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Two local athletes keep on mastering the art of ninja-style competitions

Anabella Heinrichs and Anika Pivetta, both 16, work out at the Warrior Playground in Longmont and are now are competing professionally.

Hiding beneath the South Pratt Parkway bridge in Longmont, the Warrior Playground has been serving ninjas-in-training and Spartan Race athletes for the past five years.

Now, two 16-year-old girls who work out at the Playground are competing professionally. Anabella Heinrichs and Anika Pivetta have done well in teen competitions for the past few seasons and appeared this year on “American Ninja Warrior Junior” on Universal Kids. Their trainer and Warrior Playground owner, Sam Banola, believed they were ready for the next level.

“Within the past couple of seasons, they’ve both placed in the top 10 (nationally) in teens between the ages of 13 to 16,” Banola said. “They’re still both 16 so they could stay in the teen division but honestly, there’s no competition for them. So I moved them into the pro division this season.”

On Nov. 14, at a competition at the Warrior Playground, both Heinrichs and Pivetta held their own against Melisa Anderson, a seasoned professional and previous winner of the Colorado Ninja Challenge. Pivetta, who lives in Berthoud, finished third, while Heinrichs won first place by a narrow margin. Both Anderson and Heinrichs completed eight of the 12 obstacles laid out on Banola’s difficult course, but the Longmont teenager was a little quicker than the veteran.

“She’s legit, one of the top 10 women in the country,” Banola said of Anderson. “For Anabella and Anika to be competitive with, and recently beating her, they’re just amazing. They’re just awesome athletes.”

After state and regional qualifiers take place this winter, the season is scheduled to culminate with a championship tournament in April in Las Vegas. Thanks to television shows like “American Ninja Warrior,” ninja athletic competitions have grown in popularity.

“That’s what made me find this gym,” Pivetta said during a break at Warrior Playground on Monday. “We were watching it one night. Afterward, my mom was like, ‘maybe we should find a gym with some obstacles in it.’”

The show also served as inspiration for Heinrichs.

“I watched the show a lot and I built courses in my backyard,” she said. “My cousins did the sport and they were telling me that I should come in because I’ve always had some upper body strength.”

While an inspiration for athletes, the show doesn’t tie directly to various ninja leagues.

“The show and the leagues don’t really have anything to do with each other,” Banola  said. “There are way more ninjas than there are spots on the shows. I’ve applied five or six times and I got on once. Over 75,000 people apply every year and there’s typically only 700 spots at best.”

Banola tries to hold his own with students much younger than him. At 47, he can still compete professionally, but over the past two years was slowed by a knee injury.

“He’s really wonderful to work for but he makes some really rough courses,” Pivetta said. “Especially during competitions.”

No one was able to complete the women’s course on Nov. 14. Banola was an unofficial men’s participant because he designed the course himself.

“It’s a learning experience,” Heinrichs said. “You’ve been doing all this training, you’ve been working really hard and it’s a chance to prove what you can do. It’s less about finishing and more about just doing as much as you possibly can and learning from it.”

The two teens have competitions to look forward to this winter and more in the future. They’ll spend a lot of time at the Playground, doing countless drills in short bursts that try to mimic the demands of an obstacle course.

“Colorado has some of the best ninjas in the world,” Banola said. “It’s amazing how many.”

Correction: Heinrichs and Pivetta moved to the pro division from teen competition. That information was incorrect in the original posting of this story.