Scott D. Pierce: Two young Utahns are in the semifinals of ‘American Ninja Warrior’

(Elizabeth Morris | NBC) Utahn John Mack will be in the semifinals of "American Ninja Warrior" on Monday.

Utahns Tyler Kurtzhals and John Mack are in the semifinals of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior” — and they can hardly believe it. It hasn’t really sunk in that that millions of viewers are watching them as they tackle the obstacles on the “Ninja” course.

“It kind of has, but not fully yet,” Mack, 21, of South Jordan, said with a bit of a nervous laugh. “It’s so weird and incredible to be a part of it. It just kind of feels like a dream still.”

Kurtzhals, 18, of Herriman, said, “I don’t think it’s ever going to fully sink in that I’m on a national stage competing in front of an audience of a million-plus people.”

He has, after all, been dreaming of this since he was 8.

(Elizabeth Morris | NBC) Tyler Kurtzhals will be in the semifinals of "American Ninja Warrior" on Monday.

If you haven’t seen “American Ninja Warrior,” well, it’s kind of tough to describe. Amazing athletes tackle an incredibly difficult obstacle course filled with insane challenges that require both strength and skill. Competitors advance from one round to the next, and the winner will take home $1 million.

“It really is, like John said, an incredible experience,” Kurtzhals said, “and I can’t wait to do more of it in the future.”

For now, their next appearance is in Monday’s two-hour episode at 8 p.m. on NBC/Channel 5.

From brain bleeds to “Ninja Warrior”

Mack turned to “Ninja Warrior” training when multiple concussions made it impossible for him to continue playing contact sports.

“Oh, yeah. I’ve suffered many an injury,” he said. “I was a very active kid, but unfortunately I was a super, super injury-prone kid.” While playing football and basketball, he said, “I got beat up, so I got a lot of traumatic brain injuries. And I was advised by family and medical professionals that I should probably stop playing these contact sports if I wanted to function properly.”

He suffered “a little brain damage” and “some bleeding on my brain,” so he “had to go through years of physical therapy and cognitive therapy. I still struggle with that a little bit, stumbling through my words. And I have a horrible short-term memory.”

Mack graduated from Herriman High School, and is now training at Salt Lake Community College to be a welder. Kurtzhals just graduated from Mountain Ridge High. He’s headed to the University of Utah, where he plans to major in kinesiology.

Fathers and sons

For both Kurtzhals and Mack, “Ninja Warrior” connected them with their fathers.

Mack said sports were “probably the cornerstone” of his relationship with his dad. “So when I had to stop playing sports,” he said, “we were, like, ‘What the heck are we going to do now?’…

“And we found ‘Ninja’ together. We watched ‘Ninja’ together. We fell in love with it. And we decided we could build [obstacles] in the backyard. And it brought it a lot closer together.”

(His father took his life when Mack was just 13, but he remained determined to train for “Ninja Warrior.”)

When Kurtzhals was young, he said, he was closer to his mother, because his father was often away for work. “But when I started pursuing the ‘Ninja’ dream, he told me, ‘If you can do 20 pullups in one sitting, I will build you a salmon ladder and you can start training for ‘Ninja.’”

(A salmon ladder is an obstacle that’s sort of like a pullup, except contestants hang from a bar that they have to pull from one pair of rungs and place on a higher pair of rungs, climbing while they’re hanging — several times.)

Kurtzhals soon mastered 20 pullups, he said, “and now me and my dad build obstacles all the time. Which really tied us a lot closer together.”

Longtime friends

Mack and Kurtzhals are three years apart in age, but they’ve been friends for a long time. Actually, Kurtzhals and Mack’s younger brothers were friends in elementary school, and the two “Ninja” competitors met when Kurtzhals was 12 and his family drove by the Mack home and saw the obstacle course out back.

“I have a really, really cool backyard course. It’s a pretty sweet rig,” Mack said. “So we would jump around together on the obstacles that I built in the backyard. … So to get the chance to compete together on the TV special is super special for both of us.”

“He was the first person I’d ever really met with the same ‘Ninja’ passion,” said Kurtzhals, who later started working out at a ninja gym where Mack worked. “Now we train together at least twice a week,” Kurtzhals said.

They both found that having a friend compete on the show helped.

“When I walked up on the starting platform and looked over and saw John … it was just a really calming sight. And it definitely put me back in the zone,” Kurtzhals said.

“It kind of gives you a little bit of peace of mind,” Mack agreed, “because right before you take on that course, you’re freaking out. The anxiety is at an all-time high. Your heart’s pounding. It’s all you can hear, and all you think about. So to look over and see a training partner and a friend on the sideline definitely helps calm the nerves.”

Excited to be there

Just getting the call to be on the show was a victory all by itself.

“Oh, my gosh. That is the best feeling ever,” John said. “It’s just so amazing to finally get that feeling of you’re hard working paying off. It’s not an opportunity that many people get to have. So getting that phone call with the news is the best time of the year.”

This is the second season in a row Mack got the call. It’s the first time for Kurtzhals. And, he said, it was “a dream come true. And, honestly, it’s a big sigh of relief because getting that phone call to be on the show is probably the biggest obstacle of the entire show.”

Only about 500 applicants, out of 12,000, get a chance to compete. (Not all 500 make it into an episode.)

“When I got that phone call, I think I ran, like, two laps around my house just screaming,” Kurtzhals said. “The adrenaline went from zero to 100 like that.”

(Elizabeth Morris | NBC) Utahn John Mack competes in the semifinals of "American Ninja Warrior" on Monday.

Mack is tall. Very tall.

At 6 feet, 5 inches, Mack is taller than most of the other contestants. A lot taller than some of them. And conventional “Ninja” wisdom is that taller is not better when it comes to performing a lot of the physical tasks the obstacle course requires.

“I like to think it’s a huge advantage,” Mack said. “Everyone says it’s a disadvantage because the taller you are, the heavier you’re going to be. But you do enough pushups and pullups, you’ll be plenty strong.”

He’s convinced that his “wingspan” give him “a little bit of an edge on the course. I’m able to kind of do the obstacles the way I want to do them. I’m able to play to my skill set on the obstacles a little bit more. And because of that, I have a unique technique that so far has worked out pretty well for me on the show.”

It’s all it’s cracked up to be

“American Ninja Warrior” is “everything I expected and more,” Mack said. “You walk up and you see the course the day you run and the obstacles are so massive — they do an incredible job building a beautiful course. And it looks so intimidating and exciting at the same time. It’s just incredible. …

“It’s similar to Disneyland, is the only thing I can compare it to. It’s like going to Disneyland.”

Kurtzhals said the experience has been “above and beyond what I would have ever dreamed. I thought it was going to be pretty much just run the course and do the interviews. But when I got there, I was just blown away by how well the production was run and how great the course looked and how the camaraderie was there. Just the whole vibe of the event felt amazing.”

(Elizabeth Morris | NBC) Utahn Kurtzhals is in the semifinals of "American Ninja Warrior" on Monday.

What’s it like to see yourself on TV?

Some people — even some Oscar-winning actors — don’t like to watch themselves in the movies or on TV. That’s not a problem for Mack or Kurtzhals.

“It was insane watching myself on TV,” said Mack, who’s watched a YouTube clip of himself on the show “probably a hundred times. … I couldn’t stop smiling. … If 12-year-old me could see me now, he’d be shocked. It was a dream come true. It was pretty sweet.”

“Seeing myself on TV for the first time on the adult show was such a surreal experience, especially considering I got to do it earlier than most competitors,” Tyler said. Again, he’s just 18. And he previously competed on “American Ninja Warriors Junior” when he was just 14.

“It was so amazing to see all the support I was getting for chasing my dream.

Just the beginning

No matter where their runs end on this season of “ANW,” they’re planning to return next season … and the season after that … and the season after that …

“There’s no way I’m stopping anytime soon,” Kurtzhals said. “This is something I plan to do as long as this show’s around or as long as my body’s going to let me.”

And Mack agreed.

“I remember after hitting the buzzer in qualifying, I sat on the top of the wall and I shouted, ‘I’m not leaving!” he said. “I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to keep doing this.”

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