James David Sannella may only be a high school student, but he is already a seasoned obstacle course racer, or “ninja.”
He won the 2021 National Ninja League World Championship, which was held at Centercourt Club & Sports in Lawrence and was invited to compete on American Ninja Warrior.
Sannella, a student at Lawrence High School, is featured on the latest episode of American Ninja Warrior on NBC.
Hundreds compete for a top prize of $1 million on the reality show, which features competitors around the country attempting to complete an elite obstacle course challenge, according to its website.
The contestants, some as young as 15, must pass a qualifying stage in San Antonio, semifinals in Los Angeles, and four stages of the National Finals in Las Vegas.
Sannella finished sixth place and is qualified for semifinals.
American Ninja Warrior is in its 14th season and began airing weekly on June 6.
“It’s been a dream of mine since third grade to compete on the show,” Sannella said.
He traces his love for ninja sports to his childhood fascination with climbing trees and using playground equipment “not how you’re supposed to.”
Sannella started competitively training in 2018 when he was in seventh grade and has since competed in local ninja competitions and qualified for every National Ninja League World Championship since 2019.
Every day after school, Sannella bikes from Lawrence High School at 2:45 p.m. to Centercourt Lawrence, where he trains until 9:30 p.m. On the weekends, Sannella participates in competitions.
“It’s tough,” Sannella said of training and competing. “You get to a point where if you want to continue to be a top athlete, you have to devote every single day to it, and it becomes your life, for better and for worse.”
Despite the physical challenges, Sannella believes that competing in ninja competitions is mostly a mental game.
“When I’m competing, it’s the scariest thing in the world, especially knowing that millions of people are watching this,” Sannella said. “Naturally, with all of the lights, cameras, and the people in the audience, I’m nervous when I start. I told myself, ‘This is real, I’m here and going to do this’.”
When not competing, Sannella enjoys participating in B-roll interviews, hero and action shots and reconnecting with his friends from other ninja competitions.
Sannella had to make up his missed schoolwork at an “on-location school” on the set of the show when he competed in the qualifying stage since he was still in school.
Now back in New Jersey, Sannella currently works as a summer camp counselor at Centercourt Lawrence, and is training for the upcoming ninja season.
“It’s the craziest thing in the world to be competing on American Ninja Warrior, and I’m so excited for next year,” he said.
Sannella’s parents said they are happy their son found a sport that means so much to him.
“We’re proud of his determination and perseverance in a sport where it’s all or nothing, with no room for any mistakes,” James Sannella said of his son “It’s not just about the obstacles and the agility and fitness required, you also need mental toughness to deal with the stress of competition, required travel and the unexpected. Yes, you can have wins, but you can just as easily have losses. It’s learning to work through the tough times and to learn from any mistakes that allows you to grow as a stronger, better athlete and person.”
American Ninja Warrior airs on NBC every Monday at 8 p.m. EDT.