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Pitt professor climbs way to 'Ninja Warrior' fame

| Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 10:30 p.m.

There are certain obstacles anyone competing on “American Ninja Warrior” can expect to face, Joel Brady said, including the quintuple steps at the beginning of the course.

However, the Pitt professor could not have foreseen that a snowstorm would hit Denver in early June on the night before he was to compete in the qualifying round of the popular NBC/Esquire Network series.

Temperatures were in the low 30s when his turn came, and the quintuple steps — giant slabs angled downward into a pool of water — were slick. Contestants have to leap to each one, and as those before him fell and splashed into the water, the steps turned icy.

Brady nearly fell into the water, ending his “American Ninja Warrior” run seconds after it started.

He didn't, however, and although the former professional climber didn't finish the course, he performed well enough to advance to the Denver regional finals. The episode featuring Brady airs at 9 p.m. Monday on WPXI-TV.

“There are more tragic things, but that's up there,” said Brady, 33, of Moon. “I nearly went out on the steps, and I was just thinking, ‘I'm not going to get a chance to try the upper-body stuff I know I'll be good at.' ”

Brady, a part-time faculty member in Pitt's Slavic languages and literatures department, teaches courses including Madness and Madmen in Russian Culture, Cross-Cultural Representations of Prison and Vampire: Blood and Empire.

The show's producers latched onto the last course, giving Brady the Twitter hashtag #vampireninja. Brady even competed wearing the sweater vest, khakis, collared shirt and tie he typically wears in the classroom.

Getting his start

Before he was a married father of three and a professor, Brady was a professional rock climber.

He tried climbing for the first time at a church camp in Emlenton as a young teenager and took to it quickly. There's a YouTube video of him at age 19, he believes, climbing a route in West Virginia's New River Gorge called Mango Tango that's rated 5.14a, an extremely difficult grade that few climbers accomplish.

Brady traveled the country competing in competitions. That's when he met Noah Kaufman and Brian Arnold.

Last year, Brady saw his former climbing buddies competing on “American Ninja Warrior.” The show attracts athletes, but anyone from former professional football and baseball players to Olympians to former elite rock climbers were competing and performing well. Arnold made it further than any American in the national finals last year, his second season competing. Kaufman also did well as a rookie last year.

Brady got in touch with his old friends, who immediately tried to convince him to get in for Season 6.

“He was one of the top climbers 15 years ago,” Kaufman said of Brady. “I was like, ‘Man, you could just crush this coming off the couch,' and he said, ‘It does seem like fun.' ”

Brady submitted a video for consideration for the 2014 season and played up the professor angle. The video opens to the sounds of classical music. Brady appears dressed in a white shirt, tie, sweater vest and jacket standing in front of a bookcase and introduces himself as Dr. Joel Brady. Before long, he's doing pull-ups on a door casing using his fingertips.

It's when Brady transitions to the climbing wall that he really starts to show his stuff, ascending and descending an inverted wall using only handholds and demonstrating his upper-body strength.

He was named one of 125 competitors — Kaufman and Arnold also competed — at the Denver qualifying event.

Adaptability pays off

After making it through the quintuple steps, Brady leaped and hauled himself over two walls, ran across a spinning log, jumped 10 feet to grab ahold of a set of swinging spikes before transitioning to another spike, then launched himself onto a cargo net and climbed down.

Brady impressed, however, on the “devil steps.”

On the obstacle built like a staircase over water — nine ascending and nine back down with a wide gap to transition in the middle — competitors must climb the underside of the steps using upper-body strength.

Brady, who is 5-foot-11 and 140 pounds, went hand over hand and made it look easy. Plenty of competitors did not.

“For someone who's not a climber or doesn't spend a lot of time on arms, the spikes and cargo net can be taxing,” he said. “I'm a climber, and my body's used to doing significant effort with my upper body, then resting, then coming back and being at full strength again. That's kind of how climbing goes. You do something fairly intense, rest, get it back, and you're good to go.”

Kaufman said the upper-body strength climbers possess helps in “American Ninja Warrior,” but the skill that translates best, he said, is adaptability.

“Every climb we do is always different. Every climb has a new obstacle, and we're always using our bodies in new ways,” Kaufman said. “We get to know our bodies better than just about any other athlete and the way they move through time and space. It's really, really tough, but spending volumes of time outside never knowing what's coming next helps in dealing with new obstacles.”

Brady didn't make it up the last obstacle called the warped wall, which requires running up a halfpipe with little chance to build momentum, grabbing ahold at the top and lifting oneself up and over. His performance was good enough to place 28th, however, and the top 30 advanced to the regional finals.

Brady was sworn to secrecy on the results, but he said he plans to go back next year.

“Regardless of the results, I'm certainly doing it again next year if they'll take me,” said Brady, who enjoyed catching up with Kaufman, Arnold and fellow climbers during filming.

“I knew going into it that there'd be a lot of downtime, and they'd be doing a lot of filming of additional shots. I knew there would be times when I'd have to arbitrarily look tough or strong or awesome or whatever. I knew about all of that. I also knew very strong climbers in the past have fallen on the first obstacle and were very disappointed, and I was prepared for that.

“I didn't go out thinking this is going to be the greatest experience ever because I knew all these other things that go along with it, but it was definitely one of the most fun things I've ever done.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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