members were scurrying about, putting finishing touches on what looks like the most elaborate adult jungle gym ever amid statues of Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn and Phil Niekro.

The statue of Warren Spahn in the Turner Field plaza. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

The statue of Warren Spahn in the Turner Field plaza. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

Atlanta is one of five cities this year for regional tryouts on top of Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles. On Friday night, about 125 people (out of 50,000 applicants) will try the course once. They do not get to practice. The 30 who make it furthest will perform on Saturday night. A handful of them go on to the main round.

“It’s an opportunity for regular people to do extraordinary things,” said executive producer Anthony Storm on site. “Every story has a beginning, middle and an end that transpires on our course. It’s amazing to witness these human interest stories.”

Trent Eaton, the challenge coordinator who has also done “The Amazing Race,” said he loves seeing these hardcore athletes bond and compete. “You have rock climbers, parkour people, strength trainers, swimmers.”

He said this gives adults a shot to keep competing and have a real sense of accomplishment:  “It’s such a positive group of people.”

And why Turner Field in its final year before the Braves move to Cobb County?

“We’re looking for scope and grandiosity,” Storm said. “We need width and height of some magnitude. We want the background to represent the city we’re in. Turner Field has some nice textures to it with the red brick. It’s got some iconography, a giant scoreboard and baseball statutes in the foreground. Sports heroes. We like to create sports heroes.”

He has been to a Braves game before at Turner Field. “It will be sad to see this one go,” he said.

While I was there Thursday afternoon, several volunteers had shown up to test out the course, to help the course creators it’s difficult yet doable at the same time. They also have former contestants work the obstacles as well. Some are similar to past challenges. Others are new.

The first obstacle has been changed a bit, for instance. And the fourth one appears to be an especially difficult pipe challenge they were still tweaking Thursday. One of the professional testers took nearly 50 seconds to complete it.

Spencer Koh, an Emory University student, fell into the water on that particular obstacle. “I do track and field. I do a lot of running. It’s not obstacle related. I want to see how much I can push myself. It looks a lot easier when you’re sitting on your couch. Once you’re up there, you’re using a lot of muscles you haven’t used before, awkward movements. It’s about adapting and being flexible with each individual obstacle.”

“It’s like ‘American Gladiator,’ but way harder,” said tester Matt LaBorde of Douglasville after he had tried out the obstacles. “Imagine a jungle gym created by Satan and run through it as quickly as possible. It’s a lot harder than it looks. But it’s fun and a worthwhile experience. I never imagined how many people it takes to get a show like this running.”

Andrew Denney of Knoxville didn’t make it onto the show but said testing is “the next best thing to being on the show itself.” He said you need good upper body strength, agility and endurance to make it through the course.

Braves country

Janice McLean, a Sterling, VA crossfit coach, tries out the course. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

Janice McLean, a Sterling, VA crossfit coach, tries out the course. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

While I was there during the day, all taping is done at night. For Atlanta, it will happen Friday night and Saturday night well into the wee hours of the morning. “It’s more exciting. Lights, camera, action as they say,” Storm said. “One of the best parts of the job is staying up all night and experiencing this.”

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