Leigh Jahnke Competes as Ninja TwiceJul 01, 2022 11:06AM ● By Jarrett Van Meter
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
The video’s initial frame is a shot of an old Toro lawn mower pointed to the left-hand side of the screen, but not even a full second elapses before Leigh Jahnke flips into the shot from the right, plants her hands on the ground, and flips her sneakered right foot up to the mower’s push bar. She proceeds to push the mower across the yard, her hands doing the walking, her right foot doing the pushing, and her left foot extended up above it all like a periscope.
These are the first seven seconds of Jahnke’s 2:37 audition video for the 2022 filming of American Ninja Warrior. The remainder of the reel includes shots of her feeding cows, balancing atop a moving horse, and being named homecoming queen during a November University of Nebraska-Lincoln football game. At one point she appears to bench press two round hay bales, each roughly the size of a pickup truck, that are held together by a single, standard-sized barbell. A zoom-out reveals the assistance of heavy duty farm machinery, but the video’s creativity and novelty succeeded in its ambition: the West Point, Nebraska, native was selected to take part in the 14th season of the NBC program.
Jahnke, who graduated from UNL this spring with degrees in Spanish and biology, is now a seasoned ANW veteran. She first competed on the program in 2019 after her freshman year at UNL, her initial interest in the sport blossoming from her love of climbing. She also played volleyball, basketball, pole vaulted, wrestled, and competed in gymnastics as a youth, all of which she credits with her natural aptitude for the Ninja obstacles, but said her work ethic and perseverance are a result of growing up on the family cattle farm.
“Working on a farm is hard work and you don’t really get a day off, so it really taught me discipline and dedication,” Jahnke said. “I raised my own calves, and you have to wake up every day and feed them. You can’t not do chores a day, stuff like that, so I think it taught me a good work ethic.”
When something is broken on a farm, farmers roll up their sleeves and fix it. When Jahnke struggled with a specific obstacle during her 2019 debut, she did the same.
“The first time I was on the show I didn’t really have a lot of obstacle experience, just sports experience,” she explained. “On the show, I got out on these things called the flywheels, which are just these wheels that spin, and you have to let go of one and swing and grab the other with both hands and just keep going. I fell on one of those, so that same summer my dad and I on the farm, we built a replica of that using scrap wood and tires to act as the flywheels.”
In Lincoln, Jahnke’s training is mostly comprised of climbing (she is president of the UNL rock climbing club) and standard gym workouts, but she tries to incorporate one Ninja-influenced workout per week. For these she heads to Nebraska Ninja training gym, where program director Nic Moore is building a community of tiptoeing, somersaulting, wall-running athletes. Moore, who grew up a gymnast in Lincoln, said that he has seen an uptick in interest in the sport, and now trains people from age 4 to 68.
“It reminds you of being a kid, going and climbing in a tree, going and jumping across the creek to see if you could make it or not,” he explained of the appeal. “Carefree, as a kid, just going out and getting dirty and just trying something that you’re not familiar with.”
Moore accompanied Jahnke on her trip to Oklahoma City for the 2019 filming and served as a designated “tester” for the course, but didn’t make the trip to this year’s regional filming, which took place in March in San Antonio and will air this summer. This time around, Jahnke was accompanied on her trip by fellow Nebraska participants Maggi Thorne and Michael Galeski, who also participated in 2019.
Jahnke does not yet know if her “run” will make the final cut. If it does air, people around the country will be reintroduced to the do-it-all kid from West Point, who, by the way, plans to spend her first year post-college teaching English in Spain on a Fulbright Scholarship.
“They do such a good job of highlighting all of these people who are amazing outside of their athletics,” Jahnke said of the program. “There are so many cool stories and so many cool people who have these amazing experiences. When you go to a football game, you don’t get to hear the stories of all the players, so I think that’s something too that is really neat about the sport.”
Visit nbc.com/american-ninja-warrior for more information.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.