July 5, 2016 | 9 a.m.
By Michelle Westlund, Senior Content Specialist
During his Bethel years, Leif Sundberg’12 majored in biology and was a goalkeeper on the men’s soccer team. After graduation, to hear him tell it, he was on the road to becoming yet another Minnesota guy of Swedish heritage who watched a lot of televised sports. But a family tragedy changed all that. Sundberg is now “The Swedish Ninja,” a recent competitor on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” who finds strength and motivation in the memory of his mother and her courageous fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
Sundberg’s mother, Glori Sundberg, spent a portion of her college career at Bethel, later returning to serve as director of Bethel’s organizational leadership program until memory problems caused by Alzheimer’s forced her to step down. She died in 2013 at age 56. “My mother was such a strong influence in my life and it was devastating to lose her,” he says. “Alzheimer’s has no cure or treatment, so once she was diagnosed there was an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. Still, my mother fought every day to be the best she could be, and it was her determination that ignited my journey to ‘American Ninja Warrior.’”
Sundberg had long been a fan of the Japanese television series “Sasuke” and its U.S. spin-off “American Ninja Warrior,” which features hundreds of participants attempting to complete a series of obstacle courses of increasing difficulty. Suddenly, he had the motivation to become more than just a fan. “It was always a dream of mine to compete on the show, but I never thought I was cut out for it,” he says. “It was my mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s that motivated me. If she could battle the disease, I could battle to compete on the show.”
In 2014, Sundberg says he “got off the couch and decided to train for the show.” He found Ninjas United, a gym in Buffalo, Minnesota, that was geared toward preparing ninja warrior competitors. He began serious training, eventually becoming a coach there, and applied to compete on the show. On his first attempt, his application was turned down. Remembering his mother’s determination, he revamped his training regimen and adopted the “Swedish Ninja” persona, a nod to his heritage. This time he was accepted, one of eight Minnesotans to qualify.
Sundberg’s “Warrior” episode was filmed in Indianapolis in April, and aired in June. “Competing on the show was a surreal experience,” he says. “Filming started at sundown and continued through the night, so I ran the course about 2 a.m.” He successfully completed three challenging obstacles, and was on his way to conquering the fourth, when his foot brushed a water hazard and he was disqualified. Still, the experience represented a dream fulfilled, a goal achieved, and a new opportunity to increase awareness and funding in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Sundberg now uses his ninja fame to participate in charity events and raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Association in honor of his mother.
His time at Bethel influenced this path. “While I was at Bethel, the idea of pursuing excellence was instilled into my work ethic,” he explains. “In school, friendships, faith, sports, and now in ninja warrior, I have always tried to be the best I could be.”
And he’s not finished. Sundberg still trains diligently, planning to run several competitive obstacle races this summer. He’s coaching, training, and helping with construction at a new Ninjas United gym, one of several locations slated to open in the Twin Cities area. Most importantly, he’s continuing his work as an advocate for the Alzheimer’s Association. With the same grit and determination he used to conquer ninja warrior obstacles, Sundberg is tackling the disease his mother fought valiantly. “God has given me strengths and abilities, and as the hands and feet of Christ, I’m doing my best to be a world-changer,” he says. “I’m certain that one day we’ll be able to restore hope to those families afflicted by this disease.”
Watch a brief video of Leif describing his journey.