Achieving dreams and beating the odds as ‘ninjas’

By Kimberly Ortiz

Two Rider graduates were flying high, jumping hurdles and dodging obstacles to try and prove that they had what it took to be ninjas.

Greg Smith, ’15, and Anthony DeFranco, ’15, both competed on NBC’s hit show, “American Ninja Warrior,” first appearing in the Philadelphia qualifying round that aired across the nation on June 27 and 28.

On the show, currently in its eighth season, contestants are required to run, climb and jump through a series of physically demanding obstacle courses in an attempt to win the title and a $1 million grand prize.

Although Smith fell in the Philadelphia qualifying round on the paddle boards obstacle, where the competitor must run across elevated paddles which tilt under pressure, he kept his spirits high and cheered on his friend and training partner, DeFranco, from the sidelines.

DeFranco, an accounting major, finished the grueling course with the fastest time of the night, 1:44:37, and advanced into the Philadelphia Finals, where he did not finish the course, but remained in the top 15, advancing him to stage 1 of the Las Vegas National Finals.

Stage 1 aired on Sept. 5, but DeFranco’s time as a ninja was cut short when he fell on the jumping spider obstacle.

DeFranco had dreamt of competing on the show since he was about 13 years old, after growing up watching the Japanese version on TV. After four years of collegiate track, DeFranco decided to try out.

“It was a great time to chase my dream,” he said.

Smith, a secondary education major, competed under the name “The Scarred Ninja,” a reference to a scar Smith received during a life-changing surgery to treat testicular cancer.

After being diagnosed with Stage 2 testicular cancer four years ago, Smith is now cancer free.

According to Smith, the support he has gained from being on the show has been “great.”

“We both got a lot of love from our friends and family, and also made a lot of new friendships,” he said.

While the audience may think running and jumping through hurdles and barriers looks easy on television, both Smith and DeFranco agreed that the training process was long and difficult.

Smith, who believes his strengths to be in the lower-body area, said that he really had to work on his upper-body skills, something that “American Ninja Warrior” is known for. DeFranco, however, did a mixture of trainings.

“I continued doing sprints from my track background and did a lot of rock climbing,” he said.

On most weekends, both Smith and DeFranco would train together by taking classes at a movement lab, or a “ninja gym,” training facilities specifically designed to help hopefuls become familiar with the show’s obstables.

Although the two former college roommates both had to keep a low profile until the show aired, they still received well wishes from not only friends and family, but from former professors as well.

“It’s crazy to see how many people watch the show,” DeFranco said.

Along with adults watching, youth around the world witnessed these men successfully tackle obstacles, demonstrating that with hard work and dedication, anything is possible.

“I made sure to influence kids as much as I could and [teach them] that hard work does pay off,” DeFranco said.

Although Smith and DeFranco did not earn the title of “American Ninja Warrior,” they plan on returning to run the course next season.

The experience as a whole was certainly one that both Smith and DeFranco say they will never forget. For Smith, having others hear his story means everything.

“Getting on the show definitely helped get my story out there,” he said. “It now has pushed me even more to go out there and show people you can overcome big obstacles in your life.”


Printed in the 9/21/16 edition.

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