Wrestlers discover American Ninja Warrior

Andrew Philibeck (right) on American Ninja Warrior

Once wrestlers put their shoes on the mat -- the universal indicator they are retiring from the sport -- what are the career options that let them use the skills gained from wrestling?

The most obvious: become a wrestling coach or mat official.

Some have found fame and fortune in the pro wrestling ring or in mixed martial arts. A select few have discovered that the NFL is the place to put their wrestling skills to work on the gridiron. (Just ask Stephen Neal, college and world mat champ who earned three Super Bowl rings playing for the New England Patriots.)

In addition, InterMat has profiled former wrestlers who now put the basics that worked so well for them on the mat -- stance, strength, flexibility, endurance -- to work as a member of a NASCAR pit crew. Last summer, we told the story of Bryce Abbey, the former University of Nebraska-Kearney who was crowned champion on the CBS series Total Knock Out starring Kevin Hart, taking home a grand prize of $150,000.

Others who once wrestled are finding a competitive outlet in American Ninja Warrior.

You might be familiar with American Ninja Warrior from TV, having been broadcast on NBC for a number of years, with fresh episodes currently being shown on the network this summer. It's a spin-off of the wildly popular Japanese series Sasuke.

Here's how NBC describes American Ninja Warrior at its website:

"The action-packed series follows competitors as they tackle a series of challenging obstacle courses in both city qualifying and city finals rounds across the country. Those who successfully complete the finals course in their designated region move on to the national finals round in Las Vegas, where they face a stunning four-stage course modeled after the famed Mt. Midoriyama course in Japan. The winner will take home a grand prize of $1 million."

American Ninja Warrior exists beyond the TV series. There are non-televised competitions across the country… along with Ninja gyms in some cities where individuals can work out in a setting which replicates what viewers see on TV.

Heath Hertel

H.L. Hertel: Author, former wrestler, Ninja believer

Among the participants in American Ninja Warrior (on TV and in non-TV competitions) -- as well as those who work out in Ninja gyms -- are former wrestlers.

One is Heath Hertel. You may recognize Hertel, who, as H.L. Hertel, is the author of the "To Be The Best" series of young adult novels which tell the story of brothers (and high school wrestlers) Ron and Nick Castle, along with assistant coach Sean McCallister.

How did former wrestler-turned-novelist Hertel get involved in American Ninja Warrior?

"My daughter would turn on American Ninja Warrior," Hertel told InterMat. "I don't watch much TV but this show captured my attention."

"I made a promise to her -- 'If you stick with hockey practice, I'll start working out in a Ninja gym.'"

"I started talking to Andrew Philibeck. He had applied for the scholarship fund I had established. Despite having a nasty broken elbow senior year, he ended up as a runner-up at the Wisconsin state tournament."

"He was competing on the University of Wisconsin Ninja team. He said, 'My best friend works at a Ninja gym in Minneapolis.'"

Hertel checked out that Ninja gym and started working out there. "There are different courses -- for example, 'Intro to Obstacles.' You use muscles you normally don't use."

"I now feel comparable to when I was a wrestler in my senior year of high school."

"So many of the guys on the show were high school and/or college wrestlers," Hertel continued. "All the tools that make a successful wrestler makes them good in ninja competition."

"With so many wrestlers doing well at American Ninja Warrior, I thought it might be an option some might want to explore."

With that, wrestler-turned-published-writer Heath Hertel provided contact information on two former wrestlers who now participate in ninja events.

Andrew Philibeck's story

Andrew Philibeck has serious amateur wrestling credentials.

For starters, the twenty-four-year-old grew up in Freedom, Wis., the community that is also the hometown to Garrett Lowney, bronze medalist in Greco-Roman competition at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and University of Minnesota heavyweight early in the 21st century… and Cole Konrad, two-time NCAA heavyweight champ for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in 2006 and 2007 who then launched a successful pro MMA career, winning the Bellator heavyweight belt before retiring.

"I started wrestling in third grade," Philibeck said in an interview with InterMat. "In sixth grade, I switched to basketball, but came back to wrestling in eighth grade."

As Hertel mentioned earlier, Philibeck suffered a serious elbow injury as a senior, yet persevered to make it to the Wisconsin state championship finals. He had also wrestled for the Wisconsin national freestyle team. However, as a member of the University of Wisconsin club team, Philibeck suffered a concussion which ended his wrestling career.

How did this former wrestler get involved in American Ninja Warrior?

"I enjoyed the TV show. Because wrestling had been my life, I decided to try out for American Ninja Warrior," said Philibeck. "I started my training on my own just using monkey bars."

"Then I saw there was a Ninja Warriors College Edition, with teams of three members each. I made it onto a team, and we were flown to Hollywood. We swept the competition and won the national title."

"Our team included Zack Kemmerer, an NCAA All-American wrestler for University of Pennsylvania, and Taylor Amenn, a pole vaulter at Wisconsin," according to Philibeck. "Each team has two guys and one girl."

"There are tons of college teams. We were picked."

"Drew Knopp -- who had been on the NBC American Ninja Warrior show -- started a gym in Green Bay," Philibeck told InterMat.

"Drew, a girl named Sara Heusen, and I were featured as the Wisco Warriors on a USA Network show called American Ninja Warrior: Ninja vs. Ninja in spring 2018. In the finals of our episode, Drew won."

"Filming took place long before our episode was shown on TV," said Philibeck. "We were warned there would be a $100,000 fine if we blabbed the results ahead of time."

How did wrestling help Philibeck in Ninja competition?

"You're used to being in front of people. I really don't notice the cameras or the crowd."

"Wrestling is such a mental sport. You have to be tough to wrestle. Wrestlers have a different mentality. No matter what happens, you keep going. You work harder than others."

"You learn to tune out distractions."

As Philibeck pointed out, in addition to various "flavors" of American Ninja Warrior on TV, there are non-televised competitions all over the country, featuring athletes from various Ninja gyms.

Hunter Guerard

Hunter Guerard, the Lizard

You could say Hunter Guerard inherited his love of the oldest and greatest sport from his father, who had a military background as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot and instructor.

"My dad was a wrestler," Guerard told InterMat. "He would wrestle with me and my brothers when we were stationed overseas in Germany."

"We came to America when dad retired. We were enrolled in wrestling right away in Royalton, Minnesota.

In describing his on-the-mat accomplishments, Guerard modestly said, "I got the standard awards -- all-conference honorable mention, went to state. Did some freestyle and Greco wrestling, too, at 119 pounds."

"I did a little bit of wrestling in college at St. John's. Later transferred to St. Cloud State but didn't wrestle there. But I did some post-collegiate competition, including wrestling in the sand at Battle on the Beach."

"I didn't know about American Ninja Warrior until I was 25 or 26 years old."

"When I was growing up, I watched Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee."

"I saw American Ninja Warriors on TV while I was on vacation. Thought it looked like fun. Looked it up online. Learned that there were guys who trained for it."

"I was working in construction at the time (late 2015). Met a woman who asked if I could help her build a Ninja gym in Edina (a suburb of Minneapolis). Helped her make it a reality."

"We walked into an empty warehouse. Now it's a 6,000 sq. ft. Ninja gym -- a legitimate training facility."

Within a year, that Ninja gym -- Obstacle Academy -- was so popular, groups were being organized by age and ability.

"We even have a "pre" program to help new people get ready for the facility," said Guerard. "We have a few hundred active participants now, and a wait list."

Guerard now participates in the National Ninja League, where he placed third in the first world championship finals, adding "there are events all over the place."

"Thousands of people compete nationally, but only a few make it to TV."

"It's great to still be competing," said the 30-year-old Guerard, who, at 5'7" and 135 pounds, competes as "the Lizard" in Ninja competitions year around.

"I have only three national competitions where I wasn't on the podium."

Guerard said that his amateur wrestling background has been instrumental in his success in national Ninja competition.

"Physically and mentally, Ninja is very similar to wrestling," adding that sometimes there's hand-to-hand fighting, Ninja vs. Ninja.

"I compete all over the country, all year 'round," Guerard said. "The competitive stuff doesn't have to end after your wrestling career."


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