On March 11, 2020, the world learned actor Tom Hanks tested positive for COVID-19, the NBA halted its season and then-President Donald Trump gave a speech preventing travel from the United States to Europe. It was also the day Jose Gomez learned his taping the following day to appear on the “American Ninja Warrior” television show would not happen.
Gomez, a 39-year-old sales manager and owner, with his wife, of Citizen Vine wine bar in Folsom, had traveled to Southern California with two other local men, Francisco Barajas and Brian Montagnese, so they could compete on the sports-entertainment show. The course was built and some ninjas were already starting to shoot B-roll footage when the show was shut down in an evening conference call with producers.
The three left with no assurances they would return, with staff essentially telling them, as Gomez recalls, “We will look at you as higher priority.”
Just over a year later, the three are getting their second chances. On March 26, Gomez, Barajas and Montagnese will travel to Tacoma, Washington, to compete on the show, which offers a demanding obstacle course for participants, who can progress through a series of episodes for a chance at an ultimate $1 million prize.
Their teacher, Amitis Pourarian of The Studio Martial Arts & Fitness in Roseville, has been featured in Comstock’s before (“Wonder Women” in March 2018) and also had two ninjas compete on the show in 2018. Her gym, like others around the country, has become part of a cottage industry to train would-be competitors for the show, whose 13th season premieres May 31. “We’ve had people just come in solely for that purpose,” Pourarian says.
Ninja training isn’t the only thing that brings people in, with the gym primarily focused on martial arts classes like taekwondo. Out of around 900 members, Pourarian estimates that at least a couple hundred are in the ninja program. The ninjas include a dedicated cross-section of the membership, though, with Pourarian noting Gomez, Barajas and Montagnese’s motivation to make another appearance on the show once given the opportunity.
“It creates a platform for them to inspire other people and follow in their footsteps and get active and moving. It’s a platform for them to show, ‘Hey, you can reach different levels with this,’” Pourarian says.
Gomez says he is looking forward to his second chance. “It’s great,” says Gomez, who has trained at The Studio since October 2018. “I was happy that I got reaccepted for one cause I felt that I wasn’t sure if I had the opportunity again, considering a lot of things happened in a year.”
While last year Gomez traveled to Universal Studios to compete and planned to have his children in attendance, this year’s competition will be without crowds and with several small regional events around the country.
Training’s been more low-key as well, with Pourarian saying the three have been able to do it with a key to the gym — so they could go even during closures over the past year. They were allowed continued gym access so long as they wore masks, with Pourarian saying, “They haven’t lost any training time.”
For Gomez, who calls himself “The Bow Tie Ninja” because of his attire during competitions, motivation for appearing on the show is personal. “I’ve been told I wouldn’t succeed, I’ve been told a lot of these different things,” Gomez says.
Pourarian says the goal is to push themselves to become better ninjas, saying, “They’re competing with themselves a lot.”
Gomez says he doesn’t expect to win the $1 million prize, but he has a goal of making through at least the first round of competition, saying, “For my mind and how I see myself, I just want to hit the buzzer (at the end of the course).” And, if he falls, he intends to return next year.
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