The Making of an American Ninja Warrior

I started gymnastics when I was two years old because both of my older sisters were doing it and I wanted to do whatever they did. After a year of mommy and me, my mom was approached by the coach because they said that I was beyond advanced for my age and that they would love for me to join the pre-team. At 3 years old, I was training for competitive gymnastics and by 4 years old, I began officially competing. Alongside gymnastics, I was enrolled in dance multiple times a week along with soccer and jiu jitsu.



Gymnastics was way more than a sport for me and every other competitive gymnast in the world. It isn’t something you attend once or twice a week and at the time, it wasn’t a positive environment for a child. To be on the team meant that you were physically the fittest a human could be and our coaches would push our limbs to be flexible beyond what is healthy or normal. The coaches told our parents if they didn’t like what they saw, they didn’t have to stay and watch but if they wanted me to be on the team, this is what goes on. My mom used to watch me cry from the viewing room while a grown man sat on me pushing my toddler body into a split with my leg elevated on a mat so that I could go beyond 180 degrees. They would pull my arms behind my back tearing my shoulders so that I would be able to do specific skills on the bars that require dislocation and of course when you raise your arms to salute to the judge, it always looked better when you arms went further back behind your head.


Coach would weigh us before each practice and if she didn’t like our weight, we weren’t allowed to do gymnastics. We would condition for the entire 4 hours and the torture was not just physical. Luckily, I was always so tiny I was always able to train however, if our teammates would misbehave, we would all condition for 4 hours as punishment. Most gymnasts were more afraid of their coaches than the scary flips and skills they had to do on a regular basis. When I look back, it was child abuse on so many levels but for some reason, I couldn’t get enough. Everyday all I cared about was training and getting better and making my coaches proud and of course competing to win.

By 9 years old I had already suffered multiple sprains, tears, and breaks throughout my body and was living on 3 Advil a day to get me through a practice (which led to serious digestive issues and eventually stomach ulcers). Both of my ankles were in agony each day as my growth plates were trying to grow, but I was tumbling and training for 3-4 hours a day. I will never forget what I endured to do gymnastics. My body was in chronic pain everyday and instead of complaining or quitting, I somehow convinced myself it wasn't there until the point my body actually believed it wasn't. I broke my toes slamming them against the uneven bars during giants, I sprained my back missing the bar on a release move, I once missed the safety pit and landed on the concrete and got the wind knocked out of me where I couldn't breath. I've sprained each ankle 3 times to the point where my ligaments are holding on and every doctor who sees the range of motion in my ankles is astonished. I broke three fingers the day before a competition in Mexico and competed anyway.


I had become a pain-resistant warrior before hitting double digits in life. I was a brown belt in jiu jitsu and was a champion in multiple sparring tournaments. I performed in charity shows for karate, performed in dance recitals on stage, competed in Junior Olympic Gymnastics and somehow was on a travel soccer team. I had a raging 8 pack of abs and had a massive hernia on my lower abdomen which would stick out awkwardly. I was basically still wearing baby clothes and I remember crying in the dressing rooms with my mom because the smallest sizes of clothing for my age were always too big on me and I couldn't wear what I wanted especially with shoes. I didn't even fit into children's size shoes until I was at least a teenager. I was on track for the 2004 Olympics and to receive my black belt in Jiu Jitsu... until my father/sensei died tragically in a private plane crash.




In High School I tried to fill the void of gymnastics by playing soccer, softball, dance, track and cheerleading. I was on Varsity for every sport from freshman through senior year and enjoyed the positive experience and being able to laugh and not get in trouble. It was such a different experience for me participating in a team sport where all the pressure isn't on you. It was nice to have coaches that made light of the sport and wouldn't make me feel less than. I am very grateful for the experience I had in High School athletics, It helped me have fun and act like a kid for once.


Senior year in High School a friend of mine thought it would be a good idea to use our lunch break to go to the gym around the corner but first we had to stop at her house to grab her gym clothes. When she opened the front door her dog jumped on me and bit my wrist. I immediately turned around to leave the house and the dog bit my butt and took a small chunk of skin off. I fell to the ground and was kicking my legs to try and stop this dog from eating me alive. It bit the inside of my inner thigh and dragged me into the bush outside the front of her house. It was shaking its head with my leg in its mouth and I was kicking it in the face trying to get it to let go. I finally got back up and ran towards the house to try and get in and shut the door but before I made it inside, the german Shepard/Chow mix bit my other arm and forearm. I eventually got in the house and stood in the corner and my "friend" who was watching the entire time not stepping in, finally stood in front of me to block the dog from getting to me. The dog was still trying to bite me while she blocked me and that was when I realized all of the blood coming out of my body in chunks and getting all over the walls. There was someone home who eventually got out of their room and grabbed the dog and put it in a cage. I was shaking. It looked like a horror movie with blood everywhere. I tried sitting down when I realized I had open wounds on my butt and then I just took all of my clothes off and went into her shower while she went to buy a first aid kit. I was scared to call my mom because I was supposed to be on school campus. Finally I called my mom and her friend was borrowing her car at the time. Her friend picked me up and brought me to the hospital. This dog didn't have any records of shots so they refused to stitch me up. The fang bites in my inner thigh went deep into the muscle and I couldn't walk for a few weeks until it healed. I had scratches and bruises all over my body from falling into a bush, getting dragged and fighting my way out of this dogs mouth. This was exactly what I needed two weeks before prom.



As an 18 year old entering my first year of college I felt something was missing in my life. I walked into a gymnastics gym that offered adult gymnastics and after one cartwheel on the high beam I knew I had to compete again. It is absurd to take 6 years off of gymnastics let alone set your sights on Division I college gymnastics while you’re already in college. I made up my mind and despite what my family, friends and coaches thought, I trained vigorously for 2 years and in my junior year of college I walked on to Rutgers University’s NCAA Division I gymnastics team. This was the moment that taught me that I can truly do anything I want as long as I wanted it bad enough. A few months before I transferred to Rutgers I had the worst injury of my life when I landed my dismount off the bars with my legs under me. A skill that was effortless for me and always perfect, it was like my brain was unplugged while I was doing the double salto in the air and then plugged back in when I hit the ground in the worst position. I heard everything from my knees to my ankles pop and crack and all I could do was whisper “help, help, help, help” while one of my teammates was laughing at me. Once I un-pretzeled my legs, I realized that I couldn’t move either of my feet. For a few minutes of my life, I believed that I was paralyzed and would never walk again. My legs felt like they were dangling by a thread as I was carried out to immediately go to the hospital. I damaged cartilage in both of my knees, strained my gastrocnemius and soleous in both calves and slightly tore my Achilles in both legs while also suffering worst case scenario ankle sprains in both ankles.



After being in a wheel chair for weeks and using crutches for weeks and physical therapy for months, I fought to join the team at Rutgers. When I arrived for our first orientation as a team I felt so proud and excited. I was looking around at the gym and just feeling the success of my hard work, even though I could barely run on my legs yet. After the meeting we had, the head coach pulled me aside to give me disturbing news. She told me that they accepted too many gymnasts this year and that unfortunately there was no space for me on the team. Wait, what?! I chose Rutgers out of 3 other teams that wanted me and I relocated my life and she told me after I moved there? I was in shock. She told me they would be happy to have me as the manager. Everything I worked for was ripped away from me in that moment. I felt like I couldn't catch a break but I wasn't going to allow her to stop me from being on the roster. I told her that all I needed was one practice for her to see I am worthy of being on the team. I told her that I will outwork everyone there and I reminded her that I took a 6 year break from gymnastics while these other girls were burnt out. I had the fire and the passion and I was stronger than most of the girls already. She agreed to let me train with the team one time and she watched me closely . I wasn't goofing off, I was pushing the pace and I proved I was strong and worthy. By the end of the practice she told me she would squeeze me onto the roster! However, I still had to undergo clearance with the doctors to be able to compete. After several tests and cortisone injections, they weren’t comfortable with me competing. It was devastating for me to spend so much time taping up my ankles and getting my hopes up everyday and I was losing my desire for the sport. My teammates never accepted me either so I officially retired from gymnastics at 22 years old. At this point, I started a gymnastics music company (Jumptwist Music) and began choreographing beam and floor routines for gymnasts all around the world.


When I graduated from college, I moved back to Florida and my career ending injury haunted me as scar tissue in my calves grew out of control. I lost all mobility in my calves and was experiencing chronic pain throughout the day. It got so bad that by 24 years old I couldn’t even stand halfway through the day never mind choreograph hundreds of floor routines in a Summer. I had a stool in my kitchen so I could cook dinner at night without standing and bought a special bed that would elevate my feet at night. I went on a vacation with my sisters and I couldn’t keep up with them walking. I would stop to sit and just cry in pain and frustration of what I’ve become. I was being testing for rheumatoid arthritis, x-rays, MRIs and no doctor knew what was wrong until I found a sports chiropractor who knew exactly what I needed. He used a graston tool to manually scrape the scar tissue up in my legs. I did intensive treatment 3 times a week that would leave my calves beaten and bruised. After over a year of treatment I regained mobility and the pain went down a lot (it never went away).



This was great and all, however I started experiencing crippling neck spasms that would force me to be on bed rest for sometimes up to 10 days. After an MRI of my neck I learned that I had herniated and bulging discs. I was so upset. After everything I've been through from a child to an adult, my body was continuously failing on me but I still had so much will power to be an athlete. I worked closely with a chiropractor to strengthen my neck and received weekly treatments with adjustments, laser, and acupuncture. This injury won't go away without surgery so it is something I live with and treat as needed. I was getting neck spasms once a month for a while and then it went down to every few months and now it is down to a few times a year. Mostly when I have something important coming up.


28 year old Christina was doing Crossfit, running, and enjoying an active life again but something was missing. I craved competition and when a friend suggested that I audition for American Ninja Warrior, I was hooked (regardless of the condition my body was in). I prepared for 9 months trying to get as strong as possible. There were no ninja warrior style gyms at the time near me so I was just doing pull ups and rope climbs and lifting weights with a strength coach. I’ll never forget the day American Ninja Warrior called me. I was in shock. I felt like for the first time in my life, things were going my way...until I got humbled by the obstacle course. I fell on the first obstacle and I was embarrassed. I had 20+ people in the stands who stayed up all night in the cold (we film in the middle of the night) to watch my 10 second run. Although this was a difficult failure, I got the bug to compete and do this for real.

I decided I was going to be the shortest ninja to run up the wall and hit a buzzer so I bought an RV and travelled the country training with the best ninjas at the best ninja gyms. I over-trained to say the least and not only had tendinitis in all ten fingers and forearms but I also suffered from radial nerve palsy that left my right arm paralyzed for two months. Doctors told me they didn’t know if I would ever move my hand again never mind compete. I spent my days and nights in prayer. I knew God was trying to teach me something, and I was listening. After 2 months I started regaining movement in my fingers but my arm was completely atrophied. That’s when I got the call inviting me back on American Ninja Warrior for redemption.



I told them I needed more time but I would be ready and even though I could barely use my hand, I started therapy and training. Once my mind decided I was over this injury, my body followed and within 9 weeks, I could grab a bar and hang for 8 seconds. All I cared about was not falling on the first obstacle so I was training these lateral jumps over and over and then I tore my hip labrum. I was not going to give up, I got a cortisone shot in my hip and drove my RV to Minnesota from RV to compete on American Ninja Warrior again. What is wrong with me?

By the time I walked up to the starting line, I was so grateful to have a functioning hand, I didn’t care what happened next. All I wanted to do was beat the first obstacle. I waited an entire year for this opportunity and overcame paralysis to be standing there. It was a miracle of God because I found my strength in Him during my weakness. I had my best performance and only 2 women made it further than me! Even though I fell short of my goal, I was so happy and this was one of the highlights of my life. I wish I could go back in time and relive the few minutes that I spent on that course because they were the most present and grateful minutes of my life. I felt so happy to be healthy and grateful to have the opportunity to be there. All of my family and friends saw what I overcame to be there and it meant so much for me to show them my perseverance. No one will understand what it meant for me as everyone probably though I was foolish for celebrating my fall. I felt I was operating at 40% so to be that good feeling so bad I knew I had the potential to be great.



Shortly after traveling the country and living in all different states, I parked my RV in Florida to open my very own Ninja Warrior Training facility. By the time I got the gym up and running (which took a year) I had received my 3rd invitation to compete on American Ninja Warrior! This time, I was totally unprepared, mentally exhausted and by the time the day came, I had terrible bronchitis. To say I wasn’t in the mood was an understatement but I still showed up. I fell on the 2nd obstacle and when I hit the water from 15ft above, I back flopped knocking the wind right out of me, just like that time in gymnastics when I hit the concrete. Now it’s 3am, I failed again, I can’t breath, there are hundreds of people watching, and there are cameras in my face, hovering above and behind me. What a moment. I thought I was going to die on National Television. Luckily, I knew how to calm down and eventually get air into my lungs. It’s just as terrifying every time because your basic need for oxygen isn’t working and you think you’re gonna die every time. This was a tough time for me.



I’ve come back from destroying both my legs, I’ve come back from a paralyzed hand and I’ve come back from all the other injuries that most people would have called it quits, but this mental injury and feeling of failure was the toughest. I had no motivation after quitting gymnastics before attempting olympic trials, never getting the chance to compete in college gymnastics after an epic comeback, and now falling 3x on American Ninja Warrior. I just felt like I have never been able to perform to my potential so I stopped training completely and focused on running my gym. Every customer wanted to know how far I made it and I had to repeatedly tell everyone about my failures. Kids come into my gym and think I’m someone special when I feel like a failure inside. Did I have a 4th attempt in me? I didn’t know.

I hired a new strength coach and decided to train slowly and try to be healthy and not injured. I had no motivation to train but I kept showing up. Eventually I started getting strong and eventually I got more motivated. This was my year. I had my very own gym to train at, I had the support of an entire county rooting for me, my coach had gotten my body strong and injury free. The best part was I was consistently getting up the 14.5ft warped wall at the end of a course completely exhausted. I felt this was the year I wouldn't fail. I couldn't imagine having a worse performance. I remembered how well I performed when I was injured and it was impossible for me to not do great. So I applied for my fourth try and I was feeling ready to put my work together and have an epic performance. I couldn't wait to make the kids who attend my gym proud and inspired. I came back from the hardest set back and when the casting calls started going out, I did not receive one. Wow, 3 failures and a rejection. They were doing a lottery in Los Angeles and I found out the same day. I packed a bag and jumped on a plane a few hours later so I wouldn't miss the chance to inspire the world. I couldn't accept defeat. Out of 125 ninjas, they picked 10 and I was not one of them. No problem, I thought. I would attend every lottery this year so eventually I would have to get picked. But by the time the course was set and they were going to start filming and competing, everything got cancelled due to COVID-19.



Two months later, my gym has been closed and I lost a lot. It was just piling up to the point where not only did I not want to own a ninja gym, but I didn't ever want to compete again. This is the time where warriors are supposed to stand up and exemplify their strength but I’ve sunken into a dark hole of depression. For the first time in my entire life, I am not training. It has only been two months but I feel the difference in my body. I am 32 years old and all I know is physical pain and suffering and I’ve had enough. These last few months have been the only months of my life I didn't push my body past the limits and it feels great. I don't go to bed in pain and I don't wake up in agony with sore muscles and fatigue. My neck still spasms but I am learning to treat it and handle it with care. It isn't just the physical pain that has gone away but the mental stress that weighed on me everyday. I put so much pressure on myself my entire life to be a great athlete because that was all I ever knew. I was stressed out as a gymnast, I was stressed out as a Varsity Athlete in High School and I was most definitely stressed out as an American Ninja Warrior. Why was I doing this to myself? Being an athlete and competitor takes a lot of sacrifice and taking a break has been refreshing.


If the Pandemic didn't cancel the filming of American Ninja Warrior I had planned to travel to every location of the lottery to fight my way onto the show this year the same way I had to fight my way onto my college gymnastics team. Being forced to stop striving for my athletic goals made me realize a lot. It made me wonder why I am so aggressive when it comes to my goals? Why do I pile so much on me to try and be so wonderful? Why am I killing myself mentally and physically to prove to the world that I can be the shortest ninja up the wall? I couldn't even comprehend why I was even doing all of this. I realized that it wasn't for self-gain or recognition, I really wanted to show people the power of perseverance. I wanted to motivate anyone of any age that if you want something bad enough you can do it, you have to keep working towards it. But why do I care so much about showing people what they are so capable at the expense of hurting myself? I am afraid to quit. I am afraid that if I stop trying I am sending the wrong message. I truly believe that you only fail when you stop trying so I am terrified of ending my effort. So what is next?

I am taking it one day at a time. Falling on American Ninja Warrior three times was definitely hard and I am taking time off to get healthy and re-evaluate my desires and goals in life. I am not retiring from the sport, but I am definitely going to take some time off. There is nothing like a great comeback story and I am the queen of the comebacks. I love ninja warrior and what it gave me. I have a gym where I watch kids overcome obstacles every day and that is my buzzer right there. I am happy with where I am at and although it will be hard to watch everyone train and get stronger, I am going to focus on my mental well being and my physical health. I am enjoying my time off from all athletics and like I mentioned earlier, this is the first time in my life I am not in pain.




A part of me believes I put so much pressure on myself to be great to distract myself from the real pain that is deep within me from losing my father and he was my Sensei he taught me a lot about determination and hard work. I definitely have not reached my athletic potential and this is not the end. This is in fact just the beginning. If there is one thing that a warrior doesn't do, its give up. I am excited for the future and I will continue to persevere! Perhaps this story is long and full of pain and disappointment so that you can read about the struggle and accomplishments of overcoming the obstacles. A lot of times, people only see the trophies people hang on their Facebook wall or Instagram stories. But behind every trophy, there is grit, sweat, blood, and tears. Behind every smile, there is an entire universe of pain and suffering. That is why I shared this story. If you don't know me and you've only see my posts and accomplishments, maybe you can feel empowered. Everyone has a story of pain and obstacles whether they decide to share it or not. I always share my pain especially when things are good. I will never want the world to only see the sunny days. We don't learn from the good times. I hope this blog made you feel some type of way. Some type of feeling where you just decide that your pain and obstacles won't stop you from trying because after all... the glory lies in the attempt. If you are feeling down, I am telling you to get up. If you are feeling discouraged, I am telling you its not over yet. And if you don't even have the will to even try, all you need to do is show up against your will. One step at a time and you can overcome anything and that is how a Warrior is made!


Stay tuned to see what I do next and if anyone wants to contact me, please submit the form below so we can connect :)


IT IS NICE TO MEET YOU

LET'S CONNECT

""Be Strong and Courageous"

Joshua 1:9

© 2020 by Christina Gambino.