Why Kacy Catanzaro Was Born For 'American Ninja Warrior'

By now, everyone with a TV or an Internet connection has seen the video: Kacy Catanzaro, a 5-foot, 100-pound-if-that woman crushing the "American Ninja Warrior" obstacle course methodically, step by step. Never mind that, in the five seasons before, no woman had even made it up an obstacle called the Warped Wall, let alone finished the entire course -- and that countless men had also failed along the way.

It was a jaw-dropping feat of athleticism and, in the true measure of 2014 fame, inspired the hashtag #MightyKacy and more than 8.7 million YouTube views at last count.

On Monday, we'll find out how Catanzaro fares in the Las Vegas finals of the show, which airs at 9 p.m. ET on NBC. But the question remains: How on earth did she complete that course like it was nothing?

Well, Catanzaro may actually have been born to be a ninja. As a little kid, and already a talented gymnast, she would climb to the bar at the top of the swings during recess, pull herself out to the middle and swing into a glide kip -- a skill that challenges many young gymnasts, even when they aren't 10 feet in the air without any mats beneath them.

She would do hip circles again and again while hanging from her parents' chin-up bar, and when the bar inevitably came undone and crashed to the floor, she would somehow land unhurt, put the bar back in place and try some more.

"I've never been afraid of much," Catanzaro says, "and like any normal kid, I liked to push the limits of what I could do."

After more than a decade as a top Junior Olympic gymnast in New Jersey, Catanzaro earned a scholarship to join the Division I gymnastics team at Towson University, just north of Baltimore.

"It was one of the best times of my life," she says of her successful collegiate career, which included both conference and regional accolades and 20 hours a week of gymnastics training.

When she graduated in 2012, though, she was left with the same question that most new alumni face: What do I do now? After so many years in gymnastics, she suddenly needed a new athletic goal, and she didn't want to completely quit the sport she had loved for so long.

Catanzaro had regularly watched the original Japanese version of "Ninja Warrior" (called "Sasuke") with her father when she was in high school and on breaks from college, and even then she told him repeatedly that she knew she could complete the course. Now, with some free time for the first time in her life, she went online, joining what she calls "the ninja community" -- Facebook groups where those interested in obstacle-course competitions share tips and training and sign up for competitions.

She met "American Ninja Warrior" veteran competitor Brent Steffensen online, and the two became friends. Eventually, when he signed on to work for the obstacle-course company Alpha Warrior in San Antonio, he recruited Catanzaro to join him.

Steffensen is now Catanzaro's co-worker, coach, training partner and boyfriend, and the pair is in the gym five or six days a week, usually completing an hourlong body-weight circuit in the morning and specific obstacle training in the evening.

Catanzaro first was selected for "American Ninja Warrior" last season, but the mini trampoline tossed her into the water twice -- she now describes the obstacle as her "worst nightmare" -- and left her with even more resolve for this season.

When she made it on to the show again this year, she went back to her gymnastics training to handle any residual nerves on game day.

"When you get to the competition, most people don't know how their body will react to the pressure," she says. "But I do. I've competed literally hundreds of times in gymnastics and trained how to do what I need to do at just the right time."

And this time, she accomplished exactly what she wanted to -- and left millions of people awestruck at what she'd done.