Two Atlanta ninjas advance to finals in Miami

He got a second shot this season at winning on what’s considered the world’s hardest obstacle course, but Dr. Robert Pruni just couldn’t pull it off.

Neither could Glenn Davis or Gregory Tyson or Felix Chu.

The metro Atlanta men competed recently in the popular NBC TV show “American Ninja Warriors,” which returned early this month for its sixth season. In the end, only Ryan Stratis and John Tyler Vogt made it through all six obstacles to advance to the Miami Finals in last Monday night’s episode.

“I finally figured out my mental game,” said Stratis, a 31-year-old aspiring stunt man from Kennesaw. “I’m pretty excited.”

The show is made up of intensely physical challenges with names like Unstable Bridge and Dancing Stones. To win, you have to complete each course; fall and you’re out.

“Balance,” Pruni said is what did him in.

Candidates must submit a video entry to compete, said Brian Richardson, a co-executive producer of the show. Those who aren’t chosen for the show can try to get on as a walk-on, which means camping out at obstacle courses for several days and hoping for the best. One-hundred people are invited to try out in each of five cities: Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Louis, Denver and Miami, where the Atlanta Ninjas competed.

Richardson said there are usually several dozen applicants from major cities but this year the show received thousands of submission tapes, a record since the show began in 2009.

The national finals will take place in Las Vegas. Those competitors must complete a four-stage course for a chance to win $500,000. So far no American, not even NFL greats and Olympic medal winners, has ever conquered the course.

Pruni, a 48-year-old sports physician and chiropractor from Snellville, started out a fan of the show, called “Sasuke” where it originated in Japan. In 2009, the American version launched and Pruni, inspired by a 53-year-old competitor known as Grandpa Ninja, decided to try out.

“I thought if he could do it, I could do it,” he said.

Pruni cut his hours at his office and started training 18 hours a week for an entire year. He put together a video, in which he praised Grandpa Ninja, and submitted it to the show’s producers.

In March 2012, he was having lunch with his wife Stephanie at Panera Bread when he got the call he’d been waiting for.

He’d made it in. He screamed.

Pruni trained all the way up to the start of the fifth season. He did crossfit training, endurance training, long-distance running, agility and balance training, which is strictly ninja. When the show began, he made it through the fourth obstacle before he was eliminated.

“The Slider Jump is what took me out,” he said.

Well, not completely.

Back home, Pruni decided to build an obstacle course to mimic the one on the show.

“When I came back from Miami, I knew I wanted to open a gym,” Pruni said.

He’d met Stratis, one of the show’s top competitors, during season five and the two men began training together. Pruni shared his dream to open a Ninja Warrior gym, where he could not only improve his skills but help other competitors improve as well.

“There’s no other athlete that has to do everything that we have to do from a skill perspective but only get one shot per year to do it,” Pruni said. “Basketball players can shoot a ball from the foul line 10,000 times in a row until they master that skill. Football players can practice tackling over and over again, but how can you improve your skill when you’re hanging on a 1-inch pipe and sliding down 16 feet of metal rail? Where do you go to train for something like that?”

Pruni believed his gym held the answer.

And so with help of fellow competitor Glenn Davis he built his obstacle course and in 2013 opened CrossFit Lilburn 678 in a shopping center off Lawrenceville Highway. The gym is open to the public.

“Anybody can try this and improve their skills,”Pruni said. “Not everybody will be able to do it at a high level but everybody can at least improve their skills, increase their strength, speed, coordination, agility and balance.”

Both Stratis, competing for his sixth season, and Vogt, competing for a second time, say training at the gym upped their game.

“Hanging out with Ryan and having the opportunity to train on all this stuff really paid off,” said Vogt, 39.

Vogt said he first competed in 2008 but was easily eliminated. He took the next five years to focus on his stunt career.

When he saw his college roommate successfully compete on the show, he decided to give it another try.

Vogt qualified fifth out of 125 contestants this season.

On Tuesday, the day after the Miami qualifier aired, the men and a competitor from Florida, Corey Alexander, were back at Pruni’s ninja gym training.

They know that the obstacles are bound to change. They want to be ready for season seven.

“We train on anything we possibly can so we can handle whatever is thrown at us,” Pruni said. “We have over 30 obstacles here and we’re adding more and more every day.”

It was the Warped Wall that slew Glenn Davis, 52, of Canton. The Dancing Stones – gigantic springs with wobbling mushroom caps — knocked out Pruni and Gregory Tyson, the self-described nerd rep with an engineering degree from Georgia Tech.

“It was unfortunate to go out on a balancing obstacle. I didn’t get a chance to show off my strength and endurance talents,” Tyson said. “I plan on training harder and returning next year.”