Training ninja warriors during pandemic

Monterey Herald
By Lisa Crawford Watson

Still open during pandemic, Rising Star Gymnastics offers outlet for youngsters

Monterey — They run, jump, climb, hoist, and fly through the air, their grit revealed in massive muscles and focused faces. They are a school teacher, youth minister, gym owner, stunt woman, cameraman, meteorologist, mom. They also are contestants on “American Ninja Warrior,” a televised sports entertainment competition on one of the world’s largest and most daunting obstacle courses.

“American Ninja Warrior” debuted in 2009 and is based on the similar Japanese television series “Sasuke.” It features hundreds of competitors attempting to complete obstacle courses of increasing difficulty in various cities across the United States, in hopes of advancing to the national finals on the Las Vegas Strip, to become the season’s American Ninja Warrior. The competition is now held and aired in nearly 20 countries.

A little more than a month ago, Ravn Peterson could not have imagined himself becoming an American Ninja Warrior. Now, the 9-year-old from Pacific Grove has it in his sights. An active guy with an equally engaged attitude, Peterson was starting to feel a little claustrophobic after COVID closed his campus and canceled his activities. Until his mother enrolled him in the “Ninja Zone” training program at Rising Star Gymnastics & Training Center in Monterey.

Rising Star Gymnastics owner Kelly Brady-Favaloro and her two children (Philip M. Geiger — Special to the Herald).
(Kelly’s photo)

Focused on kids, ages 4 to 9, Ninja Zone is a fusion of gymnastics, martial arts, obstacle training, and freestyle movement, designed to build character and cultivate discipline while it develops coordination, increases strength, and improves agility.

“We started our Sports Agility and Ninja Zone programs in 2014, in response to a huge interest due to ‘American Ninja Warrior,’” said owner Kelly Brady-Favaloro, who grew up in Rising Star, which was founded in 1982 by her mother Kathleen Brady. “Our boys are particularly interested, but we have some equally focused girls in the program.”

Brady-Favaloro and her staff work with the progressive “Ninja Zone” lesson plans for ages 3 and up, which enable kids to advance through skills testing. Participants wear a special uniform and different color headband depending on their skill level. All of which helps them feel like they belong.

“If you listen to the interviews during the ‘American Ninja Warrior’ competition on TV,” she said, “a lot of the top competitors were gymnasts or worked out in a gym. This gives them strength, flexibility, spatial awareness, athleticism, courage, commitment — all things they can transfer from the gym to other sports and other aspects of their lives.”

Rising Star has hosted its own, in-house competitions, most recently in February, before COVID canceled their calendar.

“These competitions were perfect for younger kids,” said Brady-Favaloro. “This whole genre of fitness and athleticism is growing, and bigger competitions and events are happening across the country. There will be many more opportunities for competition once COVID is resolved.”

How high is up
Just about ready to climb the walls during quarantine, Ravn Peterson converted his couch into an obstacle course. That’s when his mom, Randi Buckley, sent her son to Rising Star.

“Ravn was very active and had been swimming regularly,” said Buckley. “Suddenly, we could find very little for him to do, until he entered the ‘Ninja Zone.’ Ravn’s coach gives him direction in a way that challenges him but is not dangerous, which teaches resilience and grit. Now, he knows he can do hard things.”

(Rayn photo)
Ravn Peterson says ninja training feels like he’s skydiving “except a little lower.” (Philip M. Geiger — Special to the Herald)

What Ravn likes most about the Ninja Zone is the feeling he gets when doing something for the first time, even, he says if it’s just a tiny thing.

“It’s really fun to see somebody do something you never ever thought you’d be able to do,” he said, “and then you do it. I thought for sure a flip would be impossible for me, and then I landed it. Ninja training feels like I’m skydiving except a little lower.”

Brady-Favaloro talks to parents who say their child was climbing poles outside Macy’s, flying over the couch at home, climbing trees, or asking to jump off the roof, so they enrolled them in Rising Star’s Ninja Zone.

It was understandably hard on the young ninjas when Rising Star had to close for a few months this past spring, so Brady-Favaloro held Zoom workouts and trainings. Once they reopened in July and returned indoors, they implemented strict COVID guidelines of sanitizing and social distancing, including wearing masks while working out.

“At first, some people were hesitant to send their kids back to us,” said Brady-Favaloro, “but they saw how we could still work together, spaced apart, with doors open and masks in place. Playgrounds didn’t open until (recently), and only in some areas, so we’re really glad we can give kids a chance to move.”

Rising Star is located in a large, open space, that houses spring-loaded tumbling floors, trampolines, a foam pit, rings and high bars, and lots of blocks and other equipment for building walls and towers that mimic outdoor structures. Because the walls of the training center open up like a warehouse, the place gets a lot of fresh air which has allowed them to stay open even with the county in the most restrictive COVID-19 tier. It also offers young athletes room to move at a safe and social distance from one another.

Resident ninja warrior

Salinas native Evin del Rosario, who has competed in regional Ninja Warrior competitions, started with Rising Star in one of their training programs before Brady-Favaloro hired him to coach the ninja programs.

“Our kids absolutely follow ‘American Ninja Warrior’ on NBC, and so do a lot of their parents, so it’s been great to have Evin as our ninja coach,” she said. “In trying these moves, we want our kids to learn how to fall safely, where they should be looking, where to plant their hands, knowing that just watching YouTube isn’t enough to teach them safely.”

Del Rosario, who spends a lot of time training and competing on the side, says his students’ goal, as he introduces them to elements of parkour and free-running techniques (moving past obstacles as fast as possible), as well as gymnastics and rock climbing, is to be better at urban gymnastics than he is.

“My goal for them,” he said, “is to take the concepts, the philosophies, and the discipline of ninja training and apply them to other aspects and directions in their lives. ‘No matter what obstacles might be in your way,’ I tell them, ‘there’s always a different way to approach it, so you can get over it, even if you believe it’s surmountable.’”

Nearly two months ago, Rosemary Savukinas, 11, was feeling the walls closing in at her Monterey home. The celebrated athlete in her family, she’s always been active, swimming regularly, and participating in a roster of sports. Once COVID closed down her opportunities for team sports and took her out of the water, her father enrolled her in the sports agility program at Rising Star.

“I like to show up early to watch Rosemary train,” said her father, Robert Savukinas. “I see, not just her physical development, but what this does for her confidence. It’s amazing. That she can do a flip and land on a soft space is getting her ready to navigate the hard landings in life. She is so motivated.”

Rosemary has been asking her father to build her an obstacle course at home.

“Goodness, gracious, no,” he said. “I’m sure I’d make it so unsafe — not deliberately — but I know she’s better off at Rising Star.”