Aaron Lucas thought back to when the floor in his childhood house in Etters was covered in lava.
At least that’s what he and his siblings pretended it was. They would jump around from bed to couch to chair, making sure not even the smallest pinky toe touched the ground—it could be fatal!
He wasn’t necessarily known as a sporty kid, at least not in the mainstream football or baseball way. But that didn’t matter to Lucas, who was dodging lava left and right. How many other kids could move with the same precision and strength that he did?
But Lucas was just 4-foot-8 and 68 pounds when he started high school. He was discouraged from many traditional sports because he was always known as “the small kid.”
“People didn’t give me the time of day,” he said. “I had coaches that would sit me on the sidelines and basically tell me I would never be good. It was a reoccurring theme—people just doubting me.”
Instead, he took up sports like pole vaulting, ultimate Frisbee, diving and golf.
“People telling me I was too small my entire life was just motivation for me to succeed,” he said.
Never being the traditional athlete, as Lucas got older, it just made sense for him to try out the sport of his TV idols. It was time to become a ninja.
Fit for a Ninja
Soon after the NBC TV show “American Ninja Warrior” first aired in 2009, it became a hit.
If you haven’t seen it, people from all over the country swing, jump and climb their way through a course that only those in tip-top shape can tackle. They compete to make it to the red buzzer at the end and continue on to the finals in Las Vegas for a chance of winning up to $1 million.
But the show has done more than just provide millions with entertainment and award prizes to reigning ninja warrior winners—it has created a sport of its own. Small ninja gyms have popped up all over the country, and regular fitness gyms are installing ninja obstacles. A National Ninja League (NNL) was even created to give a place for worldwide competition.
Tim Dexter watched “American Ninja Warrior” when it was still the Japanese TV show “Sasuke.” He began building his own obstacles in his backyard—replicas of ones from the show. He caught the bug and, in August 2018, competed on season 10 of “Ninja Warrior.” But he had a bigger goal in mind—to open his own ninja gym.
“It’s been a dream of mine since I was in high school,” Dexter said.
With a little alliteration and the perfect-sized space in Camp Hill, Dexterity Depot became the first gym in central Pennsylvania dedicated solely to ninja and parkour training. Dexter paired up with co-owner Tara Brown and, on March 22, Dexterity Depot held its first open gym, and ninja classes followed in the beginning of April.
The gym features endless numbers of obstacles, as many of them can be moved around or reconfigured to create a new challenge. The salmon ladder, unstable bridge and floating doors are just a few. There’s also a foam pit with a trampoline at one end and a hanging rope at the other—a challenge for any Tarzan willing to try.
Lucas started volunteering with Dexter by helping build obstacles and painting.
“I was like, ‘I would love a place to be able to train. I would love to be able to help get this up and running,’” Lucas said. “In return, I got to train for free and, eventually, he ended up hiring me as the assistant instructor.”
While working on the gym, Lucas kept training and eventually started competing in NNL competitions. However, he had bigger plans.
“I started watching the show when I was young, and I had always wanted to be on it, but you had to be 21,” Lucas explained. “In the back of my mind I was like, ‘I’d love to do it—but is the show even going to be around when I’m 21?’”
His dream got closer when “American Ninja Warrior” lowered its qualifying age to 19 this past year. Now, he could apply. But with 70,000 applicants and only 600 callbacks, Lucas still faced slim chances.
It took almost four months from his Jan. 1 application date until he heard back from the show in April that he would be competing on season 11 in Tacoma, Wash.
Lucas flew out on May 9 and competed the next day.
“It was pretty surreal, to be honest,” Lucas said. “The fact that, the year before, I was sitting on the couch watching the show thinking, ‘That would be cool.’”
The episode was packed full of ninja superstars who were not at all new to the show. Lucas was ready—this was what he had been training for. But he couldn’t escape his nerves.
“To be idolizing certain ninjas and then to be competing next to then, and not just competing, but contending with them, was just so crazy to me,” he said.
Lucas made it to the fifth obstacle before losing his grip and falling into the pool below.
He knew that only the top 30 ninjas out of 100 would move on to the finals in Las Vegas. In the end, Lucas came out 31st. He was just two seconds short of qualifying.
Even as he watched his name crossed off the list of qualifiers, he was still proud of what he had accomplished.
He called himself the dark horse.
“No one thought I could do well, but I surprised them,” he said.
Lucas plans on reapplying this January. Until he gets that shot at his second chance, he will be training even harder than before.
Ninja training isn’t just about the sport for Lucas. It has helped him emotionally by building his confidence—a similar story to Dexter’s.
“Parkour and ninja saved me from depression and anxiety,” Dexter said. “I want to inspire others to overcome obstacles in their lives, too.”
Both Lucas and Dexter love coaching young ninjas—being by their side when they take that first leap, hop or swing out of their comfort zone.
Dexterity Depot holds classes for anyone ages 6 and up, as well as open gyms, private events and summer camps. They also host competitions in their gym.
According to both Lucas and Dexter, having an open mind is the number-one thing it takes to be a ninja.
“Anyone can do it,” Lucas said. “It just takes that first step and being willing to fail.”
Dexterity Depot is located at 75 Utley Dr., Suite 102, Camp Hill. For more information, visit www.dexteritydepot.com.