South Fayette Native Makes his Debut on “American Ninja Warrior”

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Published in IN Community Magazines – South Fayette Fall 2016

PITTSBURGH – Even though Mike Shuck’s first attempt to conquer the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course was unsuccessful, he’s already planning his next attempt.

Shuck grew up in South Fayette and is a math, science and language arts teacher at Aiken Elementary School in Greentree. He appeared on the June 27 episode of NBC’s American Ninja Warrior. The episode was filmed in Philadelphia in May and Shuck was eliminated when he slipped on the fourth obstacle and fell into the water. Shuck was climbing up a series of vertical metal bars when he lost his grip and fell.

“I knew I could have done it,” Shuck says. “I was very hard on myself. I took a few days before I was not constantly replaying that and asking what I could have done better.”

Shuck says he would have been less disappointed if he encountered an obstacle he knew he couldn’t complete. He wants to try again next season to prove he can do better. Shuck is already planning his next audition video although there’s no guarantee he will be picked again next season.

“I went out unsatisfied and I couldn’t leave it at that,” he says.

In addition to teaching at Aiken Elementary School, Shuck is also an instructor at Pittsburgh Kettlebell & Performance in Greentree. He trained for a year before he was selected to appear on American Ninja Warrior. He built different obstacles at the kettlebell gym but says he wants to get more practice on actual objects from the American Ninja Warrior course before he submits his next audition tape. If he is allowed to compete again, Shuck says he hopes to complete the course. If not, he won’t try a third time.

“If I don’t make it to the top of the warped wall that will be it,” he says. “I need to do substantially better in order to meet my own expectations.”

Shuck has always been interested in physical fitness and been very competitive. His parents were both body builders and met at a gym. From an early age, they taught Shuck the importance of physical fitness and healthy eating. Shuck participated in football, soccer and wrestling as a youngster. He hopes to someday open his own gym. He started watching American Ninja Warrior about three years ago and was impressed by the level of athleticism the contestants displayed. Many of the athletes also have very inspiring stories.

“Some people have battled through unbelievable circumstances,” Shuck says.

After watching American Ninja Warrior for several seasons, Shuck began to wonder if he could compete on that level. While most people wouldn’t give it a second thought, Shuck says he was looking for a new challenge. He decided to audition and began to train about a year ago. Grip strength is very important to succeeding in the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course so Shuck began to build different obstacles that focused on climbing and hanging.

Shuck submitted his audition tape online in November 2015 which portrayed him training for the competition, working with his students at Aiken Elementary School and leading classes for kids at Pittsburgh Kettleball & Performance. After he submitted his audition, his students asked him every day if he been selected.

“They thought it was the coolest thing,” Shuck says. “They were a part of the process from the very beginning.”

However, Shuck didn’t find out he had been selected until May.  As the weeks of waiting turned into months, Shuck says he gave up hope, especially after he learned that filming had begun for an episode in Atlanta in March.

“I didn’t think it was going to happen,” he says. “I told myself I had missed the boat.”

Finally, Shuck received a phone call in early May while he was leading a class at Pittsburgh Kettleball & Performance. He didn’t recognize the number and let the call go to voicemail. But then Shuck realized the area code was a California number and when he ran outside to check his messages he learned that he had been selected to compete in the Philadelphia episode only two weeks later.

“My head was spinning,” Shuck says. “I had already given up. My mind had already moved past it and the phone call brought everything back. It took a day or two to really sink in.”

Shuck says he’s not as athletic as some of the contestants who have appeared on American Ninja Warrior, but he thinks the producers picked him because they liked how he was involved with kids and fitness.

“TV shows want a good story,” he says.

With only two weeks’ notice, Shuck says there wasn’t much he could do to prepare and he was extremely nervous. For the next two weeks, students at school and people at the gym asked him questions and encouraged him every day.

“There was a constant knot in my stomach,” he says. “I felt a whole lot of pressure not to let people down. They had high expectations of me.”

Before he left, Aiken Elementary School organized a pep rally to honor Shuck. Everyone assembled in the gym where they played a fight song, and several students read aloud letters that described how Shuck had inspired them in different ways.

“That’s worth the price of gold,” Shuck says. “That’s all a teacher ever wants. That will always stay with me.”

Shuck drove to Philadelphia the day before filming began so that producers could interview him and about 60 other athletes who had been selected to compete. Shuck was one of only a few rookies while most of the other contestants had competed in American Ninja Warrior before. Many of the veterans had trained at special gyms that specialized in preparing athletes for the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course.

“Some people dedicate their lives to this and some guys quit their jobs to train specifically for this show,” he says. “They’ve been here before and they know what they are doing. I felt I was at a disadvantage.”

He was very nervous and didn’t sleep well the night before the competition. Because the episodes are filmed at night, Shuck spent the next day in nervous anticipation of what he would face since details of the obstacle course were not released until the last minute. He read some of the letters his students had written in order to try and find some extra motivation before the competition began.

“I wanted to relax but I couldn’t,” Shuck says.

The episode was filmed at an old industrial power plant outside of Philadelphia. After checking in, the contestants finally saw the obstacles they would be facing. The producers allowed the contestants to walk through the course and then let them watch as an expert tackled each obstacle. Shuck was not called to the starting line until about 11:30 p.m., and he says walking out on to the platform was an out of body experience.

“It really hit me that I’m about to do this,” he says. “When the horn sounded my senses shut down. My brain went into tunnel vision. I didn’t hear a single thing.”

Each contestant is allowed to have a team of supporters walk beside the obstacle courses and cheer them on. Although he couldn’t hear them, Shuck says his family were very supportive. His wife, author Ashely Boynes-Shuck, was especially supportive, he says.

“She helped me get my name out there and has been my stability,” Shuck says. “When I was driving myself crazy with doubts and fears she brought me back to earth.”

He completed the first obstacle which was a series of large quintuple steps that were angled at 45 degrees. Successfully navigating the first obstacle helped calm his nerves a bit. At the second obstacle, Shuck grabbed a swinging log and held on tight as it tried to dislodge him.

The third obstacle caused most contestants to fail, Shuck says. It was a series of staggered steps that would tip over as soon as a contestant put any weight on it. The key was to move quickly to avoid being dumped off, Shuck says. He thought he might fall on this obstacle too because he had never really trained for it, but once he reached the other side he felt like he could make it to the end.

However, he lost his grip on the next obstacle and fell into the water. Shuck says he was surprised that all the other contestants cheered and supported each other.

“It was eye-opening to see the closeness between the other competitors,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

Even though he was eliminated, the producers sent a film crew to Greentree a week later to shoot a segment about Shuck’s background.

American Ninja Warrior is growing in popularity and Shucks says he thinks it might become a legitimate sport. Shuck suggests that anyone who is interested in competing on American Ninja Warrior create a daily plan and focus on grip strength. It’s also important to stay calm and be persistent even when in doubt, he says. The best way to prepare would be to train on actual obstacles from the American Ninja Warrior course and get advice from experienced contestants.

“When you have a passion you have to commit all the way,” Shuck says. “Everything looks easy on TV.”

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