photos courtesy of Spencer Johnson and by Nate Sohn
American Ninja Warriors challenge their bodies, not assassins.
Spencer Johnson makes it look easy. He bounces around the floor of Infinity Gymnastics like he’s taunting gravity, finishing his run by throwing himself into a full-twist layout for good measure. He then pops up onto the parallel bars to bust out some vertical pushups for a minute before settling back down to the ground. He doesn’t seem to break a sweat.
It’s probably because it’s all part of an average day at work for him. A boys’ gymnastics coach, and a one-time Olympic hopeful, Johnson navigates the trampolines, salmon ladder and other obstacles with unsurprising confidence at the Urbandale, Iowa gym.
He seems to attack the room, just like he attacked the obstacles on the American Ninja Warrior course last summer. The NBC show is notorious for sending athletes jumping, climbing and running through an extreme obstacle course that seemingly tests every muscle in the body. Johnson was only the second Iowan — the first was his cousin Tyler Smith — to compete on the show. Johnson made it all the way to the finals in Las Vegas. Now he’s trying to spread the ninja lifestyle to the heartland, opening Emerge Academy, a ninja gym for all ages.
“We’re gonna take anybody … whether they just want to get stronger or go to the Olympics or be the next Ninja Warrior,” Johnson says. “We’re going to find what’s great about each person because there’s something great in everybody.”
Though Johnson has a knack for cultivating greatness in himself, the 30-year-old’s journey to this point was a rickety one. Spencer’s mother, Karin Johnson, describes her son as a hyperactive child who was always sick, often to the point of hospitalization.
“Other kids would get colds, but Spencer would get really sick,” she says. One infection was so bad, Johnson found himself tripping over his own feet, unable to walk normally or see and speak clearly.
“I almost died,” he says. “I had to relearn how to speak, and I needed vision therapy for a year.”
Upon recovery, Johnson didn’t take slow steps toward returning to normalcy — he ran. Everywhere. Any outlet for his apparently uncontrollable energy was welcome, but none more so than gymnastics. When it came time to devote himself to either soccer or gymnastics, he looked at his mother and said, “Mom, soccer is my hobby. Gymnastics is my life.”
And for the next 17 years, it was. First, he trained locally. Then regionally. Finally, he gained the attention of former U.S. Olympian John Macready, who invited Johnson to train at his camp in Tennessee. This only solidified Johnson’s Olympic ambitions and pushed him to train harder and longer than he ever had.
“I almost died. I had to relearn how to speak, and I needed vision therapy for a year.”
“I was pretty much just an average Joe who never stopped trying,” Johnson says. The nonstop effort paid off when he competed in the Olympic Qualifiers in 2012. He finished in the top 30 — an impressive feat, but not enough to take him to the Olympics. Johnson took the hit hard. “[Not making it] was awful,” Johnson says. “In a lot of ways I had made gymnastics my identity. I knew that it was time [to retire], but I was terrified.”
He spent the next year of his life in a haze, plagued by the uncertainty ahead of him. But in 2013, Johnson discovered American Ninja Warrior. Encouraged by a friend, he decided to audition for the show and got accepted. Just like that, he was all in: the flexibility and strength required of ninja warriors came naturally. His balance was impeccable, his strides strong, leaps long, mind screaming for the chance to compete again. He’d found a new calling.
The day before the competition, though, things went bad. He took one last run up the Warped Wall — a more than 14-foot-tall obstacle resembling a skateboard half pipe that Johnson struggled with — and his achilles snapped. After countless days and hours training, Johnson’s Ninja Warrior aspirations came tumbling down before the competition even started.
“In a lot of ways I had made gymnastics my identity. I knew that it was time [to retire], but I was terrified.”
A yearlong recovery, two hospitalizations due to conditions related to overexertion and a long period of listlessness, Johnson came to a life-changing realization: Greatness is defined in more than one way. For him, greatness wouldn’t come in an Olympic medal or by slapping the Ninja Warrior buzzer on top of the Warped Wall, and that was okay.
“I had to accept where I was in life,” Johnson says. “This is a stepping stone to wherever I’m going to go.”
Johnson’s goals changed. Instead of working exclusively on himself and his own skills, he poured his energy into coaching and helping others find strength in themselves. A new dream was born: Emerge Academy.
“Emerge Academy was like a step out of the darkness and into the light,” Johnson says.
Though Johnson had once again found joy in coaching, his Ninja Warrior dreams haven’t been truly dashed. After spending a season cheering on his cousin, Johnson felt the call once again at the end of 2016. This time, he made it all the way to the final round of competition in Vegas, where the clock, not obstacles or injury, bested him by just seconds.
“I did the best I could,” Johnson says. “I couldn’t have done anything differently.” Satisfied with his performance, Johnson is focusing on opening his gymnastics and Ninja Warrior gym in January 2018 with his wife, Katie.
As for a third attempt at competing on American Ninja Warrior: “The experience was just so unreal,” Johnson says. “I can’t imagine not doing it again.”