Kyndal McKenzie ’21 cruised through Shrinking Steps and Shattered Panes with ease before nearly being taken out by the Broken Bridge.
But the 25-year-old survived that challenge with a huge smile of relief on her face, then went on to successfully maneuver her way across Ring Chaser. Unfortunately, the Final Frontier lived up to its name, and McKenzie ended plunging into the cold water below after her hands slipped off the handles of the I-bar she was using to navigate the brand-new obstacle.
“But the fact that I made it to the fifth obstacle; I was super stoked,” McKenzie says of her rookie run on the popular NBC TV show American Ninja Warrior.“On any other episode of any other season I’ve ever watched, if you’re a female who gets to the fifth, you’re a shoo-in because not a lot of females make it to the fifth.
“I thought for sure I would make to the semis and move onto Los Angeles.”
A dietetics major who is now self-employed as a bridal photographer, McKenzie traveled to San Antonio, Texas, last March to compete on American Ninja Warrior. The episode showing her qualifying round aired on July 11, and while she made it onto NBC’s broadcast, it was admittedly a quick appearance.
“It’s about 30 seconds, I think,” McKenzie says with a grin. “But you’re lucky to get any airtime, so I was super grateful.”
Although she made her run early in the day at the Alamodome, McKenzie, who currently lives in Hyrum with her husband, Kaden ’21, was optimistic she would advance. The television production crew obviously felt the same way, going so far as asking her during a post-run interview, “So, how does it feel that you’re going to make it to the semifinals?”
After sitting backstage for eight hours watching competitor after competitor come up short of making to the Final Frontier, McKenzie was still in the Top 5.
“Then, in the matter of one hour, four really strong women ran and booted me out,” she says. “I was really bummed. But at the same time, it was so much fun to do that I couldn’t be upset.”
McKenzie, who graduated from USU with a bachelor’s in dietetics, competed in gymnastics when she was little, then gravitated toward track and cross country while attending Pleasant Grove High School. But a couple of ankle injuries while serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Dallas area, made it painful for her to run long distances.
After meeting Kaden at Utah State, McKenzie started to get into weight training as a way to keep in shape. Then, after the two got married, they were looking for something to do for a date night while Kaden was serving an internship in Cleveland. Thanks to Yelp, she discovered a “ninja gym” nearby where athletes could train to for American Ninja Warrior-like competitions.
McKenzie, a big fan of the show growing up, suddenly had the perfect outlet for her gymnastics skills and new upper-body strength.
Once back in Utah, McKenzie was pleased to discover the Ninja Warehouse in Ogden, which is owned and operated by six-time ANW competitor Karson Voiles. She signed up for classes, started competing in local competitions and improved so quickly that by October 2021, she felt comfortable submitting an application video to American Ninja Warrior.
McKenzie made the cut to compete in San Antonio in March. Ninja warriors aren’t allowed to practice on the actual course before the competition so, she went from warming up backstage to suddenly being out on the course in front of hundreds of cheering fans, with producers and cameras and bright lights everywhere.
“When they told me to go, I just felt I left my body and I was watching myself compete,” McKenzie says. “It was so nerve wracking, and every time I completed an obstacle, I was like, ‘Whoa! I did that.’”
Looking back, McKenzie thinks she misunderstood some advice to “switch grip” her hold on the I-bar, which might have led to her hands slipping off after making a successful leap in between a large gap on Final Frontier.
“It’s just so hard because you don’t get a chance to practice. I wish so bad that I could go back and do that one again just to see if I could do it.”
McKenzie continues to compete in local competitions around the state, and she also traveled to Las Vegas in July for the Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association World Championships, where she finished 15th in her division. McKenzie also applied in the fall for another run at American Ninja Warrior where she hopes to get another shot to perform on the sport’s biggest stage and influence other potential ninjas.
“I’ve admired so many women on the show for so long, and I think part of me saw myself,” McKenzie says. “When I first started, there [were] a lot of people who said, ‘Oh you’re strong for a girl.’ But I feel like in Ninja, it’s like you’re just strong period because the girls can hang just as much with the guys.
“There’s different strengths in ninja,” she adds, “I like that. I like the female representation, and just the desire to maybe be inspiration for some other people.”
By Jeff Hunter ’96
Video by Taylor Emerson
Photos by Levi Sim