WINCHESTER — It’s called the Warped Wall, a 14-foot vertical barrier with an inward curve.
Eli Bell dusts his hands with chalk, spritzes water on the soles of his sneakers for traction, and scrambles to the top of the wall as easily as if he was strolling down the sidewalk.
After witnessing the 20-year-old Frederick County resident’s athleticism, it’s no surprise to learn that he’s been invited to compete on the NBC television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
“He was in and out of the gym for most of his childhood, and in high school became really dedicated to it,” said Bell’s gymnastics coach for more than a decade, Jonathan Wyman.
“American Ninja Warrior” challenges people nationwide to complete a massive obstacle course as quickly as possible. The course is incredibly difficult, and only two people in the show’s nine seasons have finished the entire thing.
“It’s the ultimate challenge, designed so almost no one can beat it,” Wyman said. “The athletes of the world say, ‘I don’t care what you throw at us, we can do it.’”
Prospective contestants are required to submit an application and video showcasing their athletic skills and reasons for competing. Producers reportedly received 70,000 applications for season eight.
Only 600 people — 100 each from six regions of the country — are selected each season for qualifying events in cities that have included Baltimore, Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Houston and more.
This year, Bell is one of the 100 contestants for the Southeast regional competition to be held April 13 and 14 in Bayfront Park in Miami.
He’ll be accompanied there by his parents and financial supporters, David and Theresa Bell, as well as sister Ursula and brothers Josh and Zach.
To prepare himself, Eli Bell has been practicing the obstacle course at East Coast Gymnastics and Cheer, 1810 Roberts St. in Winchester, for four days a week, two hours at a time.
Bell said the “American Ninja Warrior” competition is “half mental, half physical. As far as the physical stuff goes, you need to have grip strength and a little more grip strength. Just about every obstacle you go on, you have to hang by your hands in some way.
“The other half of it, the mental part — when you’re training in a gym by yourself or with a couple of other people, it’s a lot different than being on this course with a huge audience watching you, lots of cameras on you and everything. It can get very intimidating,” he said.
Bell got to test the official course last year in Daytona Beach, Fla., when producers invited athletes to try the challenges to make sure they were possible to complete.
When he’s not training, Bell takes classes at Lord Fairfax Community College, coaches young gymnasts at East Coast Gymnastics, and works at the Sheetz convenience store in Stephens City and AMC Apple Blossom 12 movie theater in Winchester.
Bell, a 2016 graduate of Millbrook High School, started doing gymnastics “before I can even remember” and has been dreaming of competing on “American Ninja Warrior” for years, but has been too young for the show’s minimum age requirement of 21.
“So I tried applying for the show’s college edition [in 2016] where you only had to be 18,” he said. “I also applied for another show by the same producers called the ‘Ultimate Beastmaster’ [on Netflix], but I was unsuccessful getting on those.”
Bell, Wyman and their friend Colt Scott were so enamored with “American Ninja Warrior” that they convinced East Coast Gymnastics and Cheer to expand and install an obstacle course with challenges similar to those featured on the show.
“We said we would teach the classes for them and build the obstacles,” Bell said, referring to East Coast Gymnastics’ recently added Ninja Warrior and Parkour courses.
Even though much of it was built in Wyman’s backyard shed, the obstacle course was a major investment for the gym. Wyman said one square foot of steel truss cost $100, “so to do an 80-foot lane 14 feet in the air, things got expensive. ... They took out a $75,000 loan to get started.
“These guys deserved a training facility to show the world what they were capable of, and I just wanted to make sure they were successful,” Wyman said.
Scott, 22, honed his skills enough to compete last year on “Ultimate Beastmaster.”
Meanwhile, “American Ninja Warrior” lowered its age requirement for the upcoming season from 21 to 19, which finally opened the door for Bell to apply for the main-stage competition.
“It was a great surprise” to learn he had made the cut, Bell said.
Knowing that only two people have conquered the entire “American Ninja Warrior” obstacle course does not intimidate Bell. In fact, he expects this year’s course to be even harder than the one beaten by season seven competitors Isaac Caldiero and Geoff Britten in 2015.
“I think it’s going to keep getting more difficult and more difficult as the ninjas get more skilled,” Bell said.
Aside from personal satisfaction, there’s a very big reason Bell hopes to win the national championship. The grand prize, which goes to the person who completes the entire course in the fastest time and has only been awarded once to Caldiero, is $1 million.
Bell begins his competition in two weeks, but won’t be able to divulge the results until the Miami qualifying events are broadcast in early June on NBC.
The top 15 contestants from each of the six qualifying cities will advance to the national “American Ninja Warrior” championship June 18-24 in Las Vegas.
For more information, visit NBC.com/American-Ninja-Warrior
— Contact Brian Brehm at firstname.lastname@example.org