You wouldn’t think Jon the Giant and a group of students from York Central Elementary School would have much in common. But they have an unlikely connection in ninja warrior training.
Jon Alexis Jr. is a 6-foot-6 athlete who made it to the Las Vegas stage of the "American Ninja Warrior" television competition — and has been known to frequent the Warrior Factory in Rochester. It just so happens that a couple of teachers from York Central hang out there, as well.
Bill Hammel and Tim Chapel, two special education consultant teachers at York Central, started working out at the facility in January, and in the following months have brought a little "American Ninja Warrior" vibe to the campus courtyard in the form of makeshift obstacles for first- through sixth-grade students.
The first setup was toward the end of the 2017-18 school year. Another was held at the start of this school year, and more are in store.
“We don’t want to burn the kids out on it,” Chapel says. “But we hope to add a little more to it each time we do it. We will try to make it better and different each time.”
Unlike the adult version of the "American Ninja Warrior" obstacles, which are challenging even to those in top condition, the students at York are running through a course that is more fun than challenging
Becoming ninja warriors
A few hundred bucks and some of Hammel’s carpentry skills helped turn York Central into Ninja Warrior Central.
“I’m fairly creative, and my mind was wandering to design about 12 obstacles,” Hammel says. “In each of our events, we’re just slammed the whole three hours with no break. We have tons of kids, and they all love it.”
Hammel’s sons, Brandon and Jack, made trips to the Warrior Factory to work out. There, they met the man known as Jon the Giant.
“It was motivating for them to watch him on TV and to be able to hang out with him,” Hammel says.
While the boys were getting fit, their mother, Kelly, purchased certificates for Hammel, 42, to work out there. Eventually, he coaxed Chapel, 27, to come along.
Rope climbing, wall climbing and overcoming hurdles and obstacles await those who frequent the Warrior Factory.
“At first, I was terrible at it,” says Hammel, a former high school wrestler who tries different sports and fitness activities. “I was physically fit, but you have to have experience on the obstacles. So I challenged myself. I had five passes, and each week I started getting better. The boys were doing it. It became a big family thing.
He even built some obstacles at home.
"By my ninth week, I was actually a champion for that one week," he says. "I beat everybody, which totally floored me because I’m 42 and the next oldest guy there is like 30.”
Hammel says he feels better after each workout, and his watch gives him good news.
“It says I burn 1,800 calories in the two hours I am there,” he says. “Those are active calories. When you are a little bit older, you slow down a little and don’t do as much. It improved my mood — I feel awesome at the end of it. It feels great to be able to go on the course and crush it. I like how my body feels.”
Chapel’s body didn’t feel so great his first week of training. He played football and ran cross-country in high school and continued competitive running for two years in college. He admits his fitness level has dipped in recent years. When he gave the Warrior Factory a try, that first night was a killer.
“It was the hardest night of all of them,” he says. “We walked into this humongous gym with warped walls and obstacles. We walked into the back of the gym in a teeny, tiny room, and I was kind of bummed out thinking I wasn’t going to get my money’s worth. Then they put us through this obstacle course and it was so painful that I was still hurting the following Thursday when we went back.
“It was an awesome feeling because there were a lot of obstacles I didn’t think that I could do, and I was actually surprised by what I was able to do. But they didn’t take it easy on me.”