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The Palm Beach Post // Boca competitor on hit show says dad, who died tragically, gave her strength

Christina Gambino didn’t realize until recently that she has trained her entire life to be an “American Ninja Warrior,” from NBC’s hit obstacle course television series.

The 30-year-old from Boca Raton has studied Brazilian jiu-jitsu, ballet and gymnastics — strength, balance and agility. But it was the hurdles Gambino overcame outside the gym that best prepared her for the physical and emotional intensity of “American Ninja Warrior” her father’s death and a debilitating arm injury.

“I’ve been comfortable being uncomfortable my entire life. That’s what being a ‘ninja warrior’ is all about,” said Gambino, while training with a dance client at a Riviera Beach gym on Tuesday, the day after she appeared on an episode of the NBC series.

The show challenges contestants to a grueling obstacle course for the prize of glory — being able to say you competed and completed the course, a feat few have done but many have tried.

Christina Gambino gives pointers to AnnaKate Bickel, 15, at Palm Beach Gymnastics in Riviera Beach on Tuesday. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

Gambino — a graduate of St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton and former Florida Atlantic University student — lost three rounds into the obstacle course. She fell during a “ring hop” obstacle, where contestants hang from a ring and shuffle it from hook-to-hook using only their arms.

Gambino’s loss and brief 2-minute appearance on the 90-minute episode hasn’t dampened her spirit though.

“I’m a ninja!” she proudly boasted before hanging upside down from a climbing rope.

“I think I realize more and more how amazing it is the things I can do,” she said.

Christina Gambino of Boca, when asked whether she will try again on “America Ninja Warrior,” said: “You better believe it.”

Gambino credits her success to God and her father, a karate teacher and real estate mogul who died in a Lexington, Va., plane crash when Gambino was 12. Gambino’s father, Jack, was piloting a plane from New York to Boca Raton in 2000 when it crashed in Lexington because of bad weather, according to media reports at the time. He and friend, John Kabelka, of Boca Raton, died in the crash.

“He’s the one who taught me I can do anything,” Gambino said. She followed a path strikingly similar to her father, dedicating time to athletics, real estate and entrepreneurship. Gambino bought her first property in Boca Raton at 24, and now owns three homes she leases to college students near FAU and Lynn University. She founded JumpTwist, a company that creates music for gymnastic routines.

Christina Gambino at Palm Beach Gymnastics in Riviera Beach on Tuesday. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

And she dreams of opening a gym dedicated to training current and future “American Ninja Warriors,” which would be the first of its kind in South Florida.

One might think mastering jiu-jitsu, ballet and gymnastics would be all the preparation an athlete needs to be an “American Ninja Warrior,” but Gambino tried and failed once before.

She performed on the “American Ninja Warrior” course for the first time over a year ago, and lost in the first round. The spot never aired on TV, but she applied again and performed in Minneapolis for the episode that aired Monday.

“I was humbled by that first fall,” she said. “It’s coming back from failures and not being discouraged by failures that make you excel as a person.”

She studied the successful contestants and practiced at gyms across the nation dedicated to “American Ninja Warrior” obstacles.

Christina Gambino of Boca has studied Brazilian jiu-jitsu, ballet and gymnastics — strength, balance and agility. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

Then, a few months before she was set to again perform in front of a live audience, she pinched a nerve in her wrist, leaving her right hand virtually immobile.

Two months before her performance on the show, she could barely feed herself using her right arm.

“I practiced pulling a soup spoon to my mouth,” she said. “It was a struggle.”

She slowly regained movement in her hand and, before she fully recovered, took her second shot at “American Ninja Warrior.”

She’ll try again on ‘American Ninja Warrior’

“I couldn’t miss my chance,” she said. But after a second and third round of obstacles involving her arms, she fell into the water below the course.

Even after a second loss, Gambino repeats a mantra printed on the back of a T-shirt she wore Tuesday: “Be Strong and Courageous.”

It originates from Gambino’s favorite Bible verse.

“I needed strength and courage to fall and get back up and try again,” she said.

And will she try again on the “American Ninja Warrior” obstacle course?

“You better believe it,” she said.

Follow Delray Beach reporter Lulu Ramadan on Twitter at @luluramadan.

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