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Why Women Are Thriving in Extreme Sports


Art Credit: NBC

This week marks the end of season six of American Ninja Warrior, an NBC sports entertainment spinoff of its Japanese counterpart, Sasuke. Last Monday night, more than five million viewers watched the USA vs. the World matchup in which Team USA competed against Team Japan and, for the first time, Team Europe.

It has been a particularly memorable season for the show because of contestant Kacy Catanzaro. Catanzaro made a name for herself—literally, her new nickname “Mighty Kacy” was trending on Twitter—by becoming the first woman in ANW history to finish the qualifying course, ranking her 21 out of 30 contestants.

The former collegiate gymnast successfully and quickly completed the physically taxing obstacle course at the Dallas finals. She ran across long falling platforms, jumping off each in time to make it to the next. She stood on a giant swing and gained enough momentum to jump far enough in order to latch onto a net. Body dangling in the air, Catanzaro clutched a metal bar that was supported on both ends by hooks, and used her strength to raise the bar higher onto the next set of hooks—several times. The twenty-four-year-old accomplished another feat in Dallas: She is the first female in ANW history to climb atop the 14-foot “warped wall.” Did I mention she’s five feet tall?

Nearly nine million viewers have watched her Dallas performance on YouTube, and celebrities took notice as well. “Jessica Biel tweeted at me, and then Justin Timberlake retweeted it and then wrote back,” remarked Catanzaro in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. Specifically, Biel tweeted, “This girl is five feet of ‘knock your ass out!’ #gogirl #schoolthemboys.” Timberlake chimed in with, “BADASS.”

With the rise of extreme sports, former athletes are able to keep competing far beyond college. This is especially true for athletes who have competed in less-common sports, such as gymnastics. Graduating from Towson University did not just mark the end of Catanzaro’s studies; it marked the end of her gymnastics career. “I was watching Ninja Warrior on TV,” Catanzaro told The Sun, “And I was like, ‘This is what I need to do next.’” As the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens.

Athletes like Catanzaro are making it cool for women to participate in extreme sports. While televised action sports like the X Games were originally marketed toward men, more women are now participating than ever before. Kelly Clark, a decorated X Games champion and two-time Olympic medalist said, “I have seen women’s participation grow dramatically over the last twenty years … there is a huge opportunity to grow and capitalize on that market.” Clark has more wins than any male or female snowboarder in history, according to U.S. Snowboarding. As more women participate on the big screen, more women are watching and become inspired to also participate in extreme action sports in their communities.

Tough Mudder, for example, also has a 70 to 30 male to female participation rate out of its 1.3 million participants. Original Mud Run founder Paul Courtaway told The San Antonio Express-News, “Eighty percent of the people who run (in the Original Mud Run) have never run a race in their life. You know who this appeals to, crazily? College sororities and groups of girls who love to get together and do things they normally wouldn’t be expected to do. Young moms and mom groups. Sixty percent of our runners are female.” Warrior Dash attracts an equal number of men and women.

Is it a good thing women are growing interest in these untraditional sports? I think so. Healthy competition—not just with others, but with ourselves—allows us to set goals, push ourselves past our limits, and stay fit. Catanzaro notes something equally important about obstacle courses: “I love running obstacles because it is a mental workout along with the physical. There is something in your way of getting from point A to point B, and it is up to you to make that path. I love having that kind of control!” Sports that combine fitness and fun? No wonder they’re such a success.