Before she runs an obstacle course on “American Ninja Warrior,” Mady Howard pictures every obstacle in her mind. She visualizes herself darting across the Shrinking Steps, or running up the 14.5-foot Warped Wall. She imagines the strength she’ll need to navigate obstacles like the Ring Chaser — a series of monkey bars on a slight incline — that test her upper-body strength.
For Howard, this mental preparation is key for one big reason: You don’t get a practice run on “American Ninja Warrior.”
“What you guys see on TV is the first time that we’ve touched those obstacles, so that’s what makes it even more challenging,” she recently told the Deseret News. “I do get nervous before I compete, but I just try to let the nerves help me instead of hinder me. … And I always try to get into a mental state where I’m excited to be there. I always do the best when I just want to have fun, so I try not to put too much pressure on myself.”
That approach has worked well for Howard, a 26-year-old nurse and former Southern Utah University gymnast. She made it to the finals during her “American Ninja Warrior” debut in 2019, leading the show’s announcers to call her a “breakout star” who “instantly became one of our top competitors.”
Howard returned the following season and reached the semifinals. And now, after a year off, the Washington, Utah, resident is once again in the finals, which begin airing Aug. 15.
But this third time around, Howard is really making sure she isn’t too hard on herself — because when filming for “American Ninja Warrior” began, it had been just six months since she gave birth to her son, Beckham.
Mady Howard returns to ‘American Ninja Warrior’
Howard took the necessary time to rest and recover after her pregnancy, but she was eager to get back to her routine.
She typically works out around 5:30 a.m., before Beckham wakes up, and on the days she isn’t working as a nurse at St. George Regional Hospital, she exercises at home with her son by her side.
“He actually really just likes crawling around and thinks it’s funny when I’m jumping,” she said with a laugh. “So I just do the best I can. I feel like even if it’s a 20-minute workout in a day, it’s better than nothing. And so I just try to have that mentality of like, a little bit is better than nothing at all.”
Howard applied that mindset to “American Ninja Warrior.” Although she has a strong competitive background — she started competing in gymnastics when she was 6 — after some time off from “American Ninja Warrior,” her biggest goal was to simply enjoy her ride on the show.
“I definitely went into the season just giving myself grace and just knowing that my baby was my first priority, but also just trying to push myself to be as physically and mentally prepared as I could,” she said.
Based on her run this season, you wouldn’t know Howard had taken time off from “American Ninja Warrior.” She has surpassed her run on the show during Season 12, and is now one of several ninjas competing in the national finals — a four-stage course that gets progressively harder with each stage (Stage 4 is an 80-foot rope climb that must be completed within 30 seconds).
To achieve total victory and claim the elusive $1 million prize, a competitor must complete the entire course. Although “American Ninja Warrior” does acknowledge and celebrate the “Last Ninja Standing” each season, only two people — including Salt Lake City’s Isaac Caldiero — have actually been declared an “American Ninja Warrior” champion and claimed the big prize.
On the surface, it seems like a discouraging format. But Howard finds it motivating.
“There’s always something new that I can learn,” she said. “There’s always something that I could be better at. And so it’s never like you’ve reached a destination. There’s constantly things that I want to improve on. And so that motivates me to keep going.”
What ‘American Ninja Warrior’ means to Mady Howard
Beckham is almost 1 now.
As Howard chats on the phone, reflecting on “American Ninja Warrior,” her son crawls around and plays in the dirt. For the gymnast, it’s a reminder that having children doesn’t necessarily have to mean giving up your own hobbies and interests; that you can have the best of both worlds.
“I just think it’s really healthy as moms to have something for ourselves as well,” she continued. “And we can still be great moms.”
Earlier this season on “American Ninja Warrior,” Howard said Beckham, who happily bounces alongside her as she exercises, could very well be a “ninja in training.” But ultimately, she looks forward to watching her son discover his own passions, just as her parents encouraged her to do when she started taking an interest in gymnastics at the age of 4 — which led to countless hours of practice and years of competition all the way through college.
“I think back to the motivation I had as a kid and I’m kind of amazed that I stuck with it, just because they were long practices for that young of an age and a lot of hard work and dedication,” she said. “But I actually loved it, and I think it’s because my parents just let me choose what I wanted to do.
“My mom was always the one that was saying, ‘Hey, do you want to come shopping with me today or do you want to get our nails done?’ And I’m like, ‘No Mom, I need to go to practice,’” she added with a laugh. “So I think that their laid-back attitude and support really just helped me choose gymnastics for me and not for anybody else.”
When her collegiate gymnastics career ended, Howard said she longed for the “fun, athletic competitive sport in her life.” “American Ninja Warrior” seemed like a logical next step — there’s a gym in St. George dedicated to the competition. Like gymnastics, she goes through the occasional mental or physical block during her training for the show, but her passion for it continues to outweigh the challenges.
“I think that ‘Ninja Warrior’ is a great outlet for me,” she said. “It’s my fun outlet where I can play like a little kid on a playground, where I can go and be competitive and kind of chase my own dreams. It challenges me to be a better person and a better mom. I seriously just love it.”
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Author: Lottie Elizabeth Johnson