St. Louis’ 11-year-old ninja warrior

Caption: Jeff Baumgarten, 11, runs across an obstacle that requires running across a series of spinning blocks.  Jeff competes in an episode of “American Ninja Warrior Junior” premiering May 15. Photo by: Eddy Chen/Universal Kids

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

If you think ninjas are just teenage turtle mutants, think again. Today’s ninja warriors are real-life athletes of all ages, with tremendous speed, endurance and balance. And they include Jeff Baumgarten, an 11-year-old in the Parkway School District whose family belongs to United Hebrew Congregation.

Jeff will show off his athletic prowess and more at 5 p.m. Friday, May 15 when he competes on “American Ninja Warrior Junior” on the Universal Kids network. The series is a spin-off of “American Ninja Warrior,” an NBC megahit based on the Japanese show “Sasuke,” in which adult contestants try to navigate a series of physically demanding obstacles and challenges. 

“I had watched the (adult) show and thought it would be fun to try so I started with a summer camp and it was just amazing,” explained Jeff, whose parents are Mark and Melika Baumgarten. “I applied for the first season (of the junior TV series) but I didn’t get a call back, so I tried again for the second season and got chosen.”

In fact, Jeff was among 140 youngsters chosen from 12,000 applicants. He flew with his parents to Los Angeles in July to tape his show, the outcome of which he is not allowed to reveal.

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“American Ninja Warrior Junior” follows a similar format to its adult counterpart with the young ninjas competing head-to-head to complete a series of 10 obstacles with names such as “Flying Squirrel,” “Wingnuts” and “The Little Dipper.” Junior ninjas compete in three age groups – 9-10 years, which was the group Jeff was in, as well as 11-12, and 13-14. Depending on their outcome, contestants either advance in the competition or are eliminated.

Jeff says he has been involved in ninja training for about five years, noting that there are several gyms and obstacle courses throughout the St. Louis area to train. He even has an obstacle course in his backyard that he and his dad built. 

“I did a lot of training before the show because I didn’t know what obstacles there would be,” he explained. “So I trained for grip and speed and endurance.” 

Jeff, who hopes to compete in Las Vegas in August for the finals of the Ultimate Ninja Athletic Association, described his TV experience as “amazing.”

“You get to meet so many friends you forget you’re filming a TV show. It’s surreal. I got to know 15 to 20 of the kids closely but I feel like I got to know everyone on the show.”

Jeff, his parents and his sister Alexis plan to watch Friday’s show together, though Melika Baumgarten says that as soon as it’s safe to do so, the family will host a “rewatch party” for friends and family to watch together.

“The kids and parents involved in the ninja warrior community are so supportive of each other and want everyone to do their best,” she said. “Of course, you want your kid to win, but at the same time we want to encourage and help our friends if they struggle with an obstacle. It’s really this magical, beautiful community of people.”

And as to what characteristics it takes to be a successful ninja warrior, well, here’s what Jeff has to say: “You have to be kind of brave, especially if there is a new obstacle in the course. You have to be humble. Even if you win, you don’t want to go bragging around. You want to be nice to everyone. And careful.”