Chris Wilczewski is a Rowan University 2015 alumnus who majored in Marketing. Chris is the founder and chief operating officer for the World Ninja League, “home of the world’s leading obstacle course organization.” He discusses how he founded the company, his involvement in ninja competitions, his origin story and experiences throughout his educational and professional career.
How did you get involved with this hobby and profession?
I’ve been competing in ninja for over 10 years. I started back in season two of American Ninja Warrior. At the time, it was known as a little obstacle course show. To be honest, a lot of people confuse it for “Wipe Out.” But I had come across an open tryout for the show, American Ninja Warrior, while watching cable at some point. I thought it seemed kind of cool.
I’ve always kind of dabbled in different athletics and I thought, “Why don’t I go ahead and try it?” I flew out to Los Angeles for my first taping (the show’s second taping), and I did better than I expected. I really got hooked from that moment on.
What was it that you enjoyed most about the experience as a whole?
There’s a lot to enjoy about competing on American Ninja Warrior. First, there is the obvious cool factor of competing and doing something that premieres on television. However, I think deeper than that, the kind of movement and rhythm that you experience when competing in obstacles has really always attracted me.
I’ve always really enjoyed running, jumping and having fun with what I’m doing. I think what really got me hooked was the specific movements I had to do while competing, and being able to not only learn them but conquer them.
What was the camaraderie like amongst the competitors? Did you like hanging out outside of competition at all?
Competing in like the early seasons of American Ninja Warrior, it was definitely like a really small, tight-knit group. There were probably maybe 20-30 of us that were really at the pinnacle of the sport at the time. We all were super close, because it was such a close-knit community. We were not necessarily close in geographical proximity because we were all spread out all over the country; however, close in the sense that we always got brought together for this big competition.
Over the years, the number of athletes that were and are competing in these kinds of ninja style competitions has just grown tremendously. Today, the numbers have probably expanded to hundreds, if not thousands, in that selective group that can remain relatively competitive throughout their careers.
Can you talk a little bit about the growth of the sport and how talent within the sport has evolved?
When I started doing ninja competitions, it was a really small group; the popularity really just wasn’t quite there. People would confuse it for “Wipe Out” all the time. There wasn’t a whole lot of following and there weren’t a whole lot of competitions that were available for people to compete in either.
In the past 10 years, we’ve kind of seen the growth of American Ninja Warrior explode. There’s now tournaments all over, there’s discussions on this style of obstacle course competitions making their way into the Olympics, and the athletes that have been participating in these events has grown from the few 100 that used to try out for American Ninja Warrior, to tens of thousands that we now have competing across the globe.
It’s been really cool to kind of be on the ground floor of this because I’ve been able to see the growth firsthand. I have seen the development partake from a pure number and volume perspective and from an athletic standpoint while being a competitor.
In those early days, I’ve seen the evolution of what was challenging at the time to what the athletes are doing nowadays. I can tell you that the obstacles and movements these athletes are doing now is far beyond what it was like when I first started in the sport.
What are some of the biggest life lessons you’ve learned?
I think one of the biggest life lessons you can take away from doing this style of ninja obstacle course competition is really accepting or dealing with failures. I remember within my early seasons, I was always young, ambitious, hopeful and optimistic.
For ninjas, most of the time, almost every athlete that goes out there, ends up failing at some point. It’s kind of a tough position to be in knowing that every time you go out to compete in a tournament, that you will inevitably fail at some point. The sport always sets the athletes up to fail. I think this is good because it gives the athletes something to aspire to.
A great take away from that is learning how to deal with failure. How do you set realistic expectations for yourself, be content with your performance, and feel like you were able to go out there and give it your all?
I think over the years, as I became older, more seasoned, and more of a veteran, that I learned to put everything that I could into my training and my preparations so that I could be content with the outcome; I knew that I was able to give my all leading up to it. I feel like that takes a lot of emotional maturity to be able to just know that at some point, you’re going to fail.
Did you also have a support system with you? Can you talk about the importance of having a support system with you while you compete?
Yeah. Nobody enjoys dealing with failure. But there’s definitely some camaraderie in dealing with it as a group and I’ve always been lucky enough to have my family by my side. My wife has always gone through the various tapings with me and she’s been there with me for all the highs, the lows, the excitement, the anxieties and everything in between. I’ve always been grateful to have her by my side throughout all of it. It’s really important to be kind to that key support group.
What does your daughter think about your professional and athletic career because she is so young? Does she know you were on TV at one point or do you have to explain that to her?
My daughter is two now and she doesn’t really grasp fully what I do. She’s been on set at competitions and tournaments and she likes moving around them and watching the ninjas compete. It’s pretty awesome to see her participating in that capacity.
In terms of like do I ever plan to tell her about my years doing it competitively on TV? Probably not really. I think that she’ll find out eventually. However, for me as a father, my primary focus is about her and what she’s doing. If one day she sparks an interest, I’ll be happy to show her but I also am not trying to necessarily push her towards it.
Do you have a favorite memory season moment?
I think there’s two really iconic moments that stand out to me. The first one being that first time that I actually got up there and completed a full course and hit the buzzer. That feeling was just so satisfying because I didn’t really know what to expect. To go out there and to perform at that level (at the time I was probably 21) and compete against all these guys that had already done it for a year, was just a really awesome feeling. It really stuck with me.
Another instance that stands out significantly was when I competed after taking a year off. I took a year off because I had a pretty wild experience. I actually got swept into Lake Michigan. It’s called ‘lake’ but it felt like an ocean; there were like 1,015 foot waves, and it was pretty gnarly.
One of the waves came over this pier that I was on, and I got brought into the water with it. I’m not a super strong swimmer, and I was stuck out in the lake for like 30 minutes waiting for somebody. Luckily, I did get pulled out by some guy who just happened to be surfing the waves out there.
However, there was definitely some anxiety associated with that experience and I was not really set on competing in high stress situations. Furthermore, I took a year off and after taking that year off and really kind of capturing what had happened to me, I went back to competing and actually got first place.
That really stuck with me because it was like a return and not just to conquering the course, but kind of like overcoming some of the stuff that I dealt with leading into it.
What about being an American Ninja Warrior did you love so much that you wanted to move away from being front and center as an athlete to now behind the scenes?
Competing always gave me this tremendous sense of accomplishment but also this kind of natural feeling of flow or rhythm that you see in other sports like basketball, soccer when an athlete’s hitting their stride. I feel that sense of flow with ninja and with obstacles; I felt like this is something that should be a sport by itself and that I could see being the sport of the future. There are so many cool things about the sport. These technical aspects come from the obstacles, the techniques and the mechanics you pull from various disciplines like gymnastics, rock climbing and slack-lining. So many sports overlap in ninja competitions.
There truly are so many reasons why I wanted to stay within the industry. Kids love it, it is super cool and exciting, it is engaging, it photographs and videos well, and there are so many aspects about it that are just straight positives. I want my experience with ninja to provide the framework for more people to get involved.
Can you talk a little bit about what the business is and what your role is within this business?
I founded the World Ninja League in 2015 right around the time I graduated from Rowan. The organization essentially sanctions ninja competitions. So we set the rulebooks and the guidelines, describe how to set ninja courses, provide the details on what obstacles can be put in your courses, and etc.
We have the framework for how coaches get certified, we have training materials, and generally, we sanction the industry to run these various events. Furthermore, we’re partnering with these different organizations, whether it’s local gyms or local event companies that are producing these different ninja style competitions, and they follow our rules and guidelines. Then, they take athletes from their competition, and funnel them up to a big world championship that we host every year.
The goal of the organization is to grow the sport and our primary focus has been on the competitive end of things. In the same way that every person who follows basketball knows that if you’re behind the three point arc and you shoot the ball and it goes in, you’re making three points; We’re establishing the same rules and guidelines for ninjas, so that criteria and rules become standards for play.
So as the founder of the business, what does your day-to-day look like?
My day-to-day with the World Ninja League can be very different depending on what time of year it is and what events we have going on. For the past month, my day-to-day has been waking up and answering emails, clearing my inbox, and giving specific directions to various staff members, primary marketing functions, and organizing everything related to our sanctioned events. After those house-keeping-like tasks, I would drive down to the Gloucester County Fairgrounds and start assembling the course out there. That day could look like anything from excavating a 200-foot pit to erecting troughs and getting it stable in the air or rigging obstacles, taking measurements, and scaling it appropriately for different age groups. My job really involves just anything that’s associated with the course setup process.
About a month after these competitions take place, we take down this event and transition it to the next thing. My day-to-day is going to look a little bit more “typical” when it comes to somebody who’s in an operational management position. I’ll be looking at data coming in from different comps and performance factors, as well as how well athletes perform at other comps to help us set various standards. I’ll be looking at turnout in terms of the number of comps we have scheduled, the number of athletes attending those comps, and regulating and managing that to ensure that we hit specific criteria.
Where do you hope to see the business go in 5 to 10 years? What do you hope the legacy is?
Legacy is a great question. I think that’s one that’s widely debated in our community. Effort and energy are getting put into ninja becoming more of an Olympic sport, like ninja style obstacle course racing. We’ve been involved in those conversations; we’d love to see something like that progress and take place. But at the same time, we also want to see more of a professional field for ninja. Almost every sport is a pinnacle where athletes can compete in a professional circuit that allows them to platform themselves. Whether this looks like game sponsorships, showcases, or a different form, there are places for athletes to display their skills and dedication. We are working towards getting the athletes that type of platform.
That being said, that’s still not all of it. We’re also working on just growing the sport in general, getting the numbers up higher, getting more people involved, and lowering the barrier to entry. Then we’re also trying to work at the collegiate or academic levels. So, for example, we introduced a new concept called Ninja Teams from our past season. Right now, we have a lot of gym facilities with these Ninja Teams that go and compete at different comps and earn different points.
The long-term plan is to work that into different academic environments and hope to see it as something that could eventually, one day, potentially provide scholarship routes opportunities for athletes as it becomes more of a widely accepted sport. We’re trying to work all avenues because there are a lot of different paths to success for a sport; I think it’s too early to really know which one will be the one that runs away.
When you were in kindergarten, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I don’t know. I don’t think I had a clear vision of what I wanted to be when I was a kid. I always liked different sports and I was a big Phillies fan. At some point, I probably had aspirations of wanting to be a professional baseball player, not realizing how ridiculously challenging that was.
I think math and numbers have also always been fascinating to me. Looking back now, I probably envisioned being involved in a profession that had some foundation in math just because of how my brain works. Numbers also relates to data processing with managing a business. I think where I am today truly couples my love for sports and competition with my fascination in numbers.
Are there any specific classes you took at Rowan University that you believe were impactful to your career and where you are now?
There are a few classes that probably stood out to me regarding the growth of my organization. The least exciting class I have taken was probably the statistics class that I took because it was a little boring and dry for my liking. However, learning how to analyze large sets of data is so crucial when driving a business. You need to be able to predict or get within a reasonable range for events, like event turnout. The statistics class that I took at Rowan played a huge role in that.
The two more exciting classes I took was a Marketing class and an Entrepreneur class. The Marketing class was interesting because it’s all about getting the word out about a new organization. Especially with ninja competitions being such a new thing, it’s about taking the message and promoting it to the right person in the right channel. It is important to know what the right channel is for my company and I and what’s the right channel for the medium I am trying to engage.
The entrepreneurship class was also incredible. The class focused on innovation; how do you reinvent the wheel to create something new? With ninja as a sport, you have the television series that has gotten pretty widespread viewership. However, when it comes down to the nuances in the formats, the sport does not necessarily work for a mainstream audience because most people cannot currently do the things that are displayed on the show. The innovative entrepreneurial class taught me to think outside the box. It forced me to think about engaging specific target audiences and groups of people.
Can you talk about your experience with Rowan University?
I’ve always loved Rowan University and I really enjoyed my time there. I really enjoyed every resource opportunity that they provided to me after I graduated. Rowan always provides all current students and postgraduates with not only resources throughout their programs accessible, but through career advancement with local businesses for postgraduate employment.
I also really feel like there is an immense sense of community; I always felt like I was learning from those around me. I feel as if Rowan provides a huge wealth of knowledge and resources that would be difficult for students to get anywhere else.
Listen to a conversation with Chris on the Rowan University alumni podcast Beyond the Brown & Gold:
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Natalie DePersia, senior public relations major
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