Q&A with Bethel’s Own American Ninja Warriors

Alumnus Leif Sundberg ’12 and current Bethel student Ben Martin ’21 will appear on season 13 of NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, airing on Monday evenings this summer. In this Q&A, the athletes share about their experience, their inspiration, and how Bethel equipped them to compete on the show.

By Cherie Suonvieri '15, content specialist

July 12, 2021 | 9 a.m.

Ben Martin, senior at Bethel University, on American Ninja Warrior

Ben Martin is a senior media production major at Bethel. He says that being on American Ninja Warrior has taught him that he enjoys seeing others succeed more than he enjoys focusing on his own success.

This isn’t their first rodeo. Both Leif Sundberg ’12 and Ben Martin ’21 have competed on past seasons of American Ninja Warrior, and the sport of ninja has held an important space in their lives for years. This season marked Sundberg’s fourth appearance on the show and Martin’s second. Here, they share more about their experience with American Ninja Warrior.

What first made you decide to compete on American Ninja Warrior?

Leif Sundberg: When watching the show, the competitors come across as super athletes. But when they share their backstory, they’re all just doing their everyday jobs. They’re janitors, doctors, social workers—everyday people who aspire to be something greater. So, I got it in my head that this was something I could do, too.

Ben Martin: I had been doing parkour and free running, both extreme urban sports, for seven years. I started working at a ninja gym in Roseville, Minnesota, because I figured it would be better than working at Culver's—and at the time, I didn’t know anything about the show. I wanted to get better at interacting with the kids for my job, which included teaching classes and being a birthday party host, so naturally, I had to start learning the obstacles. And between the sport of ninja and the community of people surrounding it, I just fell in love. I started competing in ninja competitions locally, and then my boss encouraged me to apply for the show.
Leif Sundberg, Bethel alumnus

Leif Sundberg studied biology at Bethel. He recently graduated from a physician assistant program and celebrated the birth of his first child. Sundberg says competing on American Ninja Warrior is a big deal—but he can’t take it too seriously. He tries to be upbeat and charismatic, drawing off the crowd’s energy.

The competitors on the show all seem to have an alter ego and a cause they’re raising awareness for. Can you tell us about yours?

BM: My ninja name is the Flipping Ninja. I just do a lot of flips. The logo on my shirt is the Korean flag because I’m a Korean adoptee. I’ve gone through a lot of mental health battles, many of which were tied to being adopted. My goal on the show is to encourage young adoptees and demonstrate that even through really difficult and challenging things in life, there’s always good things that can come out of it. To motivate young people in general is my ninja mission.

LS: The Swedish Ninja is my alter ego. My great-grandparents on both sides emigrated from Sweden to Minnesota, so I have a strong Swedish ancestry. My family has always had a special bond with the country of Sweden, and I’ve actually been able to connect with a lot of ninjas in Sweden, because Ninja Warrior is huge there. On the course, I always have a few Swedish fish with me before my run, to give me some energy before the course—the show always loves playing that up.

The real motivator for my training was my mom. She was a professor at Bethel and was the director of the organizational leadership program. She unfortunately passed away from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It was her fighting this disease that inspired me to do something greater than myself and to try and be the best version of myself. I’ve got a working body, working brain, and I want to utilize the gifts that God gave me. We sometimes have fundraisers for the Alzheimer’s Association. Competing on Ninja Warrior gives athletes a platform. We all have these causes that we’re passionate about that we’re able to shine some light on.

Image of Ben Martin training in Bethel's Wellness Center

Before competing on American Ninja Warrior for his second time, Martin trained five times a week here, in Bethel’s Wellness Center, as well as five to six times a week at a local ninja gym.

What is training for American Ninja Warrior like?

LS: Training for the show is pretty intensive and so incredibly hard on the body. You’re training three to four hours a day doing upper body stuff, calisthenics, gymnastics work, and balance work. The show itself encompasses so many different facets of fitness. I try to be a master of all trades, but I’ve got my strengths and weaknesses. I try to balance those out prior to the show, so that when I do step out onto the course, I’ll be as ready as I’ll ever be. 

BM: When I first got on the show in 2019, I’d only been training for about nine months. A lot of people who do well on the show train for a year, two years, sometimes even three years beforehand. I really had to ramp up the obstacle training, and I also had to increase my cardiovascular capacity because I have asthma, which makes the super intense, short bursts on obstacle courses pretty difficult for me.

For this year, I wasn’t expecting to get on the show at all. School got really busy, courses were piling up, and my freelance videography company was really growing—so ninja had kind of fallen to the side. But then I got the call that they wanted me to come out and run the course in a month. So, I went to the ninja gym five to six times a week and then I trained five times a week in the Bethel Wellness Center. That was really intense and really unsustainable, but definitely a period of growth for me.

How has your Bethel experience equipped you for the show?

BM: Bethel has helped me figure out what my priorities are and which things in life matter most. When I do really well on the show, I’m able to celebrate with humility in mind, and Bethel has taught me to appreciate all the gifts I’ve been given. On the opposite side of that, when I’ve done poorly, Bethel has equipped me to develop the right values and surround myself with the right people. It’s also helped me to not focus on the vanity of Ninja Warrior, and I’ve used my faith perspective to determine how I conduct myself.

LS: One thing that really stuck with me from my Bethel experience is the pursuit of excellence. In high school I did well in my classes, I did well in athletics, but I never really applied myself to the fullest extent. At Bethel, my coaches and professors challenged me to reach beyond the status quo. My soccer coach, Jeremy Iwaszkowiec, challenged me to be the leader on the team and step up as a goalkeeper. I translated that work ethic and that pursuit to the training I did for Ninja Warrior.

Leif Sundberg, Bethel University alumnus on American Ninja Warrior

While the show is an independent competition, Sundberg says that the competitors see it more as the individual versus the course, rather than a competition against one another. “We all hurt when someone falls and we’re all thrilled for people when they succeed,” he says.

What’s something about the show that might surprise the average viewer?

LS: The show is filmed at night if it’s outdoors, which means when you’re watching people compete on the show, they’re typically running the course between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. It’s not ideal hours to be doing this intensive upper body work. Some people will change their sleep cycle for the week leading up for it, but I typically just stay up for 24 hours straight.

BM: What’s most surprising is the authenticity of all the competitors. Getting dinner with the big ninjas even the night before we were about to compete was super eye-opening to how positive the community really is, even at the highest level. Everyone is just so real, kind, and authentic.

What was it like competing alongside each other?

BM: Having Leif there was huge. I’ve known him for about three years. We’ve trained together for a decent chunk of that time. He’s been a mentor and a really good role model. It was nice to have a familiar face cheering for me, and to be able to do the same for him. Being able to represent Bethel was a super unique experience. 

LF: Competing on American Ninja Warrior in front of millions of viewers can be an incredibly daunting task. However, having fellow ninjas like Ben by my side and cheering me on helps ease the anxieties of competing on the show.    

Ben Martin, Bethel University student, on American Ninja Warrior

Martin says his first time on American Ninja Warrior he had tunnel vision, and his run was the fastest two minutes and 16 seconds of his life. But this time, he was able to be present and experience everything in the moment.

Do you see yourself auditioning for the show again in the future?

BM: Absolutely. As long as the show is airing, and as long as I’m qualified to apply, I think I’ll go for it every year.

LF: I think so. It’s transitioned from doing this for my sake and my fulfillment to now doing it to be a positive role model as a father—to do it as something for my son to look up to. He was able to stream in to watch my run with his mom. He won’t remember it, but it’ll hopefully be something to look back on and give him something to aspire to as a little guy.

Competitors don’t know when their show will run until closer to the air date, but Martin and Sundberg are both expected to appear in the July 12 episode of American Ninja Warrior. Tune in to watch our Royals run the course on NBC or on NBC.com after it airs.  

More on Leif Sundberg and American Ninja Warrior

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard from Leif Sundberg about his American Ninja Warrior experience. We followed up with him after his first appearance on the show in 2016. Check out this story from our archives to hear more.

Read Leif's Story