Competing on “American Ninja Warrior” has not only made Justin Gielski stronger, it has also brought his family closer together.
The 2003 Kentlake High School graduate, who now lives in New Jersey, qualified for the national obstacle course in Las Vegas by finishing fifth in the city finals during the filming of the NBC primetime show’s Aug. 17 episode.
Gielski, a member of the New Jersey National Guard, competed in an all-military episode filmed in San Pedro, Calif. Being a veteran, he said, helped his chances of getting on the show. More than 50,000 people submitted audition videos.
“I honestly didn’t think I was going to get picked up,” he said. “It was a long shot.”
Gielski is now a contender, one of 100 who will compete in the first of several national finals that begin airing on KING-5 at 8 p.m. Monday.
After graduating from Kentlake, Gielski, 30, attended community college for about a year and a half before he joined the Air Force, where he met his wife, Shanna. After 6½ years in the Air Force, Gielski transferred to the National Guard four years ago, where he and his wife now work full-time.
“It was a better move for the family,” Gielski said of his decision to join the National Guard. “We can be in the military, but we don’t have to move around. It was a move for our kids (Sophie, 5, and Axel, 4), so they can grow up in an established environment.”
Gielski played football and wrestled at Kentlake, but his best sport was judo, in which he was a state champion as a senior.
He became interested in “Ninja Warrior” as a kid, watching the Japanese version of the show.
“When I was young I used to love jumping over cars,” Gielski recalled. “I remember being at Kentlake and jumping down as many stairs as I could.”
Gielski was visiting his mother a few years ago when he first saw the American version of the show.
“I thought, ‘I could still do this,'” he said.
Gielski started researching how to train for the show and found a parkour/American Ninja Warrior gym near his house.
“Having something to conquer every day gives me the incentive to work out,” he said.
His wife and children also got involved with his training.
“We started doing it together as a family,” he said. “It brought us all together.”
During his run on “American Ninja Warrior,” Gielski became known for “magic fingers,” something he began doing while watching the Seattle Seahawks with his family.
“If they were close to scoring, we would send magic through the TV,” he said.
Gielski and his children also send magic – by wiggling their fingers – to each other when they are facing a hard task or obstacle.
Before his qualifying run, Gielski wanted to acknowledge his wife and children, who were alongside the course. So instead of waving, he sent them magic.
The “American Ninja Warrior” announcers picked up on the gesture, coining it “magic fingers.”
“Everybody loved that,” Gielski said. “It became a big thing. It is kind of neat to see how many people say, ‘My kid loves that.'”
All in the family
Gielski said appearing on the show has also brought his extended family closer together. His mother and her husband, his grandparents, aunt, former stepfather and mother-in-law, watched Gielski compete from the stands in San Pedro. His father went to Las Vegas for his national run.
“It’s been neat to all come together in these different places and have a family reunion,” he said. “I don’t get to see everybody every time (he visits the Seattle area). It’s good for the kids to see their family. That’s been the best part about it.”
Gielski said he was nervous before facing the qualifying course. The show, filmed at night, from sundown to sunup, interrupted his sleep. But once he started running the course, adrenaline kicked in.
Gielski made it through the first four of six obstacles easily but got caught up on the I-beam cross, a customized beam with ledges varying in width from 1 to 3 inches. He completed the first half of the obstacles using his arms and legs but switched to using only his arms at the middle part of beam, where it turns from horizontal to vertical, raises a couple feet and turns back horizontally.
He fell just before the end of the obstacle, but finished 14th out of the 30 competitors who moved on to the finals.
Survive and advance
In the finals course, made up of 10 obstacles – six from the qualifying course and four more – Gielski conquered the I-beam cross and made it to the second-to-the-last obstacle before falling. He finished fifth out of 15 competitors who qualified to run the national course.
Considering how tired he was from his previous day’s run, Gielski was pleased with how well he did on the finals course. The qualifying and finals course runs are filmed in two consecutive days, despite airing weeks apart on TV, giving competitors little time to prepare for their second run.
“I didn’t think I would make it past the first obstacle,” Gielski said, noting that he got little sleep between his runs because he was pumped up from his qualifying effort.
But once Gielski started running, his adrenaline and his family cheering him on propelled him through the course.
Gielski enjoyed the camaraderie and support among the competitors.
“You are competing against each other, but really everyone is competing against themselves,” he said.
Appearing on “American Ninja Warrior” has made Gielski recognizable in his community.
“I will go to the store and people will be like, ‘Are you that Ninja guy?'” he said.
Children seem to recognize him most.
“I think that is cool,” he said. “I am glad I can kind of inspire them.”
Gielski created a Facebook fan page, Justin Gielski – American Ninja Warrior.
He hopes this is just his first year of many to come competing on the show.
“Going into it I kind of thought it would be a one-time thing,” he said. “But now I am going to try to come back as many years as they let me.”
PHOTO BELOW: ‘American Ninja Warrior’ star Justin Gielski draws strength from his family, wife Shanna and children Sophie, 5, and Axel, 4. Gielski’s extended family also has joined him at the competition. Courtesy