What does it mean to be an American Ninja Warrior—a contestant on NBC’s popular reality show? For most people, the answer likely comes down to defeating obstacles and achieving success.
But what if being a Ninja Warrior means something different? What if it means never giving up, no matter how challenging things get? Or changing every single thing about how you manage your health? Or stepping away from death’s door so you could live to see your kids grow up?
For 1995 North Central University alumnus Eric Robbins, competing for a slot on American Ninja Warrior Season 14 is the amazing outcome of a second chance that saved his life.
At 49, Robbins’ selection for the show was unusual (he appears to be among the top 10 oldest men to compete since the show’s inception). But beyond that, three and a half years ago, he could barely walk up a flight of stairs without collapsing from exhaustion.
Robbins’ ninja journey goes back about 10 years, when he and his wife, Cherie (Bartel’ 95) Robbins, started watching the show with their two older daughters. “We’ve watched it all the way from the beginning,” Robbins said. “And for years, my daughters used to say, ‘Dad, you should apply for American ninja warrior.’ Well, I would laugh it off and give a wink, like, ‘Sure, girls. Okay.'”
His adoring daughters didn’t know that their dad was not quite ninja material. “I was so unhealthy all those years,” Robbins said, “and my health kept getting worse.”
Robbins’ health decline had been gradual, a few pounds here, a few inches there. His career, which had included youth ministry, lead pastor roles, and jobs in non-profit and for-profit organizations, was not physically demanding but offered many opportunities for choices that didn’t support optimal health.
“I think my health took its initial turn when I was in youth ministry,” Robbins reflected. “You’re at fast-food restaurants all the time with teenagers—they can eat all that because they’re young.” But well past the McDonalds-youth-pastor stage, Robbins would consume too much of the wrong things through business travel or entertaining clients or members of his congregations.
By his early to mid-40s, Robbins rarely felt healthy, but he attributed it to aging. He had attempted to lose weight, poking a stick at various fad diets without success. Robbins had let himself go to the point where he had gained a hundred pounds since his high-school weight, and, unbeknownst to him, his life was at risk.
When Robbins was 46, his wife noticed a suspicious spot on his back and wanted him to get it checked. “While you’re there,” she said, “why don’t you get a physical?” Robbins was resistant but knew it made sense to do it.
At the doctor’s office, Robbins noticed that the nurses attending to him seemed nervous, and the activity level around him was abnormal for a routine physical. When the doctor came, he asked Robbins to surrender his car keys. “What are you talking about?” Robbins asked the doctor.
The doctor explained that, under Montana motor vehicle law, he couldn’t legally allow Robbins to drive home because his blood pressure was over 205. The doctor also said that he could not figure out how Robbins hadn’t already stroked out or had a heart attack. He added that if he didn’t change his ways, he wasn’t going to see his younger children grow up.
Looking back, Robbins realized he had missed all the signs. “The color of my skin had started to change, almost becoming translucent,” he recounted. “Like you could almost see the color was leaving. And my eyes were watering all the time. My heart was racing. At night I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking I heard somebody knocking on the front door, and I’d wake up my wife and say, ‘Hey, somebody’s at the front door.’ She’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I’d go downstairs—nobody at the front door.” That knocking sound? It was his heart beating, literally waking him up in the middle of his sleep.
Robbins heard the doctor’s message loud and clear. “And I just went, okay. Game on.” He left the doctor’s office and was determined to change.
‘Have you lost a ton of weight?’
Having tried and failed at diets before, Robbins knew he needed something different. Cherie suggested he call a friend, Lee, who had recently lost some weight. Lee led Robbins to a health program that he credits with saving his life.
“I found this amazing partnership with Lee,” Robbins said. “I focused on nutrition, got involved in a [health-focused] community, and had a one-on-one coach relationship with Lee as a coach who helped him focus on a mindset shift towards food, which changed everything.”
Thirty days later, Robbins returned to the doctor. “I think I had dropped 20 pounds already by that point,” Robbins said. And the doctor was confused. He walked in and out of the examination room three times, asking Robbins to verify his social security number and trying to confirm this was the same person who had been in his office the month before.
Finally, the doctor asked, “Have you lost a ton of weight in 30 days?”
“I just went ‘Yes!'” Robbins said. “I finally found something that’s changing things.”
Robbins was grateful to God that his wake-up call had come and that God led to something that worked. He committed to his nutrition and the new healthy habits he was forming in a community with others reaching for their health goals. A week after starting this health transformation, Robbins took on a one-year assignment as a hospital chaplain. “I was on the front lines working with patients in the same condition I had been in…and were dying in front of me,” Robbins said. “This just drove my health because I kept seeing myself in those hospital beds, and I thanked God for the chance to get my life right.”
Robbins dropped 100 pounds in seven months and was again at his high-school weight. “My blood pressure dropped like a rock,” Robbins shared. “My skin color started coming back, full circle, all of my skin tags and rashes and things that come out when your body’s going through detox, all went away on their own. And people started coming up to me asking, ‘What are you doing?’ I had so many people ask me for help that Cherie and I decided to start our own health coaching company on the side.”
Path to ninja
Now in the best shape of his life, Robbins started to think about what was next. “It’s like, I’ve restored this old rusty car,” he said. “You gotta take it out for a spin. What do I want to do?”
And he remembered his girls years earlier encouraging him to apply for American Ninja Warrior. Seeing it as a “full-circle” opportunity (and a legitimate long shot as almost 75,000 people per year apply to be on the show), Robbins decided to go for it. He told no one but his wife, who was loving but skeptical.
“I told her, I’m not trying to get on and win,” Robbins explained. “I just want to be able to tell my girls that yes, I applied.”
Even though Robbins knew the chance he’d get on the show was “almost lottery level,” he decided to work out for 10 months as if he would get the call. “I didn’t want to be that guy that, if he happened to miraculously get the call, only has eight weeks to prepare,” Robbins said.
He started training in earnest in February 2021. The day he applied in late November, he had just reached one of his major fitness goals: 1,000 pushups in 90 minutes (he actually hit 1,007). He included this feat in the story video he made for his application.
Still knowing it was unlikely he’d get selected, Robbins hit “send” on his application. “I remember calling my girls that night after that to tell them. “They were like, ‘What? No way, Dad! That’s so awesome.'”
Robbins told them that he’d finally done it after all those years when they used to say he should apply. “I’d come full circle, and I wanted to honor their request. I still get emotional thinking about it.”
And then the seemingly impossible happened. Robbins got a call in January 2022 from a casting director at NBC offering him the opportunity to compete. “It was surreal,” he said. He was glad he’d already been training like a ninja because he could use the next eight weeks to take it to beast mode. He hired a next-level trainer and visited ninja gyms throughout the country to work on actual obstacles similar to those on the show.
Robbins flew to San Antonio for a week in March for the quarter-final round of the competition and heads to Los Angeles April 8–13 for the next phase. He’s under contract to not reveal any results. Still, no matter what happens, he knows his most significant victory has nothing to do with a television show and everything to do with restoring his health and finding his calling to help people take care of their bodies.
Focusing on the missing piece
Thinking about what God wants to do with his story excites Robbins. He believes God doesn’t just want His people to be healthy spiritually, emotionally, and relationally, but also physically. “For me, the ministry side has come back full circle,” he said. “As a health coach, I’m letting the church pastors and staff focus on the salvation and the relationship aspects of life, and I’ll focus on the health because it’s a missing piece—and somebody’s got to focus on it with a pastor’s heart. I tell people right now I’m pastoring more people as a health coach than I ever did as a pastor, having just passed our 2,300th client.”
Now, the pastor-turned-health coach-turned-Ninja Warrior sees new opportunities to inspire others to take care of themselves. The younger competitors at the recent qualifiers in San Antonio encouraged him. “So many of them came up to me afterward,” Robbins noted, “and said, ‘I had no idea about your story; you will help reach so many guys that were just like you.’
“That’s why I did this,” Robbins replied. “That’s the hope.”
Firm dates for Season 14 of American Ninja Warrior have not been announced, but seasons historically launch sometime in late May. Robbins cannot confirm any outcomes of the competition trials or whether he will be part of the program.