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Grand Oaks freshman is a competitor in new American Ninja Warrior Junior show

September 30, 2018

Freshman Ryleigh Rodgers may seem like a normal Grand Oaks High School student, but don’t be fooled: she became an official ninja warrior over the summer.

Rodgers was one of 6,000 children and teenagers who applied to be on the new American Ninja Warrior Junior, and later was one of a select group of 200 chosen to compete in the new youth version of the wildly popular American Ninja Warrior competition, which was hosted in Los Angeles a few months ago.

The program is set to premiere Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. Central Standard Time on the Universal Kids channel, a division of the NBC Universal Cable Entertainment network. The pilot season will span 20 episodes, in which kids in three age brackets will compete: 9-and-10-year olds, 11-and-12-year olds and 13-and-14-year olds.

Rodgers competed in the oldest age bracket, and will turn 15 on Oct. 1, so this was her only shot at the junior competition.

“I already competed, and I can’t say anything about the competition part, but we were there for a week. The experience was pretty surreal,” Rodgers said.

Like the adult version, the junior show is to be co-hosted by Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila.

Rodgers said the official course was similar to the one she trained on. According to a press release, signature ninja warrior obstacles, such as the warped wall and the sonic swing, were included as junior ninjas competed in ninja versus ninja speed runs.

The reason Rodgers competed, though, was about more than just a desire to test her physical strength on a famous course.

When she was 3 years old, Rodgers started out in gymnastics—which she did for nine years. Then, she found out she had a congenital spine defect, kyphoscoliosis, which is the condition of an abnormally rounded back as well as a curved spine.

Because of the condition, if she landed a maneuver wrong in the gym, her chances of paralysis were high. Her parents chose to retire her from the sport.

Rodgers then took up club competitive diving in The Woodlands and ninja training at Iron Sports Gym in Houston.

“It was a good transition, but it was tough to quit gymnastics. Getting into ninja training helped, because I could use all of my abilities,” Rodgers said.

She faced another challenge, though: doctors wanted to conduct surgery to stop the progression of the defect. Rodgers had to endure surgery to fuse a few levels of vertebrae together, which turned into a total of four separate surgeries due to complications.

After a break to allow her back to heal, Rodgers had already returned to diving and was just beginning to return to ninja training when she found out about the opportunity to apply for Ninja Warrior Junior.

Although she said she felt nervous about competing, she decided to apply to demonstrate that she could do it despite her surgeries — and the added screws, hooks and rods now in her spine.

“I wanted to show kids that even after a hard situation or having scoliosis, they can still chase their dreams,” Rodgers said.

Her mother, Dana, said Ryleigh was resilient and persevered through her struggles.

“I’m super proud of her. It’s been a hard journey, but she’s driven and always does her best at anything she does,” Dana said.

Rodgers’ coach, Josh Salinas, is a professional ninja himself. He has competed on the show at the adult level twice before, and accompanied Rodgers and a few other junior ninjas from the same gym to the competition.

“(Rodgers) was on board from the very beginning. There are some people who show so much more talent, and (Rodgers) is one of them,” Salinas said.

Salinas experienced some similar back issues as Rodgers, as he broke his back in three places in a gymnastics-related injury and had to have spinal surgery as well.

“You typically don’t come back from that, but (Rodgers) is an amazing example of overcoming that kind of obstacle. It was rewarding to see her go out there and put her abilities to the test,” Salinas said.

While Rodgers couldn’t say what the outcome of her run in the competition was, she plans to continue to train and would be interested in applying for the adult version of the show once she is of age.

In the future, she said she hopes to secure a diving scholarship for college and go to medical school to become a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.

jane.stueckemann@chron.com

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