Ninja Warrior fights Lyme disease, competes on hit show

By Kristen Miller
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AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR — “Kansas City Qualifier” — Pictured: Sara Heesen — (Photo by: Fernando Leon/NBC)

American Ninja Warrior contestant Sara “Beastin” Heesen of Plymouth has proven that someone who’s been knocked down can surely get back up again by competing on the NBC hit show just months after being diagnosed with Lyme disease.

Growing up in California’s farmland, Heesen was always an active kid in school, including a decade-long gymnast. Later on, after moving to Minnesota, she took on the challenge of rock climbing, where she traveled both in-state to places like Red Wing, as well as states like Arkansas and Kentucky.
“I wasn’t great at it, but I liked it,” she said.

After about four years, Heesen began looking for her next challenge. That’s when she watched Kacy Cantanzaro become the first woman to complete the American Ninja Warrior finals course in 2014.

“I wanted to give it a try,” Heesen said. And after finding a nearby Ninja Warrior gym, she had a new hobby.
“I found my tribe – I found my sport, that’s what it felt like,” she said.

The part-time waitress had practiced so much she eventually was hired as a trainer at Conquer Ninja Warrior gym in Eden Prairie.
Heesen described the Ninja Warrior scene as being “a bunch of adults that never really grew up who want to play,” which is what she loves about this sport.

“It’s you against the obstacle,” she said. It’s less stressful to her than people competing head-to-head, she said, noting “ninjas” are really supportive of one another, even in competitions.

“Even though there could be 40 people competing to get the top three spots, everyone wants everyone to do their best,” she said.

Being a gymnast for a decade and a rock climber “is definitely beneficial for a sport like this,” Heesen said, noting much of obstacle course relies on upper-body strength, which is also why it’s a male-dominated sport.

“I want to be competitive with the guys, but I’m not quite there yet,” she acknowledged.

For the first two years, Ninja Warriors was just a hobby for Heesen. She spent time in the gym, playing and having fun with the obstacles, she said.

Then she decided to apply to compete on the 2016 season. While she didn’t get a call to compete, she was invited to be a volunteer tester, where she traveled for five months to the five qualifying cities, as well as the finals in Las Vegas, to “test” the courses, making sure they were ready for the show.

She decided would wait and apply again for the 2017 season.

Sara Heesen of Plymouth demonstrated the warped wall, an obstacle on American Ninja Warrior. (Sun Sailor photo by Kristen Miller)

It was during that time when she began feeling exhausted. Heesen figured it was normal fatigue from being over-worked and traveling.

Fatigued and weak, Heesen would get a cold any time she tried to train.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” she said.

When she returned home from testing, Heesen decided to rest and hopefully sleep off whatever was affecting her.
“I didn’t get better,” she said and decided to go to the doctor in December.

At the same time, registration for the 2017 season was coming to a close. Despite being sick, “I didn’t want to miss my shot,” Heesen said, hoping she would be recuperated and ready to compete by April.

After numerous tests came back negative, Heesen asked to be tested for Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness, for which she tested positive. Heesen suspects a trip to the Boundary Waters was where she contracted the illness. She took the recommended antibiotics, and felt better a couple weeks later.

When Heesen was invited to compete in the qualifiers in Kansas City, she only had six weeks to train. Her episode aired July 3.
“I love how life works out, because this seemed so out of reach for me that it seemed ridiculous,” she said.

Her strength came back quicker than she thought. She even surpassed her personal record of 12 pull-ups and reached 16.

Being a part of the televised competition “was surreal.” The lights, cameras and the crowd made it “nerve-wracking,” she said. “At that point for me it was an issue of nerves rather than strength,” she said. “It’s hard to deal with the adrenaline rush,” she said with a laugh.

Contestants set out to complete five obstacles, such as steps, salmon ladder and spider climb, before reaching the 14-foot warped wall, at the top of which the final buzzer awaits.

Competitors don’t know what the course will be until the day before the competition so there isn’t time to prepare specifically for the obstacles.
“You just have to do your best,” she said. “Balance is my nemesis.”

The toughest for her was the fourth obstacle – “crank it up,” which works like a ratchet. She made it to the second of three ratchets before falling into the water.

“I really wanted to hit the buzzer, but I’m so stoked that I got on there and I’m so stoked I got to move on to the finals course,” she said.
The top 30 men and top five women go on to the area finals.

“I barely snuck by,” she said, but she made it into the area finals, which airs 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 14, on NBC.

“I’m not complaining at all. This was amazing,” she said, and is ready to start training even harder for next season. “I’m excited to go back and see what I can do after properly training for a year.”