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Northeastern alum returns to ‘American Ninja Warrior’ after four-year hiatus

Josh Levin, class of 2017, competes for the fourth time on this season "American Ninja Warrior," the NBC reality show built around contestants navigating a set of physically challenging obstacle courses. Photo by: Elizabeth Morris/NBC

Josh Levin has always been a climber, ever since he was scaling kitchen tables, shelves and lampposts as a kid. Now, he gets to do it on national television.

On Monday, July 11, fans of the NBC reality show “American Ninja Warrior” can watch Levin, a 2017 Northeastern graduate, climb and leap his way through the notoriously difficult obstacle course on the 14th season of the show. The qualifier will be Levin’s fourth shot at “American Ninja Warrior” but his first attempt in four years.

“I love the feeling of pushing myself when all the chips are on the table and having a challenge physically to see the limits of what my body can do … in order to overcome these obstacles,” Levin said.

After competing in season 10 in 2018, Levin focused on his Olympic chances and started training to compete on the U.S. national climbing team for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. Levin made it to the final qualifiers during the January 2020 Olympic trials, placing eighth among the 20 best climbers in the country, but was unable to go further. The disappointment was compounded by “American Ninja Warrior” staying off the air in 2020 and 2021.

On July 11, Levin will be featured on the second of five qualifier episodes, as 100 competitors aim to advance to the Los Angeles semifinals and, eventually, the Las Vegas finals. In Levin’s previous three appearances on the show, he successfully made it to the Las Vegas finals, although he has never made it past the second obstacle.

Coming into this season, Levin made some strategic adjustments that he hopes will help him overcome his Las Vegas finals stumbling block.

“I’ve never been able to beat it, and that one is a lot more about pushing the pace and being able to compete with a time limit, which the first two courses in the qualifying rounds do not have,” Levin says. “This season I really decided to acknowledge that in order to do well in this course, you do have to take risks and you do have to go for it. For me, that’s been a really big mind shift this year.”

In the past, Stacey Li Cullver, Levin’s childhood climbing instructor and mentor, has been his inspiration. Cullver was on a waitlist for a second double-lung transplant in 2017 during the ninth season of the show, and Cullver used his platform to talk about the value and need for organ donations.

Cullver died in 2018, but Levin knew that if he was going to return to the show after a four-year hiatus, he needed to do it for the “right reasons” and have a similarly impactful story to tell. He now champions disability rights and accessibility, something he learned more about through his work at the Synapse School, a K-8 independent school in the San Francisco Bay Area. For the past five years, Levin has put his mechanical engineering degree to good use, working part-time to lead physics and obstacle design classes.

This year’s class examined competitive challenges through the lens of accessibility. While para-athletes can and do currently compete on American Ninja Warrior, Levin said more can be done with the obstacle design to open the doors for athletes with disabilities.

Levin’s class took this challenge to heart. Students designed obstacles for people with specific disabilities, like a blind-folded rock climbing wall challenge that created noises to help climbers with visual disabilities find their way to the top

“We made obstacles for athletes who had mobility impairments, who were in wheelchairs, visual impairments, athletes who would be blind or visually impaired in certain capacities,” Levin says. “The ability to realize that obstacles should be meant for everyone and in order to make that a reality, you actually have to design them for people in a very specific way was very cool.”

Levin, 28, is now one of the more experienced competitors on the show, and he has embraced his role as a veteran with plenty left to learn. He’s excited to see the next generation of American Ninja Warriors run, jump, climb, fall and get back up again. He also has some words of wisdom for new contestants too: don’t be afraid to wait at the starting line.

“Take one moment,” Levin says. “Take a deep breath, let it out and then go when you want to go. What that does is it takes away the power of having to deal with things outside your control and puts it inside your control, and that makes all the difference in the world.”

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