With cameras rolling and the crowd cheering her on, Michelle Warnky swung onto an obstacle called the Captain’s Wheel during the Philadelphia City Finals of the 2018 “American Ninja Warrior” competition.
The Worthington resident had completed several other challenges during the episode that aired Aug. 13 on NBC, and she made it through the entire semifinal round before reaching the Captain’s Wheel, a new obstacle that resembles the iconic wheel with spokes and handles used to steer a ship. The Captain’s Wheel requires competitors to hang from its handles while turning it.
With her grip weakening, Warnky tried to pull herself toward the final handle, but her strength gave out. She fell to the water below, having completed more than half of an intense finals course, her personal-best “American Ninja Warrior” effort.
.@MichelleWarnky is hitting the course to write a new chapter in Herstory.#AmericanNinjaWarriorpic.twitter.com/Ezoez9ZayJ— Ninja Warrior (@ninjawarrior)August 14, 2018
But for Warnky, 34, the accomplishments do not just mean a nice television appearance or a personal challenge, she said.
Instead, in a turn of events that still surprises her today, she said, Warnky’s “American Ninja Warrior” fame has become the driving force behind her business, Movement Lab Ohio at 400 Lazelle Road in north Columbus.
When she first heard about “American Ninja Warrior” in 2012, Warnky had just returned to the U.S. from teaching English in Kazakhstan for five years and was working as a server at a Texas Roadhouse and as a part-time personal trainer at a local LA Fitness.
She remembers the first time a friend showed her NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” a nationwide obstacle course competition modeled after a Japanese show.
“It was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I love this,’ ” she said.
A track and cross-country runner at Thomas Worthington High School, Warnky also had a rock-climbing background, and she immediately felt the competition was for her, she said.
At the time, the show hadn’t made it big, and she found nowhere to practice. Eventually, she found the Movement Lab, a New Jersey gym that specialized in the types of obstacles that appeared on the show. She made the trip to New Jersey and fell even more in love with the challenges.
When she returned to Ohio, she worked with her friends at Vertical Adventures in Columbus, where she set up some makeshift obstacles and began training others who were interested.
She then began trying her hand at regional “American Ninja Warrior” events but didn’t quite break through.
Business was slow, and Warnky became “discouraged,” she said.
“It was like, ‘Why am I spending all this time building things no one uses?’ ” she said.
But as the sixth season of “American Ninja Warrior” aired in 2014, everything changed.
In Philadelphia, Warnky became the second woman to complete a qualifying course. She made it onto the broadcast and was invited to the national finals in Las Vegas as a wild card.
At the time, she said, she still had all her information online. When the show aired, she was bombarded.
“I was just slammed with phone calls and emails,” she said with a laugh.
She realized Vertical Adventures couldn’t accommodate her workload, so she figured out how to evolve.
“I didn’t want or plan to be a gym owner,” she said. “But I had built this community and this following.”
In 2015, she opened Movement Lab Ohio with the help of her friends in New Jersey. The gym, which she co-owns with brothers Brian and Chris Wilczewski, is packed with “American Ninja Warrior”-inspired obstacles, from the Warped Wall to the Salmon Ladder, and her team of trainers almost all have competed in an “American Ninja Warrior” event.
“If you go to this gym, it’s like, ‘When are you going on ‘Ninja Warrior’?’ ” head instructor Justin Allen said.
Warnky has hundreds of clients, and she loves watching her athletes improve, she said.
“It’s awesome to see kids and adults grow in competition and athletic ability,” she said.
And what began as a test of her own abilities and a fun challenge has become her best advertisement.
Warnky’s most recent appearance on “American Ninja Warrior” was the episode that aired Aug. 13. Each year that she is on the show, she said, she gets a summer boost in clients, the opposite of most gyms’ summer lulls.
“I know when I run that if I do well, it greatly helps the gym,” she said.
Warnky said the lease at the gym is running out and she hopes soon to realize her dream of expanding to a larger facility in central Ohio so she can help more people.
“I’ve been wanting to expand for years,” she said. “That’s my main goal and hope. My main goal is to help people and the gym. ... If we can bring what we offer to more people, that’s great.”
After the competition became intertwined with her business, Warnky said, the way she feels about “American Ninja Warrior” has “long since changed from what it was.”
But she still wants to see a woman finish the finals in Las Vegas (no woman has advanced through all four stages of the finals competition), she said, and she still thinks she can be that woman.
And when she is hanging from a seemingly impossible obstacle under the bright lights and in front of a cheering crowd, Warnky said, she still is having just as much fun as she did when she started.
“When you’re on the course, it’s still like, ‘I love this,’ ” she said.