By Ken Stone
In the season premiere of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior” last week, host Matt Iseman repeatedly referred to 41-year-old David “The Godfather” Campbell as the oldest runner on the Universal Studios course.
It was a lie.
Watching from her Newport Beach home, Colleen Barney was disappointed. She too had mounted the Hollywood stage in early March — among 96 “runners” that cold, rainy evening. But she’s 52.“At first I thought: Well, maybe they mean the oldest guy and that’s just a misspeak,” said Barney, a University of San Diego Law School alumnus. “But that wasn’t true, because he wasn’t the oldest man who ran the course either.”
Like Barney, that other 52-year-old wasn’t shown on the May 29 telecast.
“Even if they didn’t show me, it still would have been nice to recognize that even the 50s can … try it,” she said.
Times of San Diego followed Barney’s journey to Los Angeles for the March 6-7 taping of the reality show, signing a nondisclosure agreement that would have cost $1 million per breach for publicly revealing spoilers ahead of air date.
Barney signed a similar contract and kept her word — not even telling her mother and brothers how she performed on the old “Back to the Future” movie lot.
But she kept up a regular chatter on social media — posting photos of herself training for the run and afterward promoting the Season 11 debut. She carefully avoided promising her 1,000 Facebook friends she’d be seen on the small screen.
A dozen days before the telecast, however, NBCUniversal spokesman Kevin Castech replied to a Times query, saying via email: “It appears that Colleen did not make the episode unfortunately.”
The note was immediately forwarded to Barney. But since she didn’t consider it official — and hadn’t heard from ANW producers since being released from the set about 5 a.m. March 7 — she continued posting about her potential on-air appearance.
Last week, Barney reflected on the experience, still grateful for being chosen.
“I’ve read in the past that … somewhere around 75,000 application videos get submitted (every year), and then they pick 100 per city,” she said. “So that’s 600. So just under a tenth of a percent.”
In her submission video, now boasting 5,300 views on Facebook, Barney told of having Olympic track ambitions shattered when she broke her back at age 17.
“I was in a brace for two years, and my athletic career was over,” she’s heard saying in the 2 1/2-minute video. “So I changed my dreams and decided to become a lawyer.”
Cut to Colleen (pronounced CALL-Lean), swiveling her chair in her Irvine office. She reveals herself in sports bra and shorts and says: “But you wanna know a secret? I never forgot my dreams.” Her post-35 sprint career then is highlighted.
ANW ate it up. On Feb. 15, she got the call — invited to tackle the Los Angeles course in less than a month.
How did Barney do? Let’s back up.
Born Colleen Lennon in Long Island, New York (with a brother named John Patrick Lennon II), 11-year-old Barney moved with her divorced mother to a northern Detroit suburb and starred in track and field at Oxford High School.
She went to Arizona State University as a track walk-on under coach Roger Kerr. But during her freshman year, while completing a bench step-up exercise with 135 pounds of weight on her back, she misplanted and fell.
Barney wasn’t X-rayed. She continued running and lifting for six weeks until learning, on Christmas break, that her back was broken. Forbidden from carrying books, she was out of school for two years, finally finishing up at Central Michigan University.
A 1990 history and philosophy graduate of CMU, she went straight to University of Michigan for law school, finishing in 1993. She soon moved to a job in Southern California, where she went on to take classes in tax law for a master’s degree at USD.
“It was one of the only programs in the country,” she says. “It’s a phenomenal program…. My firm paid for me to go down to San Diego a couple days a week.”
She and her inventor husband, Johnathan, had Rachel, the first of their two daughters, in July 1995. Julia would follow in March 1997.
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Then at age 36, a year after resuming her track career, Barney won an age-group world title in Puerto Rico, running 100 meters in 13.03 seconds. Her career would later take her to world masters championships in Hungary, Spain and South Korea.
But what took her to “American Ninja Warrior”?
A combination of peer pressure and prideful wonder.
About three years ago, Barney invested in a private Newport Beach gym. With a key to enter and friends to join her, “we tended to start coming up with unique Saturday morning training groups,” doing some “unique weird things.”
“So people would start to say things about: Oh, that’s kind of like ‘Ninja Warrior.’ ‘Oh, Colleen, you can do 20 pull-ups — you should do “Ninja Warrior.”‘”
Barney laughed it off at first, since lately she’s been more serious about track training.
“I kind of didn’t really think a lot of it,” she said. “But people would keep saying things.”Then last year, while competing near Spokane at a masters national championships, she shared a house with a Bay Area-based track team called Joy’s Jack Rabbits — led by world-record masters star Joy Upshaw.
“We were laughing and joking about it — and then (they said): ‘Oh, no, no, no. You’ve gotta do it. You totally have to apply,'” she recalls.
So finally she decided: “I probably could do it. I am strong. I am fast. I knew I had an interesting story. … It’s not an athletic competition. It’s a TV show.”
She filled out a 10-page application and spent a week or two learning how to make and edit a video. “And once I put it together, I kind of thought: Wow, maybe I will submit this. Maybe I do have a shot at this.”
With a Jan. 2 deadline, she submitted her materials Nov. 24. Nearly three months later, she got the call.
Her first obstacle wasn’t the Shrinking Steps. It was getting permission to wear the 2016 Rio Olympic team uniform that many U.S. athletes sport at world masters meets. (She calls herself “super proud to represent USA Track & Field.“)
NBC had mandated no commercial logos on Ninja costumes, and hers had a Nike swoosh.
A producer suggested she would need OKs from Nike and USATF.
“And me, being a lawyer, I said: I don’t know why I need Nike permission,” Barney said. “I’m sure we just need USATF. They’re licensed to wear the uniforms.”
She started by emailing Rex Harvey, the USATF masters national chairman, and Active Athletes Representative Latashia Key — and then got nervous. “What if I don’t hear back from them right away? So I went on the USATF site and started emailing everybody.”
A USATF media official soon said: “Yeah, it’s not a problem. … And you’re good to go,” which excited Barney’s producer at NBC. “And then he came back and said, ‘Well, our guys want something signed.'”
For the next two weeks, they went back and forth — with USATF lawyers finding “problems every other second with some word or something.”It wasn’t until the Monday before the Wednesday taping that paperwork was signed. But then came a hiccup.
“I had the problem the day before doing my hero shots,” Barney said. “They were like ‘Ah, I’m not sure you can wear that.’ I said nope, I got permission. … And when I got to the course, they said: ‘No, you can’t wear that.’ And I said, ‘No, I’ve got permission,’ and they were really pushing back. And thank God we were allowed to have our cellphones with us.”
She pulled up the signed contract sent to her producer.
“So then they said: OK, fine.”
Barney met fellow newbies that Tuesday, where she was taped wearing track medals and interviewed in front of a green screen.
“They didn’t want to talk about my [broken] back,” she said. Instead, ANW producers quizzed her on track and her goals.
“One of the questions they asked me — Is 52 the new 32? And my answer was no — 52 is the new 52,” she said. “I love being my age. I love being as strong as I am and as fast as I am. I love having all the wisdom of being 52 and still being able to athletically do these things.”
Even with that experience, Barney had sought the wisdom of a friend — Linda Cohn of Northridge, an age-group record holder in the javelin. A quarter-century ago, at age 40, Cohn qualified as a contestant on NBC’s “American Gladiators” show.
Cohn sent Barney a private message a few weeks before she ran.
“She made a point to tell me that this is going to go by fast. It’s like a moment in time, and you’re going to not remember it,” Barney said. “So just live in the moment. Appreciate every second. And soak in every second.”
Barney recalls a lot of that night.
Being given a 4 p.m. call time. Meeting former champion Drew Drechsel. Huddling under the tent with Flip Rodriguez. Finding ever-smiling Alex Webster (“His whole philosophy is the positivity of life”) probably the “nicest guy I’ve ever met in my entire life.”
It wasn’t the nicest night, however.
“I got called into the box more than once because of [the 200-member-plus crew’s hour] lunch break and the rain delay” — also about an hour, she said. “The energy was really good the entire night regardless of the rain delays …. And none of that really bothered me.”
She confessed to stressing about her appearance — “I did not want that hair getting wet. My Colleen Barney athlete hair is definitely different than Colleen Barney wet hair.”
Despite expecting to run well before midnight, she took the stage at 1:17 a.m. — having spent half the night texting some of her 20 friends, family and co-workers, saying: “Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry. I feel so bad you’re waiting so long.”
MacColl, in her mid-60s, was seen in Seasons 9 and 10. She gave Barney advice on the feared second obstacle — “Walk the Plank” — a new challenge she’d mastered as an NBC tester. (Don’t worry about running across the tipping board but look for where the bar is, MacColl advised.)
“They call you, they check your uniform… And then: ‘Well, what kind of crazy thing are you going to do when you get up on the stage?'” Barney recalls being asked. But she hadn’t been warned to prepare a stunt.
“I didn’t even think about it. … I’m a planner. I need time for that one,” said the 5-foot-2 1/2, 107-pound athlete.
Quickly she recalled her sprint routine. Before settling into the starting blocks, “I normally do this big jump.” She told an NBC crew member that “I’ll probably just jump or something. They were like: ‘OK, cool’ (and wrote) ‘track jumping’ on a piece of paper.”
Barney took the stage, her name projected behind her. (She doesn’t remember seeing this until photos were shared.)
“This is where Linda’s thing struck home for me,” she said. “I made sure I looked for my family. I was waving to them. … and I was so excited. … Just remember … what I want to take away from here. What an amazing experience. And how grateful I am that all of these people are there. And I appreciated every second of that.”
Looming ahead were five steps, ever smaller and higher, about 5 feet apart.
She began to focus on how she’d hit each one, recalling: “I knew exactly what I was going to do. …. It’s not going to be a problem because I’m a runner.”
But the squiggly sensation of that first step was a shock.
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“You can’t tell on television,” she said. “There’s nothing to prepare you for how much that thing actually moved. So the second my foot hit the first one, I went out of running mode and into balancing mode.”
Out went the running form. Up went her hands.
“Oh my God, I gotta keep myself on this thing,” she recalls thinking as the step was “moving pretty good.”
She reached the second, third and fourth steps — but realized “I knew I wasn’t going to make it” to the fifth. “That was painful. So once I knew I was out, you know, I was out.”
Lacking momentum, she made an unconscious decision just to drop straight into the “really cold” water. (ANW crew members said heating the pools would be too costly.)
“When you’re 52, you are so much aware of being hurt and injured, and I was NOT going to do one of those wipeouts that all those other people had done.”
Dropping into the water, Barney made sure to suffer as little “wetness on the hair as possible.”
Then she exited the wrong way — toward the stands instead of stage right to an awaiting camera crew. (They hadn’t told her which way to go.)
“I immediately headed towards my family, she said. “I just didn’t think twice about it.”
She waved to her friends, hugged her husband, daughter Julia and sister Kelly, “and then they were walking me to whatever to get me off the course.”
Among the 96 runners on the course, 25 were women. Sixteen failed on the first obstacle and six went out on the second obstacle. Only three made it past the second — including San Diego physical therapist Samantha Bush, who was 23rd overall that night and advanced to the City Final.
But only half of the runners were shown on TV, with about 45 being identified.
A theory has emerged about why Barney and the 52-year-old man weren’t shown: Their ages wouldn’t have fit the dramatic narrative of “The Godfather” being the oldest runner that night. Campbell was runner-up on the climactic Power Tower duel with Hunter Guerard.
NBC declined comment on that notion, but producers generally showcase those who advance to the City Finals in Las Vegas. Many were in “the same boat” as the two 52-year-olds, Times of San Diego was told — their runs not being shown.However, NBC confirmed that “a small amount” of voice-over by excitable hosts Iseman and Akbar Gbajabiamila is done in postproduction, “usually because they have to take breaks and cannot call the runs of all … competitors during the night.”
(Also: When viewers are told “While we were on commercial break, these people ran,” that’s another fairy tale. It can take many minutes to prepare for the next runner.)
And contrary to the concept that spoilers can’t be shown, Barney says that after the March 7 filming, she saw Instagram posts with many people “practicing those frigging moving steps. … They’re setting up their little home courses with running across weird things that move and bounce, and whatnot.”
(The Shrinking Steps, new this year, lead off all six city trials.)
Barney thinks some later Ninja-course runners came to Universal Studios just to check out the new obstacles.
“It was really shocking to me to see that all of a sudden people start training on an obstacle that none of us saw until the day we got there,” she said.
But don’t be shocked if Colleen Barney tries again next year.
Like all but a handful of Ninja veterans, she’d have to submit a new video and application.
“I haven’t made any decisions, and I kind of told myself I’ve checked that off my bucket list,” she said. But “I’m already thinking of things like: Wow, I’m going to start out with what I’ve learned in the last year and why I’m a little wilder and a little crazier. I’ve already thought about some of the things I would say differently.”
She’s not satisfied with just one world sprint title, after all.
“I can’t help it. I’m still chasing another gold medal at worlds, right?” she said. “I’m too competitive. I don’t want to just go out there and go off on the first (obstacle) and go: Well, it was really nice to have been asked.”
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