Ten feet. Twelve feet. All the way to the ceiling of Tri-Star Gymnastics is how high the Wright kids would stack mats, competing to see who was brave enough to jump and flip from the highest point. With their mom as owner of the gym in Forest Park, the Wrights grew up flipping and flopping at Tri-Star.
Now as adults, they are looking to their upbringing for an edge in American Ninja Warrior, a TV show that features competitors from across the country attempting to complete an obstacle course that comprises sliding steps, shaking giant balls, rings of different shapes and much, much more. Competitors aim to advance to the national finals on the Las Vegas Strip and become an “American Ninja Warrior.” After 10 seasons, and 142 episodes, only two competitors have so far ever successfully completed the obstacle course, winning the $1 million grand prize.
This season, brother and sister Nikkilette and Mike Wright both competed on the show, with Nikkilette in Los Angeles and Mike in Indianapolis, participating for the second time. Nikkilette fell in the first round, while Mike advanced to Las Vegas. Watch him compete at 7 p.m. on NBC on Aug. 27.
“I’m definitely really proud of them; they’re really nice kids and that’s what you as a parent hope for,” said Kristina Wright, longtime varsity gymnastics coach at Oak Park and River Forest High School. “They’re taking these journeys and personal risks in life. I just hope when other kids see that, they think, ‘I might try to do this.'”
Growing up on the 200 block of Circle in Forest Park, Mike Wright remembers living in his mom’s gym, going there after class at Forest Park Middle School and flipping from stacks of mats. Nikkilette remembers jumping from the roof of the family home to a trampoline, where she would then flip to the ground. The family loved watching TV shows like American Gladiators.
When Mike wasn’t in the gym, he was skateboarding near the Park District of Forest Park. By the time he got to St. Patrick High School, he had given up his amateur gymnastics career and gotten into diving. He also worked his first job at Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor, where he was part of the first class of employees at the now household name in Forest Park.
“If we made mistakes making an ice cream sundae, I would save it in the freezer and eat it later,” Wright said, laughing. “I’d accidentally make mistakes all the time.”
After graduating from St. Pat’s, Mike attended the University of Tennessee, where his diving prowess won him the title of team captain, U.S. All-American, and the 2010 one-meter title at the USA Diving Winter National Championships. Two years later, he placed 12th at the U.S. Olympic Trials. He now works as Tennessee’s diving coach.
About three years ago, one of his students mentioned he would make a good American Ninja Warrior. Intrigued, Mike auditioned for the show and made season 7.
“I really didn’t know how to train for it; there weren’t any gyms locally. I kept my typical workout routine and made it through four or five obstacles but wound up falling,” Mike said.
After that, he got married, finished his master’s degree and started a family. He didn’t think much about the show until last year when Nikkilette texted him saying she was interested in trying out.
“We decided to kind of work together, keep each other accountable, and train for the show,” Mike said. “We both just had the mindset, ‘Hey why not go all out? If we’re going to commit to it and if we don’t get picked, it’s still a good way to get in shape.'”
The two face-timed for two months about their workouts, building a friendly rivalry and agreeing that if they were going to compete, they had to give it 100 percent. Mike looked at the obstacle course from the last season and wrote himself workouts, practicing hanging from a bar, doing pull ups and swinging on the rings. He said he worked out twice a day, six days a week, until the show aired in June.
He decided to compete in a checkered orange and white speedo, the colors of Tennessee, to honor his diving career and offer kids a message of acceptance — that there is no one, stereotypical tough-guy approach to being an athlete. His attire has gotten him the nickname “The Speedo Ninja,” and he’s now one of the most popular characters on the show.
His mother Kristina Wright drove to and from Indianapolis both nights to watch him compete.
“Mike was not someone who was comfortable in speedos at first,” she said. “But he found you have to be comfortable in your skin. It’s very cool; it’s such a different backstory and important message.”
In high school, Nikkilette moved to Oak Park to attend OPRF. There she gave up gymnastics and tried out for basketball, a newbie but a natural on the court, excelling to the point that she received a full scholarship to Robert Morris University to play on their team. She graduated from Robert Morris and went on to ball semi-professionally for the Global Women’s Basketball Association. Two years ago, she took a class in stunt acting in Chicago. She has since moved out to Los Angeles and performed as a stunt woman in This is Us, Luke Cage and an upcoming movie Megladon.
“I’m living the dream now,” she said.
As a stunt woman, Nikkilette said she already was in decent shape. But after committing to try out for the TV show with her brother, she changed up her workouts, focusing more on hand grip strength and rock climbing.
She found out in February she had been chosen to compete on the show. She said Mike’s experience competing helped her remember to stay calm and get comfortable on set, particularly since they film the show at night so they have the consistency of the dark sky. She showed up at 9 p.m. to run the course, checked in around 11 p.m. and then ran the course around 3:30 a.m.
“All the lights, the camera and the crowd, it can be overwhelming,” she said. “I just remembered to get up there, and give it my all. I worked so hard, trained so many hours, just gave it all I got.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Mike Wright graduated from St. Patrick High School