How fit dad Brandon Todacheenie overcame self-doubt to become the 'Navajo Ninja'
It’s likely that anyone who has ever watched the popular obstacle course show American Ninja Warrior has thought to themselves, “I don’t think I could do that!” at least once during an episode.
Brandon Todacheenie has had those same thoughts. Except for him, the words had a slightly different bite to them.
The past three seasons, Brandon has faced the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course live and in person as a competitor on the show. Most recently, he competed in the Denver City Finals and ran the course for a chance to go to Las Vegas for the National Finals. His run was aired to the nation during the show, introducing us to the man known as the Navajo Ninja.
And more than flying through the air hanging onto a ring, or the grip strength required to shimmy his way up an I-beam on a pair of handlebars, or the balance required to get through the Jumping Spider (a popular obstacle on the show), Brandon says the hardest part was overcoming the doubt that hung in his mind.
“The toughest thing was for me to get over my mentality of ‘I probably can’t do this,’” Brandon says. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m not good enough. Other times, I’m like, ‘Man, I can do this.’ It’s that constant battle in my mind with myself, thinking I can’t do this, but then realizing that I can.”
That Brandon’s story was featured on American Ninja Warrior this season was the high point — so far — of an upward trending fitness journey, and yet, it’s hardly the end of Brandon’s story.
Brandon, 30, has lived his entire life in the community of Shiprock (N.M.), on the Navajo Nation reservation. Thus his moniker — Navajo Ninja.
Despite the reservation spanning more than 17 million acres across the states of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, and being home to more than 340,000 Native Americans, places to train and workout are few and far between. And forget about finding a ninja-style obstacle course.
Not only that, but Brandon faced an even bigger hurdle. According to the Indian Health Services website, “The American Indian and Alaska Native people have long experienced lower health status when compared with other Americans. Lower life expectancy and the disproportionate disease burden exist perhaps because of inadequate education, disproportionate poverty, discrimination in the delivery of health services, and cultural differences. These are broad quality of life issues rooted in economic adversity and poor social conditions.”
“Up and to the point of being introduced to American Ninja Warrior, I wasn’t really that physically active. I was just kind of an average Joe not working out and not interested in running or lifting weights,” Brandon says, “Living on the reservation, it’s a little tough because there’s not a lot of places to train or gyms like you see elsewhere. We have a small, little gym behind the hospital, and that’s about it.”
It wasn’t until Brandon and his wife, Michelle, welcomed their daughter, Isla, into the world five years ago that something inside Brandon changed when it came to how he thought about his health. Coupled with being introduced to American Ninja Warrior and thinking it looked cool, Brandon’s interest in fitness steadily grew.
“It wasn’t until she [Isla] came along that I actually became motivated to go to school and start working out,” Brandon says. “When you’re unhealthy, you reap the consequences of being unhealthy. You’re always tired. You just don’t feel good about yourself. Once my daughter came along, I felt like I needed to be healthier and be that positive role model to her and to my wife. It’s important to me to be a positive role model for my daughter, my wife, and for people on the reservation.”
With access to training facilities so scarce, Brandon began traveling off the reservation to go to ninja-specific gyms. Sometimes even three hours away in Albuquerque.
Before long, it became clear to Brandon that if he wanted to train more frequently on obstacles, he’d have to build them himself. So he did. Starting with a salmon ladder, Brandon began building obstacles in his yard, eventually working his way up to eight different obstacles. And so he trained as best he could.
Then came the chances to compete on American Ninja Warrior. In 2015, after sending in his application, he got the call to participate in the Houston event. But his shot at glory that year was short-lived, as he fell on the second obstacle of the course during qualifying.
And doubt crept in.
“I said to myself, ‘Man, I suck at this.’ It wasn’t really a self-esteem booster for me,” Brandon says. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not supposed to be doing this.’ But I just kept at it and kept at it, and then they called me back again the second year, in 2016, to compete again.”
That year, Brandon’s run ended on the third obstacle. He’d made it one step further than he had the year before.
That small sign of progress was enough to shift Brandon’s mindset.
“I started laughing to myself and thought, ‘All right, I’m going to stop messing around with this.’” he says. “So again, I just kept at it."
Which brings us to the 2017 season in which Brandon got called back for the third time. This time, Brandon made it further than he ever had in qualifying — far enough that he made it into the top 30, which meant he would run in the City Finals for a shot at the National Finals.
“It kind of surprised when I did really well in qualifying this year, when I made top 30,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. It was so unreal for me.”
Brandon’s run during the Denver City Finals was broadcast across the country, and he made it further than he ever had before — including past the obstacle that knocked him out in the qualifying round. Brandon’s run ended when he couldn’t make it up the Warped Wall on three attempts, but the seeds of victory beyond the course had been sown.
Brandon returned to Shiprock and the Navajo Nation reservation and began pouring himself into helping the community discover the same love of fitness he had come to realize. He helped put together an event called Impact Shiprock, a fitness and activity event for kids in which Brandon helped set up and run a kids obstacle course. He’s also going to college to be a physical education teacher, and he’s becoming active in his community’s local government.
Once his episode aired, his community was inspired, and Brandon said he received many messages from Native Americans across the nation who were motivated to start a fitness regimen because of Brandon’s run on American Ninja Warrior. Seeing the effect his run on the show had on his community and the Native American population at large has Brandon dreaming big.
“It’s my dream and my hope to open up the first ninja gym or obstacle gym on the reservation dedicated to kids who can come and hang out and do these obstacles,” he says. “I really am trying to help boost their self esteem, and I want to keep encouraging the kids to stay active and keep eating right.”
He plans to try to compete again on American Ninja Warrior next year, and he’s determined to do better than he did this season, a reflection of his approach to fitness that is inspiring an entire community of people to begin a life of health and fitness.
He says his journey has been made possible by the realization that any amount of progress, no matter how small, was still a positive step in the right direction.
“My advice would be to just take it one step at a time,” Brandon says. “A lot of times, we can feel like we have to accomplish a lot all at once, especially as men. We feel like we have to do everything and be strong about it. But we’re only human. We can only do so much.
“Take it one step at a time and take what’s in front of you. We can do anything, we just have to have a positive attitude about ourselves to continue to push forward. As men, we need to encourage one another to push forward, and we need to love our families and provide for them and take care of them. For me, as a dad, being able to protect my family and provide for them and help them live a healthy lifestyle is my goal.”