OK THEN.  After a very long weekend, Rose and I are home from the World Ninja League Season IX World Championships. Here's the skinny chonky:

Rose had an interesting choice to make at the very beginning of this season, after aging out of the Young Adult division. Does she compete against the Adults (18-40 years old…so, a few peers, but also, some ninja moms and aunties), or against the Elites (basically the pros, folks who have been on the American Ninja Warrior tv show, have sponsorships, show up on the marketing materials, and all that)?  With a little help from an unfavorable run-order schedule in her first competition of the season-- she had a theater obligation that conflicted with the Adult division run time on Sunday, so she HAD to compete with the Elites on Saturday, gosh darn it-- she eventually chose the Elites, on the (quite accurate, as it turned out) theory that she probably wouldn’t be challenged enough in the adult division.

Then her senior year of HS got super busy, with two plays and choir concerts (like last year) and a school trip abroad plus we took a vacation of our own this winter (unlike last year) and between it all, she only made it to two season IX competitions, total. Both of which she won 😂 which should have smashed that whole “what if I can’t keep up with the pros” question/problem into a million pieces, but she did not have much competition in those two late-season events; most of the elite women had already qualified and were either sitting out or nursing injuries. Still, winning any event qualifies you for the Regional meet.

The New England Regional went…ok. She qualified for Worlds, but finished off the podium, after winning the YA division last year and being picked by the Commentators as one of the favorites this year, even though she moved up a level. She was pretty happy with her runs, which included solving a brand new weird/fun/difficult obstacle on the challenge course, the donuts:

and getting a buzzer within the time limit on the flow course despite her shoes slipping on literally every other step for the whole last segment:

The Buzzer was kind of a big deal honestly, she hadn't gotten one in competition in quite a while!  The flow course has a time limit just like the challenge course, plenty of people timed out without reaching the buzzer.  So that was pretty cool.  She was pretty vexed, though, that every Elite woman fell on the same challenge course obstacle as her (they beat her because they got to that point in the course a smidgen faster). “We should be better than this. All these women are elites, they train like demons, SOMEONE should have gotten farther than me!” Those Boomerang Devil Steps were really hard though; way more slippery than expected and also a further back/up gorilla pullup than expected, and all the elite women fell either right at the beginning where Rose did, or else when trying to navigate between the up and down sections, which were not only 5 feet apart but also offset a few feet to the side.

Rose ended up 4th.  Some self-doubt came with this result, and she mentally prepared herself to get shut out of any awards or recognition at World's. I would have worried, but Rose has finally found a stellar therapist, and worked through all of this with them. She was good to go, whatever happened.

But also, a funny thing happened at Regionals: her home gym, the Vermont Ninja Warrior Training Center, qualified TWENTY TWO PEOPLE for the 2024 World’s. That’s more than double the amount they ever sent before, across almost every age group from 8 year olds to adults. A couple of those kids, including the youngest, took a summer camp where R. was a coach/counselor and decided to keep training. Some came over from gymnastics, same as R.  Some have just been training at the gym a while and put together a great run to qualify. Whatever! They all qualified, and only two of them couldn't make the trip (because of the cost...already thinking about how to crowdfund or otherwise fundraise a pool to help everyone get there next year).

We immediately booked a room at the Biltmore Greensboro again, and signed up for a late Thursday night open gym session at a place called LevelUp, so we could get registered and get our event wristbands without having to wait in the excessively long lines at the Greensboro coliseum.  What I didn't realize until much too late to make changes was: the WNL split up this year's event across FOUR full days instead of the usual compressed Friday evening -> Sunday evening spread. Whoops. So we weren't in town in time for the opening ceremonies on Thursday, and we missed some Monday night events, which was a shame as we knew two people still running courses at 10pm Monday night 😮

After landing and driving the 90 minutes from Charlotte to Greensboro-- one direct flight + some extra miles on the car that I will be renting anyway is a better plan, to me, than the possibility of missed connections in both directions, and it is usually cheaper-- we check in, say hi to the lovely staff at the Biltmore, grab a quick early dinner, and Rose starts asking me to check the run order again.

"You run stage 1 in wave 1 on Friday, which starts at 2"

"Yes, but who on our team runs first, and when?"

Well, shoot...I wasn't tracking all that. So we spend the time in between dinner and open gym clicking around the WNL website, checking run orders and wave start times across every age group. Her coaches made a spreadsheet with some of this info, but Rose needs more specifics: "If Roger runs skills right at 8am, we should be able to get over to Stage 1 in time to see Gwen and Finley, they run uhhh eighth and fourteenth and the stage 1 time limit is always at least a minute and a half...uh...soooooo...is it ok if we get to the coliseum early every day? I really want to support the team..."

Is it ok 🙄 Oh my sweet supportive sproglet, my only job here is to get you where you need to be, when you need to be there.  If that means we are in the building every day at 7, before people have to check in and warm up for their wave, then that's what we are doing! Even if that means a mediocre continental breakfast and marginal coffee. By the time we leave that evening for LevelUp, she has sent the group chat a list of everyone's estimated start times, across the whole weekend, and if people qualified for stage 2 or stage 3, she sent out regular updates as soon as the new run order was posted.

Level up is a fantastic if grungy gym in an industrial park, set up for pre-World's Open Gym with as many different kinds of obstacles as they can manage. Rose gets in her usual warmups, runs the balance obstacles, works on some cliffhangers, then finds a complicated apparatus that can be done normally or...hard mode, with a "flip this part then catch the other side and launch yourself to that tiny grip over there".  She sees the hard mode, tries it, falls.  A few more attempts, and now there are three other people lined up to try the same trick. Nobody lands it. One of the new folks is a girl close to Rose's age, they start chatting, turns out Lily is from South Australia, probably the furthest anyone traveled for this year's event! Lily is reserved where Rose is bubbly, lean where Rose is jacked, but she's obviously talented. They move over to the 15 foot warped wall, where Rose has a score to settle; she got her fingers on the rim multiple times last year but couldn't get up it.  This time, it takes her 3 tries and she is hanging from the top! Lily can't quite get up there but gains quite a bit of extra height with Rose offering suggestions. (Rose doesn't add Lily to the team list, but she does put her on her personal list of starting times, we wind up seeing 2 of her runs, Lily and her mom watch all of Rose's exploits, and the two of them were exchanging tips all weekend long. Super nice folks!)

Then, oh no!  Roger, one of the younger VT kids who qualified, was trying a big move and ripped a callous off his palm the size of a nickel 😕 Rose to the rescue; she has experience with this, and advice, but her kit bag of bandages, tape, and ointment is back at the hotel, so we will have to meet up with Roger first thing in the morning to help him get some protective cover on that rip. We send him and dad off with care instructions. Now we have even more of a reason to arrive right as things open in the morning, so we head back to the hotel and crash early so Rose can still get a full night's sleep.

Friday morning, and we are there right as the Coliseum opens up, along with the majority of the team, who saw Rose's schedule texts and immediately got on board. Which resulted in a weekend-long HYPE SQUAD. As much as the schedule permitted, the whole crew showed up to cheer each other on. They were completely obnoxiously enthusiastic about it. The Vermont crew was by far the loudest team here; several referees joked with the athletes about it as they waited on the starting block for the cheers to settle down.

(Yours truly might have contributed to the cheering. A little.)

In between events, the team clumped on the floor or in the bleachers or on top of the folded up bleachers until security told them to get down (ninjas…they’re gonna climb, you gotta hang signs or something if you want to deter it). R. used her Body Markers to draw flowers on everyone (she draws at least one full sleeve worth on herself for every competition; the body markers let her change colors as she sees fit). Obstacle tips were shared for people who hadn’t yet run a particular course. There was much laughter. In-jokes and memes were birthed. Much bonding. Very team. Wow.

She even kept one of the parents in line; Danielle, one of the more nervous of the bunch, new to Ninja, ex-gymnast, running in the teen division where they really crank up the difficulty...fell super early. She bounced up and ran out the clock, clearing some tricky obstacles along the way, but she was near tears the whole time 😕 She exits the course, and her mom is waiting and about to lay it on thick with the "We are still so proud of you" chat and Rose basically gave her a little kick on the side of the foot and whispered "No, shhh, not now, she isn't proud of herself, wrong time for that message!" (Mom confided in me later that yep, "Rose was completely right, I'm glad she kept me from making it worse, what a perceptive daughter you have, she is such a sweetheart to show so much love and care to all these kids, etc."). So Rose grabs Danielle by the elbow and leads her away to a quiet corner and told her all about her up and down history with World's: her first, she foot faulted at the start of the course and finished dead last (there were other issues with that World's which was run by the other, smaller, less-well-run, far-less-global Ninja league, UNAA). Her second World's, at this very venue, she got overly confident, fell on an uneccessary skip move on a trivial obstacle, and blew her chance to win the World Championship outright (some readers will recall this story from 2 years ago).  Rose was maybe the only person who could deploy this tactic, plus after training with Danielle 3x a week, she saw things to specifically compliment. Did everything magically get better? No, of course not, and Danielle and her mom had the kind of late night chat that Rose and I had two years ago. Maybe minus the cosmology and particle physics parts. But it helped, and Danielle came back ready to go for her Skills on Saturday.

That is just one example, but Rose was everywhere for everyone. Leading the cheers. Making sure every athlete got mobbed after a good run. Helping Roger with hand care, again. Telling the two 10 year olds on the team how to handle the obstacles that looked maybe a little too long/tall for them. In the warm-up area, I watch as Hannah, the young lady in my 2023 recap whom I believe Rose inspired years ago, find Rose, big smiles, now they are strategizing together, pointing at obstacles and miming different grips and tactics.  All of which, huh, funny, gave her incredible amounts of energy and also distraction and selflessness and a sense of community and a feeling of being present in this exact moment, and when her turn on the starting block came for stage 1, she said that for once, she really did feel like it was any given Saturday at the gym, with her friends loudly cheering her on but also…kinda…it was just her and the obstacles in front of her. Focused. Poised. Electric.

The spell was broken briefly though, because the woman running right before Rose took a very bad fall at the end of her run. A land on your neck, roll the wrong direction, oh god please wiggle your toes kind of fall. There was one of these last year too, they have on site paramedics who brought out the backboard and carried that kid out for x-rays (he was fine, but it was scary). This time...I dunno, they had her on her feet awfully fast for my liking. Rose looked like she wanted to run over and help (she did want to).  Rose also, for the second year running, sent in her post-World's survey with an impassioned screed to please for the love of god put cloud mats under the most aggressive obstacles! It's not only safer, it makes for a better competition, because athletes who feel safe take bigger risks!

They got the previous girl on her feet and off the course for some more evaluation, and now it's Rose's turn, and wow, ok, that calm any-given-Saturday feeling came back.  Cutting to the chase: she cleared stage 1, hit her first ever buzzer at the World Championships, and qualified fourth overall for stage 2! 💪 🥲 (yes, I cried a little…she has worked so hard for this, over the last 8 years, through injuries and setbacks, skill stagnation and renewal, varying commitment levels for reasons having nothing to do with her love of the sport…but on Friday she put it all together).  I did not know this until yesterday, but in the history of the WNL World's, it was only last year that ANY elite female got the stage 1 buzzer, and only 3 accomplished it. This year, only seven did. That is some exclusive company! Here is her run from my vantage point in the stands:

The WNL official photographer got this shot of Rose hugging her coach Chris, with the smoke from the buzzer wafting in the background, which is such a phenomally composed and tangibly emotional picture that they made it the cover shot for the day 1 recap post on Instagram!

Coach Chris and Rose embracing after she cleared the stage one course and hit the buzzer in the elite female division of the WNL Season IX Championships.

Seriously, it's one of the best pictures from the entire event, yes I am biased but come on, that's an epic shot.  We've been talking about her stage 1 run since, of course, and Rose admits that this buzzer really did reframe and recontextualize her entire experience with this sport over the past couple years. After Regionals, she was ready to not accomplish much and get blown off these courses by the pros. But "No, brain, you were wrong, I AM good enough to run with this crowd, I DO belong in this division, sometimes I fall or fail like everyone else and that's ok, it's a fundamental part of the sport." 

Case in point: Rose has always been exceptional on the balance obstacles, she trains them constantly, but she seems to be an outlier in this? Those narow rollers she ran through on the end of the first lane, before the ropes...they posed no problem at all for her. The first and fourth are locked, the middle 2 spun freely. Younger divisions had more rollers and more of them locked; I think the Teen and Elite male divisions had the first one locked and the rest freely spinning. Honestly, this was only an average/standard balance test, they come in much harder varieties, but it took out a HUGE number of people in every wave, even the Elites! Last year's elite male winner, Tyler Smith, the first guy to ever clear all three stages at World's, fell on the balance.  Joe Moravsky, a famous ninja I have written about before-- yes, I finally did catch up with him and thank/congratulate him for his compassionate and nuanced response to questions at a meet and greet 2 years ago, from a nonbinary kid who was looking for validation to run with the boys even though they were AFAB-- fell on the balance. Two time world champion and show favorite Isabella Wakeham fell on the balance. One of the girls who bested Rose at Regionals fell on the balance (the other two fell on the last obstacle with the big swings, maybe in part because they no longer had the nerve to go for it after seeing that awful fall before Rose's run). Failure is a fundamental part of the sport!

The rest of Friday was spent cheering on her team and getting random kudos and congrats from strangers everywhere she went.  She was the first in her division to clear stage 1, because her small number of competitions pushed her early in the run order; I don't think anyone else in her wave made it through.  Her coach Sonic was in the 6pm wave, so we stayed for that, but we knew her stage 2 wave started at 8am (even though she wouldn't run until after 9 because she is seeded so high, she still had to check in at 7:30). We left the coliseum as early as we could, stopped by Food Lion for fresh fruit, veggies, kombucha, and epsom salts, dropped all that at the hotel, and turned right around for dinner.

As much as we love our hole in the wall pizza joint, this seems like a night for healthier food with more veggies and less cheese. Score, there is a fancy taco joint across the street, and since it is just the two of us, yes, they can seat us immediately.  We sit down, I look to my left and the kid sitting there has a WNL Finalist wristband just like Rose! We start chatting, and what are the odds, it's another kid from South Australia 😂 His first Worlds, running with the mature kids division (10-11 years old), his event hasn't started yet, he's nervous, what group do you run in? Oh WOW, any tips for the candy cane obstacle on stage 1? What about the Swords? When do you do Skills? and we don't get our order in for like, 20 minutes, because again, great people and fun chatting.  At one point the dad says "Ok, Jake has skills at 10:40, so we should be able to come by and, what do you all say, you 'root' for each other?" and I'm laughing because ah, yes, Aussies do not "root" for things, and thanks to the internet I know why 😂 they say good night and leave, we finally get our fantastic food ("Crafted" in downtown Greensboro, highly recommended), then back at the hotel Rose gets in a quick epsom salt bath, and we are in bed by 9:30.

As is usual, Stage 2 was a long, almost completely airborn grip endurance test, and Rose peeled off at the intentionally designed crux point that took out 75% of the stage 2 athletes in every single age group. But she was fast enough to get through to stage 3; ALSO a first for her!  Her entire team is there screaming, and all the Aussies showed up to watch her and cheer as well.  It was very sweet.  Here is the video her coach took on the course while running chalk and giving advice; I love how, at the end, she was less bothered by falling than she was by the fact that she didn't get to try the big gears obstacle, which is the sort of thing very few gyms in the country have, you only see them at Worlds.

After her Stage 2 run, after being swarmed by her team, Rose finds me in the stands and we sit for a moment with our smuggled in fruits and veggies. Behind us, a young woman is explaining the Stage 2 obstacles to her dad, Rose pipes in with a comment, and we quickly figure out that Esperanza also runs with the Elite Female cohort, she fell on the balance on stage 1, she's only been doing ninja for 18 months after being a gymnast all the way through college, yada yada yada ok we are friends now. We get up to go cheer on somebody else over on the Discipline circuit when Esperanza's dad, with his heavy accent (not sure, some flavor of South American? not Brazil but perhaps Peruvian or Argentine?), tells Rose: "You, you have a great style and a presence out there. You dress different than all these girls, you approach the course different, you do the art on your arms. You don't see it, but I see it, all these kids watching, they are picking their idols, their heroes, who they wanna be like when they get older, and a lot of them, they are looking at you!  You do all this in a way, you stand out, people see you!  Some of them are gonna wanna be like you, because you, you have a style!" which I am very poorly paraphrasing, but the vibe is accurate. It was just the sweetest, most earnest bucket of compliments ever.

Later that evening. Rose gets to run Stage 3, the “fun” course with the amped up difficulty, no time limit, and new / strange obstacles. For anyone who cleared both prior stages, it’s also where the World Champion will be determined; but for all these athletes it is a mad ninja scientists’s playground. Or laboratory, whichever. She got about halfway through it before falling, but was DQ’d early on for what I would call a clever abuse of the rules, and they just called a fault.

That obstacle where you need to use the swinging platform to open the doors?  They said hands only on the cliffhanger and no kicking the doors. Rose thought maybe kicking the cliffhanger while still holding the prior obstacle would fly, but the refs disagreed. Ah well, it was worth a try.  She wishes she could have gotten that last cliffhanger going around the corner, but her grip is toast at this point.

More cheering for her team, another Food Lion run, another late dinner, another epsom salt bath, and another good 8 hours of sleep. I swear, she got more sleep in 4 days last weekend than in any whole week of school her entire senior year.

Sunday was the skills/discipline circuit, with speed, endurance, and technical challenges. Endurance, she moved through smoothly and efficiently and posted a strong time but eventually got knocked down to 10th;

The Tech discipline was another tactical mostrosity, with huge risk/reward vectors and multiple ways to skip sections; nobody was going to win this event without making some kind of incredibly risky move. Here is Rose's attempt, wherein she got 3 out of 4 points; she wound up 17th here.  Only 4 women hit this particular buzzer. Hey, also, remember this course, I will return to it in a separate post next week (he said foreshadowingly).

It's hard to tell, but that last obstacle before the buzzer, you are supposed to push the blue PCV tube through the holes in the blocks (which are completely out of play), while hanging from it, to get yourself segment by segment close enough to reach the buzzer.  Some folks pushed the tube forward while still standing on the platform, and tried to horse it with one big swing from the second or third gap between the blocking-boxes to the buzzer; others tried to swing on the rope hard enough to get launch velocity. Most of those folks failed because they lost all their swing when the rope collided with some part of the rigging, the skill was designed to discourage that particular move, but I DID see one or two people successfully hit the buzzer with just the rope. This was always going to be the part where people got dangerously creative, and I also saw people hitting their head, elbow, wiping out on the balance at the beginning, and falling in every possible way from the PVC in that last segment. 

By Sunday, it was pretty well known that the Speed discipline course had a known design flaw. Exploit? Flaw. It’s basically a straight line race, a balance test ->variations on monkey bars->more balance test->get past two 6 foot tall walls->12 foot warped wall. The 6 foot walls were propped up with triangular braces that came up about 3 feet.  Most people went straight over the walls, using a wide variety of techniques, but on the prior days a couple ninjas tried going around the side. You had to have a hand on the top; you had to start from the narrow blue mat beforehand and end on the (offset!) narrow blue mat afterwards without stepping off either side; and you could not so much as graze any part of the bracing/feet/stanchion with a tippy toe, or the refs would fail you.  After the first person exploited this, they cracked down HARD and judged that move to the Nth degree.

None of the women in R’s division had yet tried this move when her turn came, because either they weren't stalking the Discipline courses during their off hours and hadn't seen anyone try it (even though Rose was clearly working on variations in the warm-up area before her wave ran), or else they saw somebody fail at it, and didn't want to take the risk.  Whereas Rose saw opportunity, trusted her(recontextualized)self, went for it, got it. I have done you the courtesy of trimming the linked video below, to spare you my unhinged hollering after seeing that she posted the fastest time in her division so far 😂 Alas, there were still several very good ninjas left to run in her wave and now they were aware of the skip and considering it. Isabella Wakeham tried the move and clipped the bracing with her toe, failing; another athlete came around the wall so hard she spun out and stepped off the offset mat. But two others executed it quickly and safely, which bumped R. to third place overall.

Still and thus, even after stepping up into the most difficult division available to her, going against the best athletes in the world, Rose brought home a bronze medal 🤘

(as you can see from my camera work, I fully expected her to link the entire series of moves without any extra swings, but she landed the second wheel a bit crooked and felt that she had to steady it up).  Remember Esperanza's dad with the comments on Rose's style? Kinda obvious on the podium:

A world class athlete sticking her tongue out at her father from atop the podium after accepting a bronze medal.  "Daaaaaaaaad that's enough photos!"

(Yes I picked the "daaaaaaad that's enough pictures" picture.)

All told, she ended up:

7th overall in the Elite Female World Champion rankings (one spot higher than last year, even though she moved up to the big leagues)

4th on stage 1
16th on stage 2
17th on stage 3
…for 13th on “Stages overall”

3rd in the Speed discipline for bronze hardware
10th on Endurance
17th on Tech
…for 10th place on “Discipline overall”

And taking every placement above summed up and ranking low total to high, she landed 9th on “World’s Strongest Ninja” rankings.

Much much much more importantly: she had THE BEST TIME here. She competed to the level she always expects of herself; she took great care of her team, especially the littles (every parent made some comment to me about R.’s positive impact on their kid), she made new ninja friends (in her division and out, including all the Aussie folks), she got random complements for her style (aesthetic, athletic, and sartorial) from complete strangers…it was a comprehensively validating experience. Ten members of her team made it to stage 2 (!), and her coach Sonic was the first elite male to clear it!  Both of her coaches, Sonic and Chris, plus Rose, plus three other teen/YA kids made it to stage 3, which is a huge accomplishment for such a tiny gym.

Can’t wait for next year 🥰

I was thinking those balance beam steps looked like something I might conceivably pass, until I realized "oh crap, they ROLL", so nope. I'd probably injure myself attempting those things.
You guys are my parenting heroes.
Thanks! but also, Rose has been like this-- the climbing AND the empathy-- since birth, I am just your humble scribe :) It's awesome to see her turn empathy into action, and awesome to have so many other parents see and compliment that...
dude, this kicks so much ass
I have no words. She's an amazing athlete... but she could be that and not be the lovely human you've raised and who got to be in this moment. I'm glad you got to share this with her.
I am too :)