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Meet the Utah teen making history on ‘American Ninja Warrior’

Right now on ‘American Ninja Warrior,’ there’s a lot of focus on younger ninjas like Kai — this season, the age requirement to compete lowered from 19 to 15

Kai Beckstrand demonstrates parts of his training regimen at his family’s gym in St. George on Saturday, August 28, 2021. Beckstrand’s efforts landed the 15-year-old in the finals of the competition television show American Ninja Warrior.
Kai Beckstrand demonstrates parts of his training regimen at his family’s gym in St. George on Saturday, August 28, 2021. Beckstrand’s efforts landed the 15-year-old in the finals of the competition television show American Ninja Warrior.
Nick Adams, for the Deseret News

Although Brian and Holly Beckstrand have five kids, for many years, if you were to stroll through their backyard in St. George, Utah, you wouldn’t find the typical playground set.

Instead of a slide, you’d see a large, slightly curved wall. In place of monkey bars, you’d find a ladder that could only be ascended by pulling yourself up with a single bar.

Over the years, little by little, Brian Beckstrand would add to the obstacles in the yard. He worked at Lowe’s, so he took advantage of the resources around him, gathering building materials, wheels and handles — just about anything he could find.

At its peak, the Beckstrands’ backyard had anywhere between 40 and 50 obstacles that tested everything from balance to upper body strength. Most of them were obstacles you’d see on “American Ninja Warrior” — a competition show the Beckstrands enjoyed watching as a family.

Brian Beckstrand worked hard to make the obstacles to scale. He wanted to create as close of an experience as possible to “American Ninja Warrior.”

That attention to detail seems to have paid off.

At 15, Kai Beckstrand — who was 7 when his dad began building obstacles after another son requested an “American Ninja Warrior” themed birthday party — is making history on the show.

During an early round this season, Kai secured the fastest time of all the competitors — navigating a challenging course that even professional athletes and seasoned veterans of the show struggle to complete (he did it in 1:38.83).

Most recently, during a semifinal round that featured 38 competitors, he was one of just 12 to actually finish the course. And of those 12, he had the fifth-fastest time.

Now, Kai is one of the youngest competitors to make it to the show’s National Finals, which begin Monday. And he’ll be competing for the $1 million prize alongside longtime “Warrior” competitors he’s watched for years — the very people who inspired the one-of-a-kind “playground” in his backyard.

Kai Beckstrand is pictured on the television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
Kai Beckstrand is pictured on the television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
Elizabeth Morris, NBC

Moving indoors

The obstacle-ridden backyard has since given way to two gyms in the St. George area that the Beckstrands own and operate. They’re indoors, padded and, Brian Beckstrand admits, probably a “safer environment.”

“We miss the backyard for sure, though,” he said with a laugh.

A handful of people who have competed on “American Ninja Warrior” have trained at these gyms, including Mady Howard, a former Southern Utah University gymnast who competed on seasons 11 and 12.

Brian Beckstrand himself competed on seasons 7, 8 and 13 — the show’s current season where he and Kai made history as the first father-son duo to advance to the semifinals (he got eliminated during the semifinals round).

His wife, Holly, competed on seasons 10 and 11. Two of their children, Luke and Baylee, have competed on “American Ninja Warrior Jr.” — a show Kai won during the inaugural season in 2019.

Kai Beckstrand demonstrates parts of his training regimen at his family’s gym in St. George on Saturday, August 28, 2021. Beckstrand’s efforts landed the 15-year-old in the finals of the competition television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
Kai Beckstrand demonstrates parts of his training regimen at his family’s gym in St. George on Saturday, August 28, 2021. Beckstrand’s efforts landed the 15-year-old in the finals of the competition television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
Nick Adams, for the Deseret News

Currently, Kai trains four or five days a week for two to three hours each day at his family’s gym — even during the school year. The gym has a number of “American Ninja Warrior”-esque obstacles for him to practice on, and his dad is constantly creating new challenges to keep him on his toes, because you never know what could pop up on the show.

Now, watching his son compete on “American Ninja Warrior,” Brian Beckstrand gets a little nervous because he’s not in control. Unlike being at the gym, he can’t physically guide his son along and help him out if he gets in a bind.

All he can do is hope his son will do what he’s proven capable of doing over the years.


Being on ‘American Ninja Warrior’

You don’t get a practice run on “American Ninja Warrior.”

You get told how the obstacle course works, and someone from the show will provide a demonstration. But you don’t actually get to navigate the course, get a feeling for the obstacles, until it’s your big moment on national television. On top of that, filming can take place at all hours of the day — some of the runs people see on TV are filmed at 4 or 5 a.m., Brian Beckstrand said.

Which is why he believes mental preparation is just as important as physical preparation when it comes to “American Ninja Warrior.”

Kai Beckstrand demonstrates parts of his training regimen at his family’s gym in St. George on Saturday, August 28, 2021. Beckstrand’s efforts landed the 15-year-old in the finals of the competition television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
Kai Beckstrand demonstrates parts of his training regimen at his family’s gym in St. George on Saturday, August 28, 2021. Beckstrand’s efforts landed the 15-year-old in the finals of the competition television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
Nick Adams, for the Deseret News

“It’s TV — they may be ready to film and then all of a sudden they’re not. So you think you’re going to run in about 15 minutes and then it ends up being about an hour from now. So there’s that mental preparation of waiting,” said Brian Beckstrand, who is a firefighter for the St. George Fire Department. “That seems to be more of a challenge than the course itself sometimes.

“And then when it’s your turn … being in front of the camera is different than training in your gym or training in your backyard, because now people are watching and you have this one shot at it,” he continued. “There’s no redos.”

Right now on “American Ninja Warrior,” there’s a lot of focus on younger competitors like Kai — this season, the age requirement to compete lowered from 19 to 15. If that creates any additional pressure for Kai, you wouldn’t know it from the way he skillfully breezes through the obstacles at a rapid pace.

For his part, though, Kai said he does get “really nervous” at the start, when he’s about to go on a course. But once he’s passed the first obstacle, he gets in the zone and is usually able to block out any distractions from the camera, sidelines or crowd.

“I get a little nervous just because I know that it’s going to be on TV and everybody else can watch, but the adrenaline kind of kicks in,” the high school sophomore said Thursday afternoon, just minutes after getting out of school. “I just kind of try to push through it.”


Kai Beckstrand hangs from a bar some 25-feet up a curved wall as he demonstrates parts of his training regimen at his family’s gym in St. George on Saturday, August 28, 2021. Beckstrand’s efforts landed the 15-year-old in the finals on the competition television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
Kai Beckstrand hangs from a bar some 25-feet up a curved wall as he demonstrates parts of his training regimen at his family’s gym in St. George on Saturday, August 28, 2021. Beckstrand’s efforts landed the 15-year-old in the finals on the competition television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
Nick Adams, for the Deseret News

Reaching the ‘American Ninja Warrior’ finals

Out of 12 full seasons of “American Ninja Warrior,” only two people — including Salt Lake City’s Isaac Caldiero — have actually been declared an “American Ninja Warrior” champion and claimed the $1 million prize.

While “American Ninja Warrior” does acknowledge and celebrate the “Last Ninja Standing” each season, to achieve total victory and claim the $1 million prize, a competitor must complete the entire four-stage course of the National Finals — a course that gets progressively harder with each stage. On top of that, Stage 4 — an 80-foot rope climb — must be completed within 30 seconds. Again, something that rarely gets achieved.

On the surface, it’s a discouraging format. But Brian Beckstrand finds it motivating.

“Obviously they don’t want winners every time, because that would water it down and people would look at it and say, ‘Well that’s easy. Someone beats it every year,’” he said. “This is motivation — it leaves it for anybody to complete. If even the seasoned veterans that are there every year haven’t done it, then it just leaves room for improvement every time.”

It might be a long shot, but Kai could potentially become the show’s third winner — and the second winner from Utah. There’s a lot of things a 15-year-old could spend $1 million on, but Kai — who aspires to train and become a firefighter just like his dad — already has a game plan.

“I’d put it into a savings account, for sure.”

Kai Beckstrand poses for a portrait at his family’s gym in St. George on Saturday, August 28, 2021. Beckstrand’s training efforts landed the 15-year-old in the finals on the competition television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
Kai Beckstrand poses for a portrait at his family’s gym in St. George on Saturday, August 28, 2021. Beckstrand’s training efforts landed the 15-year-old in the finals on the competition television show “American Ninja Warrior.”
Nick Adams, for the Deseret News