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Chicago Gets Its First Ninja Warrior Gym — Sorry Grown Ups, It's For Kids

By  Patty Wetli and Kelly Bauer | September 26, 2016 5:49am | Updated on September 27, 2016 11:23am

 Junior Ninja Warriors
Junior Ninja Warriors
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IRVING PARK — Allow us to enter into evidence Junior Ninja Warriors as proof positive that adulthood is not an upgrade over childhood.

While grown-ups sweat it out on the treadmill or rowing machine, kids at the new Junior Ninja Warriors gym at 2915 W. Montrose Ave. will be racing up the warped wall, climbing the salmon ladder and leaping across the quad steps.

The obstacles are slightly scaled-down versions of the ones that competitors tackle on the popular NBC television series "American Ninja Warrior."

Patty talks about how she fared on the Ninja course.

"This feels exactly like the show," said Ethan Swanson, who's competed on three seasons of "American Ninja Warrior."

Swanson, a YouTube sensation for his "Epic Roof Jump" video, will be a full-time instructor at the junior gym. Karen Sabo, a competitor two seasons ago on the TV show, is on board part-time.

"It's super cool," declared 10-year-old Norah Cervenka. "It's a lot of fun."

"The whole idea is agility, core, balance, strength and endurance," said Jackie Piejak, co-owner of the gym with her husband, Jeff.

"The best part — you get a workout and don't even realize it," she said.

The couple hit upon the idea for the gym — the first of its kind within city limits — last year while watching an episode of "American Ninja Warrior" with their daughters Izzy, 10, and Hadley, 7.

When the elder Piejaks looked up from the TV, they noticed the girls were gone — they were out in the backyard foraging for items to create their own ninja course.

"We thought, 'Wait a second, there's something here,'" Jeff Piejak said.

To build the gym, the couple turned to Brian Pankratz of Obstacle Consultants, based in Rockford, Mich., outside of Grand Rapids.

Pankratz created his own ninja course three years ago for a fundraiser, and when 5,000 people showed up for the event, he realized he'd tapped into a still-cresting wave.

This year's event drew 15,000 attendees, the largest ninja event in the world, Pankratz said.

"What the show and event stands for is friendly competition. It's overcoming obstacles, it builds confidence and strength," he said.

The other allure: "It's not often you get to watch something on TV and then go do it yourself," said Pankratz, who himself is a fan of anything "where you're flying through the air."

The Junior Ninja Warriors course is designed for youngsters ages 6 through 15, with flexibility built into each obstacle, allowing it to be made easier or more challenging depending on the participant's age and skill level.

A wobbly balance beam obstacle, for example, can be adjusted to create more or less stability. The quad steps — blocks that competitors leapfrog across — can be placed closer together or farther apart.

"Ninja is like no other team sport," said Sabo, a former soccer player. "Everybody is in your camp. You're always seeing improvement."

"It's everyone against the course," Swanson said of the collegial environment among participants.

Ninja is also an egalitarian sport, with men and women competing on the same course.

"That's why I like it," Sabo said. "Each year, there's more and more women on the show. That's so inspiring to see."

Safety is built into the junior ninja course — two-inch mats everywhere, eight-inch mats surrounding tougher obstacles — and so is failure.

Of the 3,500 competitors who've taken part in "American Ninja Warrior," only two have mastered the entire course. Everyone else has been stymied in their efforts, and that's something Swanson said he's looking forward to teaching junior warriors.

"Everyone has failed on an obstacle — it's a way to learn," Swanson said.

Strategizing how to overcome a challenge, building the skills to succeed, that's "something [kids] can take with them in their day-to-day lives," he said.

Junior Ninja Warriors is registering students for upcoming classes, which run for 12 weeks and cost $300. The space also can be booked for private parties.

On weekends, Junior Ninja Warriors has open gym hours from 9 a.m. to noon. Individuals can reserve space in advance or drop in. The cost is $10 per person for one hour or $18 per person for two hours.

During the gym's grand opening this week, open gym will be held every day (click here).

In the coming months, the gym will add programs for ninjas 5 years old and younger. Depending on feedback and demand, Junior Ninja Warriors might even open itself to "senior" ninjas, the Piejaks said.

"I watch them and they're 10 years old and I'm like, 'Man if you can do that, I probably can too,' and I want to go try it," Jackie Piejak said.

Karen Sabo makes climbing the spider wall look easy — it's not. [All photos DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

The climbing wall at Junior Ninja Warriors is 12 feet tall.

Norah Cervenka takes a leap of faith into the ropes while instructor Ethan Swanson stands guard.

Karen Sabo conquers the devil steps.

Junior Ninja Warriors, 2915 W. Montrose Ave., is the first of its kind within Chicago's city limits.

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