Two-year-old Hank was in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV due to a lung infection, at Cook Children’s Medical Center, and he and his dad, Abilene firefighter Shane Haught, passed time watching American Ninja Warrior re-runs. It was late at night, and Shane likened it to the feel of an informercial when the words ran across the screen: “Do you want to be on the show? Here’s how to apply.”
Whether It was sleep deprivation or his inner competitive drive that led him to impulsively answer “yes” to that late-night query in the summer of 2018, nearly a year later Shane found himself in Oklahoma City filming interviews, telling his family’s story, modeling his firefighter gear for photographers and, finally, running through the qualifying course for American Ninja Warrior while crowds cheered and cameras rolled.
“I’ve always enjoyed American Ninja Warrior, and I have always been active,” he said. “I really enjoy any kind of challenge.”
It wasn’t quite that simple of course. His late night online application was only the first step. Shane set aside the idea for awhile after returning to Abilene but finally he mentioned it to David Hess, head coach at The Forge where Shane, his family, and many others from the Abilene Fire Department work out. Hess didn’t let him set the idea aside any longer.
“We’re going to do this,” he told Shane.
The application required a video in order to be complete the next step, and the staff at The Forge took it on as a special project to help Shane create the video.
“It was really uncomfortable. I really don’t like talking about myself,” he said “But we did it, I submitted it, and then I really didn’t expect anything to come of it.”
Statistically, that expectation was appropriate. About 700,000 people apply for the show each year, and only 600 are invited to come run a qualifying course in one of 6 cities nationwide.
Those stats are why his wife, Jordana, used the word “shocked” to describe her reaction to the phone call in March of 2019 inviting him to participate in the qualifiers in Oklahoma City.
“I knew he was strong enough and capable of competing, but so many people apply, I really thought it would be a long shot to actually get to run,” she said. ”Then I got emotional and cried.”
His friend and fellow Abilene firefighter Ryan Ware, on the other hand, found it to be par for the course that Shane would become Abilene’s Ninja Warrior.
“I was surprised he applied, but I wasn’t surprised he was chosen,” Ware said. “Shane is an extremely talented person. He’s the guy that every other guy is a little bit jealous of. We give him a hard time because he, truthfully, is usually the best at anything he tries. And while being one of the most humble guys I know, he’s also very competitive, although he’d probably never admit it.”
There wasn’t much time to dwell on the shock or excitement, as the qualifier event took place about a month after receiving the phone call. Those 10 months or so since he initially applied had been filled with caring for his three boys, all of whom have Cystic Fibrosis, studying for (and receiving) a promotion to Lieutenant within the fire department, running his local business Free Flow Gutters, and his usual workouts and training with perhaps a little extra focus on grip strength, just in case.
Monthly trips to Cook Children’s took on the added benefit of opportunity to visit ninja obstacle gyms in Fort Worth, Farmers Branch, Frisco, etc.
“I’d say before the qualifier I went maybe five times total,” Shane said. “Two weekends leading up and once we took the whole family. Those visits were a treat for the boys too, getting to visit the kids obstacle gyms.”
Hayden, who is a year old, and Hank, 3, were a bit young to understand, but 6-year-old Hutton watched American Ninja Warrior re-runs almost every night leading up to the competition and repurposed household objects as backyard obstacles to run his own course.
“He pretends our slide is his ‘warped wall’ and even makes us chant “Beat that wall!” while he runs up it,” Jordana said. “He just had a Ninja Warrior themed birthday party this summer.”
Firefighters in the Abilene Fire Department work out at least an hour every day on shift, and go through annual incentive-based fitness training, so Shane was already working out on a daily basis. He is a regular at The Forge bootcamps, focusing on functional movements, strength, cardio, and circuit training. Shane’s degree is in exercise science, and Jordana is a nutritionist, so their family already focused on healthy eating. For the final month of training, Shane practiced intermittent fasting and lost 7 or 8 pounds and brought his body fat down to 8 percent.
The American Ninja Warrior competition begins with qualifying runs on an obstacle course set up in six U.S. cities, Of the 70,000, 100 are selected for qualifiers in each city. In past years, those not selected by application could wait (often for days) in a walk-on line. This year, the walk-on process was done by lottery to fill 10 spots. The top 30 finishers from each qualifying round go on to finals in that city and then the top 15 from finals go to the competition in Las Vegas. And that’s how Shane became Abilene’s Ninja Warrior.
After the walk-ons, Shane was the second person to compete out of the 100 selected through application. Although he was glad to go early rather than waiting, he later thought it might have been helpful to see more people go through each obstacle.
“I was nervous,” he said. “I felt strongly about my goal to raise awareness for CF but I don’t love being center of attention. In the obstacles specifically, I was most nervous about balance obstacles. I felt confident in my grip strength. It ended up being the swinging and gymnastic technique that got me.”
Shane made it through the first obstacle, the Shrinking Steps – five ascending platforms with slanted sides that decrease in size. He also completed a multiple-trapeze obstacle called the Wing Swing, but he fell on the third obstacle called Fly Wheels, which involved swinging between three suspended wheels with grips on the side.
“You have to swing back and forth, from a big wheel down to a smaller wheel then back up to another big wheel, and I didn’t have the technique to get up to the third,” he said.
Win or lose, Shane had a cheering section that was second to none. Most participants are offered 10 guest tickets. Shane kept asking for more and getting them. More than 40 friends and family traveled to Oklahoma and stayed awake for the middle-of-the-night filming to support Abilene’s Ninja Warrior.
“it was so fun,” Jordana said. “I was a nervous mess, just because I wanted him to do well and not feel disappointed with his run. I was going to be proud no matter how he did, but I wanted him to feel good about it too! The obstacles were huge from the sidelines, and all the lights were pretty neat to see in person.”
Ware said the experience confirmed his admiration for Shane (Abilene’s Ninja Warrior) and all the competitors.
“It was unbelievable, very surreal. Obviously you watch that stuff on TV and sometimes think to yourself, ‘I bet I could do that,’” Ware said. “Seeing the set and the obstacles in person solidified the fact that I cannot. Cheering for Shane was awesome. He and his family are the people of this world that deserve a good cheer every now and then. When you couple the setbacks they’ve had to overcome and the grace in which they’ve done it, it’s like, ‘you deserve way more than just some cheers.’ It was also amazing seeing his boys watch him. You know he was their hero that night.”
Shane’s boys can look forward to watching their hero try again next year. He’ll do the same process – fill out an application, create and submit a video, then wait for a call – and he feels confident about his chances.
“I know what to expect now, and this year I can spend more time in the gyms in Dallas,” Shane said. “Hutton asked me, ‘Will we build an obstacle course in the backyard?’ I don’t know about that, but I’ll find ways to replicate the motions and the muscles used. It’s a big advantage now just knowing what the process is like.”
There you go, Abilene’s Ninja Warrior.
Abilene’s Ninja Warrior
By Wendy Kilmer
Photography by Beth Dukes