Saturday, April 22, 2017

When Reality Gets Real

By Howard Balaban
Those of you who are regular readers of my work on this site may have wondered what I meant when I referred to reality TV shows when I signed off a few weeks ago. Time to explain.My soon-to-be sister-in-law is a contestant on one of the more popular reality shows for the second year in a row. In fact, she was part of a group that made history in Philadelphia last year, as four women reached that city's final round of American Ninja Warrior.

Her name is Rachael Goldstein, and while she'll officially become part of the family later this summer, she's really been part of the family since before my wife and I welcomed our son. Oh, and he turns 11 in August. So you can imagine the thrill last fall when we put the TV on for our kids and they saw their aunt flying through a number of crazy obstacles for the world to see.
But how did it all happen?
AN INNOCENT BEGINNING
"In the beginning I just saw (American Ninja Warrior) on TV and thought, 'Hey, I can do that," Goldstein recalled. "A lot of people didn't know if I could do it, but it looked fun."
At first, Goldstein viewed the ninja training as a "fun way to work out." She added that being on the show wasn't a goal, but she still figured that throwing her name out as a possible contestant wouldn't be a bad idea. As fate would have it, Goldstein did not learn she had been chosen to be on the show until one week before an already planned vacation to St. Lucia. That news altered her time out of the country just a bit.

"I went to a gym in St. Lucia...I ate healthy and worked out while I was there...and we didn't get back until the day before the competition," she chuckled. The feelings she had leading up to that first night in Philadelphia sounded like ones any athlete has before a high stakes match. Excitement and nerves, but not because of the event. No, that nervous excitement was there because of the unknown outcome of the event.

By the time the Philadelphia stage of the ANW season was over, Goldstein had become a small part of history. For the first time in the show's run, four women made the city finals.
"I didn't even realize I had the potential to be a part of that, but it was really cool how they started calling us the Fantastic Four," Goldstein said. She added that it was "nice to be considered an inspiration to some people, and I hope that maybe some kids could look at me and choose to lead a healthier lifestyle."
Indeed, Goldstein's profession is that of an occupational therapist, and helping people achieve goals, no matter how small, is part of her daily routine. To hear her embrace her newfound platform for such a reason is no surprise to those who know her.
Ninja watchers saw Goldstein earn a wild card place for the show's finals in Las Vegas. On a personal note, that stage of the competition led to a bit of loneliness in my house for a few days, as my wife (and mother-in-law, too) made the trip to watch her compete. For whatever reason, Goldstein's run in Vegas didn't air, but trust us, she was there.
A TOUGH SETBACK
In the months that followed, between wedding planning and work, Goldstein found the time to train and compete in various ninja events near home in New Jersey and the surrounding area. In a cruel twist of fate, the former youth gymnast slipped on a balance beam to start a course, and while bracing for impact to protect herself from the fall, her arm didn't land right.
"I'd already practiced on the course earlier in the day," she recalled. Having seen what appeared to be the seemingly tame obstacle, Goldstein agreed with my take on it: she would get by it easily 99 times out of 100. But on that particular day, it was the one time that struck.
"I hurt my elbow," she said. "I broke it in three places and strained a ligament, but it never crossed my mind to give up; I'm more stubborn than that."
The injury could have forced Goldstein to take it easy for a short period of time. However, like she said, the stubbornness won out.
"I couldn't use my arm at all for a couple months, but I was still going to the gym working on my other arm or my legs," she said.
The frustration at the gym was twofold. As anyone could expect, doing any type of jumping or hanging or ninja activities led to the broken elbow hurting just from Goldstein's body swinging around. The other part of the frustration was mental.
"Training for something like this is something I like to do, so I had to keep telling myself, 'This is just a temporary setback, and it's minor considering what could have happened,'" Goldstein explained.
Now with the elbow healed, Goldstein is looking forward to travelling to Cleveland in early May. "I feel now that I might be stronger than I was last year," she said. "I worked my butt off to get where I'm either at or past where I was last year."
The Cleveland stage of the ANW season is the closest to Goldstein, which is why she'll be competing there. The show will record on May 8 and 9 at night, and then air during the late summer and early fall.
"I have some high hopes, but anything can happen," Goldstein said of her anticipation level. "They don't let you try the obstacles before you use them, and they are designed to be hard!"
THE ROAD AHEAD
To say the past year has been a whirlwind for Goldstein would be an understatement. The next few months promise to be just as hectic. First, there is the Cleveland stage.
"I'm in a good place right now, but you can't take anything for granted," Goldstein said. As for her goals this season, they are pretty simple.
"I think if I can hit a buzzer, I'll be super happy," she said, her smile heard over the phone. "If I can make it to the finals of the city qualifier or the back half of the course...I don't know. We'll see what happens. I don't want to get ahead of myself."
Taking everything deliberately on the course is vital, Goldstein noted, as some "really amazing people" have fallen on the first obstacle. That still doesn't dim her hope, however, of reaching the top of a warped wall. Given the nation's current trend toward "girl power" in all of its forms, Goldstein was asked her thoughts on being one of just a few women who has made her mark in a sport that has been largely dominated by men. Her answer was straightforward.
"To me it doesn't matter that I'm a girl and there are a lot of guys in this competition and it's dominated by them. I don't care. I'm just going to go out there and try to keep up with them," she stated.
As for the rest of the field, Goldstein added, "Everybody should keep an eye out for all the girls coming out to compete this year. There are some really strong ones!"
Yet Goldstein should be included among that group as she is aided by her aforementioned gymnastics background. "I took about 15 years off before jumping back into it with ninja training, but it helped me develop a sense of balance.
"That muscle memory came back through a bunch of different body weight types of exercises," Goldstein explained. "A lot of it came back pretty fast, I think, considering how much time I took off."
So as the past and the present prepare to converge in a few weeks, Goldstein was asked about the allure of ninja training.
"Everyone should try it because it's like joining one big supportive community," she said."It doesn't matter what level you're at, whether you're brand new or a veteran, we're just excited to have new people to root for.
"It's a fun place to be, where you can get strong quickly no matter what age you are."
In Western New York, Goldstein mentioned The Warrior Factory in Rochester and Hybrid  Fitness in Buffalo as possible places for interested people to take a shot at such training. The Warrior Factory in Rochester is owned by Carl Fantuzzo, who is also a contestant on ANW. Goldstein said Carl's son was going to be competing this year, too.
In the meantime, Goldstein can be seen on Team Ninja Warrior. As part of the Superhero Squad, featuring multi-season veteran Jamie Rahn, Goldstein and her team can be seen on the episode slated to air on May 2. On that day, there probably won't be any training scheduled. It will be a night to relax on the couch with Jeff (her fiance and my brother-in-law) and their hors...I mean their dog, Mowgli (the dog has 30-40 pounds on her!).
We'll be watching at our house, too. After all, it's not every day you see someone you legitimately know on TV.

(Follow Rachael Goldstein on Instagram at "next.level.ninja")

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