My name is Ashley Boynes-Shuck.
I am an author and a Healthline reporter who has lived with a debilitating and systemic form of autoimmune arthritis (and other health issues) since I was 10 years old.
There are days that walking is a painful chore for me.
And then, there’s my husband, Mike Shuck.
He’s an elite athlete who has been training to become the next American Ninja Warrior.
When it comes to our physical abilities — or lack thereof — are we polar opposites? Yes.
But are we going to stick together through sickness and in health? Yes. Absolutely.
My personal journey with health issues began when I was in elementary school.
Mike’s journey into the world of physical fitness started even before then.
Kathi, a professional dancer who owns her own dance studio and still teaches dance classes, and Mike, a former football player and bodybuilder who currently trains high school athletes, raised my husband.
Athletics are in my husband’s blood. In fact, Mike’s great uncle, Aldo “Buff” Donelli, was a FIFA World Cup soccer player. And he was the only football coach in Pittsburgh to simultaneously coach at college and pro levels (for Duquesne University and the Pittsburgh Steelers).
You could say that Mike Shuck was born to be an athlete — and you wouldn’t be wrong — but there’s much more to it. Many people can become athletes. Not everyone can be a Ninja Warrior.
How a Ninja Warrior is made
Mike got the idea to apply for NBC’s hit show “American Ninja Warrior” after watching the series and realizing he would likely be physically capable of conquering a lot of the stunts.
“I watched the show,” he said, “and I thought, ‘I can do that.’”
And so he tried.
Together with his brother Matthew — a professional photographer — Mike put together an audition video that garnered thousands of views online.
It eventually caught the eye of the casting company affiliated with the NBC show.
In the “American Ninja Warrior” audition video, Mike showcased the dichotomy that is his life: elementary school teacher by day, fitness maniac by night.
It also spotlighted the feats he conquered during his training process, including building his own Warped Wall and other Ninja Warrior obstacles, practicing with kettlebells, doing other unconventional training methods, and scaling bridges with his bare hands.
His athleticism is apparent even in that brief visual portrayal.
As a former football player, soccer player, and wrestler, Mike had always been gifted at sports, and knew he had some athletic ability.
But becoming a Ninja Warrior was different. This wasn’t grinding it out on the gridiron, competing in kettlebell competitions, or dominating at cornhole and other yard games.
This was something completely different.
Luckily, Mike had a background in doing obstacle races and mud runs. In addition to running in more conventional races, Mike began to compete in these grueling events a few years ago, and became impassioned by the physicality and grit involved in this unique type of exercise.
“I definitely think that my wide and varied range of athletic endeavors has helped me to better prepare for ‘American Ninja Warrior,’” he said.
His training includes tabata-style high-intensity interval training, kettlebell training, traditional weightlifting, running, biking, exercises to bolster his grip strength, balance, and agility, and everything in-between, including tire flips, utilizing sledgehammers, mace clubs, sled pulls, monkey bars, balance balls, medicine balls, weighted ropes, and even doing fun things like ropes courses, mud runs, and obstacle courses.
Mike even did some balance training on a Funky Duck hoverboard.
He also works out on many obstacles that mimic those seen on “American Ninja Warrior” and its international counterparts. He has also tried everything from yoga to trampoline practice, kayaking, hiking with his three dogs, and beyond. Being active isn’t just a part of his lifestyle — it’s who he is.
“In my opinion, to become an American Ninja Warrior, you need unconventional training,” he said. “A Ninja Warrior will not be in a big-box gym ‘flexing & texting.’ Having big muscles is not the goal of training for ‘American Ninja Warrior.’ The goal is to obtain functional strength, but especially grip strength, like a rock climber, and also endurance, agility, mobility, focus, determination, and most of all, heart. What tools do you use to achieve these goals? Primarily body weight, especially pullups, kettlebells, sandbags, battle ropes, monkey bars, mace clubs, steel clubs — these are the tools of an American Ninja Warrior.”
NBC agreed that Mike has what it takes, and so off we went to Philadelphia for the first step in his rookie Ninja journey.
Why he’s doing it
When interviewed by local Pittsburgh media, Mike was often asked why he was doing “American Ninja Warrior.”
The main reason is because it was a goal he set for himself and something he wanted to achieve.
“I have to at least give it a shot, no matter how far I make it,” he said.
But even more than that, Mike — known to his students as Mr. Shuck, and his personal clients as Mountain Goat Mike — wanted to do it for his elementary school students and the people who he trains. He wants more than anything to make the kids — and the city of Pittsburgh — proud.
In fact, he credits the students that he teaches with helping to inspire him on his journey. The elementary school where he works is incredibly supportive as is the gym where he is a personal trainer and class instructor.
Mike also told NBC producers that part of why he was doing it was for me. Mike wants to do this competition on behalf of all of those who are sick or disabled, and who are unable to do it themselves.
“I see my wife wishing she could even run a 5K, or exercise daily the way I and many of her peers do, but she can’t always do so due to physical limitations that are no fault of her own. So I want to do this for her and for all those who cannot. And her support helps encourage me when I feel discouraged. I think we both do that for each other,” he said.
And while Mike has never tried a physical feat of this magnitude before, it has been a learning experience for him and a source of pride.
“No matter what the outcome is this season, I’m going to keep at it. Being a Ninja Warrior is a part of my lifestyle now,” he said. “I think I can do well because of my mental grit and determination — and a whole lot of dedication and support of those around me,” he added.
An inspiring journey
As Mike’s wife, it is inspiring for me to watch not just his “American Ninja Warrior” story — but also the stories of all of those who are involved.
To even get to that level of competition and elite athleticism is nothing short of amazing.
Some people in my health situation would feel jealous or bitter, but I simply feel inspired by these warriors, and in awe of the scope of what the human body can achieve.
It gives me hope. And I know that I am a “Warrior” in a different sense of the word.
Other rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients agree.
“I am inspired by these shows and highly motivated. When I watch these shows, I feel as if I can conquer my setbacks, and I try hard to,” said Georgia resident Tami Wahle, who has RA and other conditions.
Rebecca Brant, another RA patient who hails from the state of Washington, said, “I’m so inspired by all who attempt these courses, especially those dealing with RA and other issues. I can live vicariously through them, imagining the thrill of having such strength and finesse.”
But other patients have mixed feelings: a combination of envy and inspiration.
Salyna Kennedy of Oregon was diagnosed with RA at 3 years of age.
“I have felt both sides of this: inspired, and yet sad that I can't do some of the really cool stuff,” she said in an email. “Although living with RA and chronic pain for 35 years has taught me to be thankful for those people like Mike Shuck, and to just sit back and enjoy the fact that I can even attend or watch the stuff I'd really enjoy being able to do … like mud drags next weekend.”
Living with RA is tough, and like these women, I can personally attest to that fact. But one “American Ninja Warrior” competitor is just as tough as RA — in fact, he’s even tougher.
Abel Gonzalez of Texas is a 32-year-old “American Ninja Warrior” competitor. He was diagnosed with RA at the age of 23 — but he certainly doesn’t let his RA define him, or detour his journey.
Gonzalez, an inspirational speaker, wellness center owner (AXIOS Warrior Academy), and a two time national finalist on “American Ninja Warrior,” was at the Philadelphia qualifiers for season eight of the NBC show.
And Abel’s training regimen is pretty intense, despite his RA.
“I usually do movement training two or three times a week with obstacle practice on Saturday or Sunday. As far as how long, it's about 10 hours a week. Doesn't seem like a lot, but the movement training I do is very specific and effective. It's surprising how well it also trains my cardiovascular system and muscle endurance,” he said.
But it isn’t without challenges.
“I try not to train more than that though. I start to feel joint issues if I do,” Abel said. “First, my hands will no longer open and close without pain. If I keep pushing it, I'll start to get more severe pain in my hips and knees. Even if I'm training properly, if I train more than three times a week, my joints slow down because of the pain. It's a great reminder to be careful with my nutrition and my training.”
He may be on to something. It was recently shown that people with rheumatoid arthritis who regularly partake in rigorous exercise programs might actually see a decrease in RA symptoms. But it all boils down to listening to one’s body, balance, moderation, and an overall healthful lifestyle of wellness that includes nutrition.
Abel’s diet is one that is almost completely raw and always fresh. This unique take on getting back to basics with raw, whole, instinctual nutrition, and a more holistic and intuitive approach has helped him to cope with his RA immensely well.
In fact, he no longer goes to traditional medical doctors to manage his disease, but acknowledges that not everyone is in the same situation.
“I was told disability was inevitable,” he said, “but I never let myself believe that.”
Abel certainly didn’t let his RA stop him from achieving his dreams, nor has he allowed it to cause him to become disabled just yet — and he’s inspiring many “American Ninja Warrior” viewers with his journey.
“With the current season included, I have competed the last three years on ‘American Ninja Warrior,’ was captain on the first season of ‘Team Ninja Warrior,’ and first alternate of Team USA for season seven. As a rookie walk-on in my first season, I made it to stage two in the national finals. At that point only two other competitors had ever done that,” he recalled. “That historic performance was how I was invited to compete on season seven. On season seven, I surpassed my first year by making it to the legendary stage three.”
His story isn’t the only one that is inspiring. During this season alone, there were men and women who beat the odds: a male competitor who attempted the course despite having only one leg, a female ninja with Parkinson’s disease, and a man whose wife is battling Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.
Another interesting fact to those of us in the rheumatic and chronic illness community is that one of the hosts of “American Ninja Warrior,” Matt Iseman, is a former medical doctor turned comedian and TV host. Matt also lives with RA, which he discussed in a recent issue of Arthritis Today magazine.
He and the other show personalities and participants often tweet about the inspirational stories and athletes on the series.
This season’s “American Ninja Warrior” will air on Monday, June 27, at 9 p.m. on NBC. Reruns of Monday’s episode will air during the week on Esquire Network.