To get another shot at prime time, Justin Gielski had to break a world record.
The Maple Valley man did just that, and in doing so, caught the attention of producers of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” a made-for-reality TV, obstacle-course competition series. More than 50,000 people submitted video auditions for a spot on Season 11.
“There’s a lot of good athletes out there who want to get on (the show), so you really have to prove yourself athletically and also have something that makes for good TV at the end of the day,” said the 34-year-old Gielski, a 2003 Kentlake High School graduate who works today as a business analyst for Signature Interiors & Design, a floor-covering company in Kent.
“For us, it’s a sport but, for them, it’s a production, so you have to have very interesting types of stories,” Gielski said of the popular series. “I needed something to set me apart, a dramatic story line.”
Breaking a Guinness World Record certainly helped Gielski’s chances to return to “Ninja.”
A year ago, Gielski shattered the record for “most consecutive skips over a rope on a slack line,” nearly doubling the previous mark of 15. What began as a training exercise to improve balance became an idea for a Guinness World Record. Gielski would steady himself on a thin nylon strap ratcheted between trees, later adding complexity by skipping rope while suspended.
Covered live on Facebook, Gielski’s feat went viral. The record was documented, signed and notarized. Gielski received a certificate of the record’s authenticity.
“It’s just one of those things I ended up trying and ended up realizing I could do more than anybody else,” Gielski said.
A new and improved Gielski earned an invitation to compete in the indoor city finals at the Tacoma Dome filmed early in May, the first time a “Ninja” course had been erected in the Pacific Northwest. Just how Gielski did won’t be known until NBC airs the episode on June 24.
Top regional qualifiers will move on to the outdoor nationals in Las Vegas, Nev.
In 2015, Gielski advanced out of the city regionals to reach the Las Vegas Strip, where he met elimination in Stage One, a victim of the seventh obstacle on the course, the “Coin Flip” that featured three unforgiving spinning, swinging disks. Competitors had to run across the free-floating disks while maintaining their balance in order to reach the landing platform and continue the course.
Gielski, 10 pounds leaner and stronger than he was four years ago, vows to go further this time around. He’s grateful for another chance.
“I really wanted to see if I could keep doing it and perform at the level that I had in the past,” Gielski said. “I’d say I actually felt stronger going into it this time, especially because I had more experience (with the course) and how to train.”
To prepare for the rigors this season, the 6-foot, 180-pound Gielski emphasized balance and cold exposure training. To test his endurance and focus and reduce muscle recovery time between workouts, he jumped into frozen lakes. The chill was no thrill but it sharpened his mental edge for competition.
“You only get one shot a year if you’re lucky,” Gielski said of the “Ninja” obstacle course. “A lot of good competitors mess up because when your adrenaline is going, your mind just isn’t working at the level that you’re used to.”
Gielski, who retired from the Air Force and the National Guard, moved from New Jersey, where he lived during his first “Ninja” go-around, to come home, work nearby and train with the support of family.
More competitors train specifically for obstacles, some even replicate them, Gielski said. But no matter how hard one trains to improve grip strength, agility and technical moves on familiar obstacles, producers often throw an unexpected, new barrier on stage that can foil any challenger.
Luck plays as much a part as effort.
“We get no trials on the course, no practice runs … that’s what makes the show so challenging,” Gielski said. “Everything going into it is sort of an unknown, so you just try to prepare as best as you can. You get one shot, one time to put your hands on it and if you mess up, that’s it.
“It’s very challenging just to get on (the show),” he said. “It’s nerve wrecking. It can be overwhelming.”