Matt Iseman Previews Inspiring 'American Ninja Warrior Junior' Season 2

Scott Fishman
American Ninja Warrior Host Matt Iseman
Preview Trae Patton/Universal Kids

The youngsters on American Ninja Warrior Junior are bringing their best for Season 2 as these kid athletes inspire and amaze.

Matt Iseman joins his longtime Ninja partner Akbar Gbajabiamila to call the action alongside new co-host, Paralympic Games gold medalist Victoria Arlen. He finds the same overarching themes and positive environment on Ninja Junior as he does on the adult version that is going into Season 12 this year.

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“It’s still the spirit of camaraderie. Even though they are going head-to-head, you see them high-fiving each other at the start line and the finish line,” Iseman said. “They’re cheering for each other. When someone falls they pick themselves up. We’re watching nine-year-old kids out here competing on this big stage and blowing us away with their performances.

“The greatest thing about it, and it’s the same message of Ninja Warrior, is you’re not really competing against anybody. You are competing against yourself. You see kids who might have been nervous and doing something that exceeds their expectations.

"Seeing kids have this moment, potentially life-changing moment, where potentially the hard work pays off. Putting yourself out there and risking something pays off. We have races come down to a hundredth of a second. It was neck-and-neck. The  performances were incredible.”

More than 140 boys and girls, between ages 9-14, compete under the guidance of all-star ninja coaches including Najee Richardson, Barclay Stockett, Jessie Graff, Grant McCartney, Drew Drechsel and Meagan Martin.

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Their abilities are put to the test through a new course of obstacles ranging from the Spider Walls and Crazy Cliffhanger to the Flying Squirrel and Block Run. Adding a twist to the season are four wildcard races per age bracket with the two fastest Ninjas eliminated from previous qualifiers getting another chance at the quarter finals. In the end, three final winners (one per age bracket) will battle for the right to be called American Ninja Warrior Junior champion.

Before things get underway, we sat down with Iseman, who also currently hosts Live Rescue on A&E, to preview what’s to come.

American Ninja Warrior Junio Grand Finale

What are some of the Ninja Junior stories that struck a chord with you this season? 

Matt Iseman: So many of them have overcome so much whether it’s bullying or just challenging life situations. Hard issues. Health issues. The obstacles they’ve overcome off the course are often far more impressive than the ones overcome on the course. There were some kids who talked about being bullied. I think that is something every kid goes through in one form or another. Be in this environment people would think is competitive, instead find support and camaraderie. We got to see kids who met last year who are now friends who have been friends this entire year.

What I love is the stories of family. How we saw legacy children competing. Sandy Zimmerman, who was the first mom up the Warped Wall in Tacoma, her daughter comes to compete. We saw siblings in different age groups. It goes to the heart of what makes American Ninja Warrior special in that it’s about family. Not only the family you have, but the family you choose and surround yourself with. Now we have competitors from nine to seventy seven and every walk of life and challenge and every stage of the union and everywhere.

American Ninja Warrior Junior, Season 2, Victoria Arlen

New cohost Victoria Arlen (Trae Patton/Universal Kids)

Speaking of inspirational stories, this year you have Victoria Arlen coming in to host. What kind of energy did she bring to the show? 

Laurie Hernandez is a little bit busy preparing for a little thing coming up this summer in the Olympics. To have Victoria Arlen come in, who is an accomplished swimmer and has one of the most unbelievable stories of triumph. She went from a coma and pretty much everyone but her family and doctors gave up on her. She is just this joyous person here who has been through so much. She related well to the kids. It’s a blast.

We go from an Olympian like Laurie Hernandez to now Victoria. They do so well with the kids. Sometimes the kids get so emotional, and it’s great that Victoria is right there with them and cheering them on. It was a lot of fun. I will say I’m a little upset because she made me go to a workout class with her, and she smoked me. She destroyed me before we went to work. I said, “This isn’t the way to start the taping Victoria.”

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The winning gymnast works the sidelines of the kid version of the reality competition spin-off.

Childhood obesity is so prevalent in our country. What kind of impact do you think a show like this can have in this regard? 

I grew up playing football, basketball and baseball. Some kids don’t like traditional sports. They may not like the pressure of competitiveness, whatever it is. The one thing I love about Ninja is the way the community embraces you from whatever activity level and wherever you’re starting. Rather than feeling, “Hey, you can’t do the Warped Wall. You wait until we’re done.” Instead I see day-after-day, I follow these Ninjas and try to visit the gyms wherever I go.

I see some of the legends. Guys like Ryan Stratis or David Campbell, they take the time to welcome newcomers. They make it feel like no matter where you’re starting, as soon as you show up, you’re just like us and part of this Ninja family. This is a place where you can push yourself, and the goal isn’t to be better than anybody but the person you were yesterday...

It doesn’t matter what size or shape you are, you’re welcome to be on Ninja Warrior. It’s a great activity where you realize if you fall, it’s not a failure. Just get back up. That’s part of growing. Our show is the most family watched show on television. So for kids to get an opportunity to compete, it has been amazing.

American Ninja Warrior Junior

You have so much on your plate within the Ninja Warrior realm, but you are also hosting Live Rescue. Do you feel a renewed respect for these heroes in the field? 

I’m an MD and went to school at Columbia. I’m back in New York with Live Rescue, where I’ve had a chance to go out to St. Louis and Sacramento to meet these first responders and see what they do. We see it on the news and social media about some amazing rescue. You only see about 90 seconds of it.

What I love about our show is it really humanizes these first responders. We did an episode in San Bernardino where there was a wildfire. For two hours, we are there on the frontline watching over 100 fire fighters, trucks rolling in, helicopters fly in, the logistical struggles of coordinating this. How you’re getting people out, evacuating the scene, going door-to-door, how you get water up in a dry area, how you battle power lines and raging wind. Seeing these men and women week after week who you know have families run in where others would run out. Where every natural instinct tells you to run away to preserve yourself, it’s just amazing.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence when I look at Ninja Warrior and think of our great competitors like Mike Bernardo or Selena Laniel who became first responders. That tenacity they bring and camaraderie. That’s what I love about Live Rescue. We’re seeing people have the worst day of their lives and at their most vulnerable. But to me, that gives people a chance to be at their best. These first responders come in and make them feel safe, like humans. They don’t treat people like patients. They treat them like humans. As an MD, I love being able to tell those stories.

Live Rescue, Matt Iseman

Iseman hosting A&E's "Live Rescue" (Chris Gregory/A&E)

American Ninja Warrior Junior, Season 2 premieres Saturday, February 22, 7/6c, Universal Kids 

Live Rescue, Season 2 episodes continue Mondays, 9/8c, A&E