Who wants to be a Ninja Warrior: Competition sucks — but “Vampire Professor” back for more in “American Ninja Warrior”


Pitt’s “Vampire Professor” Joel Brady upped the stakes for his “American Ninja Warrior” audition this year — by about 30 feet.

“I got up and got a chance to do a dive off of the 30-foot platform in my professor suit,” he said, referring to the garb he wears to class each day.“I hung from my toes from the top platform and did like a bat-hang, and then released and dove into the water.”

Last weekend, for the second year in a row, Brady competed in NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” a reality TV show in its seventh season that features athletes as they try to conquer an imposing obstacle course. This weekend, the show filmed one of its regional competitions at the Carrie Furnaces in Swissvale, a now-defunct blast furnace. About 750 fans and 125 to 150 competitors showed up for filming each day, which ran from 8:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Although the hurdles change with each course, Pittsburgh’s obstacles included the 15-foot tall Warped Wall, a ramp that competitors have to scale with only a running start and the Unstable Bridge, a windy, narrow passage that derails contestants with even the slightest misstep.

Last year, Brady conquered the Quintuple Steps, the Spinning Log, the Cat Grab and the Hanging Spikes before stumbling on the Warped Wall.

To reach the legendary climactic obstacle, Mount Midoriyama, at the national finals in Las Vegas later this summer, competitors must advance through several rounds of the competition. Up to this point, no one has made it far enough to even try to climb Midoriyama, so NBC doubled the cash prize from $500,000 to $1 million this season.

The results of the regional competitions are embargoed until after broadcast, which is yet to be determined.

With his khaki pants, sweater vest and green bowtie, Brady’s professor garb fit in with the other unconventional costumes at “Ninja Warrior.”

The Ninja Nurse donned scrubs, while Harlem Globetrotter Flip White wore his red, white and blue warmup suit. Matt Zacharkow, dressed as the Ninja Baby, ran the course wearing only a diaper and a bonnet. Zacharkow said the costume helped him overcome his social anxiety and depression.

“Everybody out here has balls to stand up there — you got all of the competitors watching you, all of the contestants, you know it’s being filmed like this,” Zacharkow said. “And then, anybody who’s dressed up, it magnifies that experience. It’s either going to make you or break you.”

According to Kristen Stabile, the show’s co-executive producer, the psychological challenge is exactly what makes otherwise talented athletes wipe out during the first few obstacles.

“There’s gonna be a Ninja Warrior. Of course we know it can be done, but it’s like anything — you have to not make a mental mistake, it’s not just a physical mistake,” she said.  “Sometimes, there are guys who could do this course 50 times, and they fall on the second obstacle and you’re like, ‘What?’”

Even Pittsburgh native Brianne McLaughlin, a silver medalist in women’s hockey during the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympic games, was anxious before her first bout with the course. Not used to competing without her hockey squad, McLaughlin trained with Steel City Parkour and said she planned on leaving the rest to the same instincts she uses on the ice.

“It’s just me out there. But like hockey, even though if you have nerves you get in the game, the second the puck drops, you just go and do it,” she said. “So I’m hoping I’m able to do that here, once I get on the first obstacle I’ll just calm down and make it through, I guess.”

If the scale of the obstacle course didn’t strike the rest of contestants’ nerves, then the backdrop of towering, industrial-looking Carrie Furnaces added an epic feel to the event. At more than 90 feet high, the furnaces loomed over the fan-filled bleachers and the rest of the “Ninja Warrior” setup.

Pitt alum Scott Carslaw, a former gymnast, said he suspects that the locale might even become the backdrop for the season finale. Although he entered “Ninja Warrior” through the walk-on process, waiting in line for more than a week to earn his shot at the course, Carslaw was thrilled to compete in front of the setting.

“I think that this is gonna be one of the best backdrops of the season,” he said. “The Carrie Furnaces are giving us such a unique background, no other city has given it.”

Brady expects to be back at Pitt as the professor of Vampire: Blood and Empire this fall, which will be his first time teaching the class since the show dubbed him the “Vampire Professor.”

For those planning on taking his course, Brady said he’s always been happy to discuss his ninja expertise with students, as long as it doesn’t interfere with academics.     

“[Students] ask me about it, you know I try to tell them that I’ll be happy to talk about the TV show, maybe in office hours or something,” he said. “I don’t want it to compromise the integrity of the coursework.”