"American Ninja Warrior" finalist 1st Lt. Ryan Stratis didn't even make the show on his first try.
After falling in love with the Japanese obstacle course show, the 28-year-old full-time National Guardsman from Kennesaw, Ga., repeatedly sent in tapes and auditioned for the American version. He faced off against 300 people, including stuntmen and professional athletes, to make it to the semifinals last year but did not advance.
This year, Stratis won a place in the finals and the chance to take on a grueling obstacle course in Japan.
"It's like a Hallmark moment, as cheesy as it sounds, to have made it after putting in all that work," Stratis says.
The contest on the G4 network had yet to air at press time, so Stratis was keeping the results a secret. But it's no secret that the Japanese course requires brains, guts and stamina — and that the winner pockets a $500,000 K-Swiss endorsement deal.
A guardsman since March 2001, Stratis graduated from the Military College of Georgia and serves as a cubicle-bound safety specialist. He first saw the show at signal school, and it was love at first sight.
"Pretty much throughout the day, I'm like a hamster with no wheel to run on, so I've got to get out of the office, and this ‘Ninja Warrior' stuff has been my go-to thing," he says.
Unlike Army obstacle courses that prepared Stratis to carry heavy weights, the qualifying course in Venice Beach, Calif., demanded faster, more fluid movement.
"It's a really fast, really intense type of obstacle course, and you only get one shot," Stratis says.
Stratis' training has evolved to include interval and cardio training, P90X to build strength, and gymnastics to develop body awareness.
"You don't know what's coming, so I needed to learn how to jump, grab, swing and maybe balance a little bit," he says.
He says he uses visualization and positive thinking to keep his nerves in check.
"I would just run things through my mind, so when I get out there, if I hit any snags that would throw me off my game, I would know how to react," he says.
This year, he trained with fellow competitor David Campbell, focusing on body control and his mental game. He's got heart, too.
After blowing past the Quad Steps, the Log Grip and the Bridge of Blades in the semifinals, Stratis slipped and banged his ankle coming off the Jumping Bars. It looked as though he was done, but he paused to compose himself before a dramatic race up the Warped Wall.
From there, it was all upper-body events, making the ankle a nonfactor. Stratis became the first and only competitor to beat the Unstable Bridge and climb a cargo-net wall to the winner's tower, where he gazed down to give a crisp and earnest salute.
"It's been great to replay this whole experience on TV and watch it with my friends," he says. "I just hope it keeps gaining popularity."