On the afternoon of July 14, Kacy Catanzaro was a relatively unknown 24-year-old. She had a few thousand Twitter followers and a few more on Instagram, most of them the diehard fans of "American Ninja Warrior" (ANW), the NBC obstacle course show that she’d been competing on for two years. A few more started following her this spring, after she appeared on "Good Morning America." But for the most part, she could walk down the street in San Antonio, where she works as an instructor at the Alpha Warrior gym, and into restaurants without being recognized.
That evening, she went to dinner with her boyfriend, who also competes on ANW. They were in Branson, Mo., where Brett was performing with his trampoline troop, and she’d come along for the 10-day trip. Knowing that her latest episode was scheduled to air that night, they asked the bartenders if they could tune one of the TVs to NBC. The bartenders said no.
So, they asked again. Eventually, one agreed. Next, Catanzaro asked about sound. Once again, they said no. Subtitles? No. Finally, Brett mentioned that Kacy was going to be on the show. At that point, the bartender agreed to ask the manager about subtitles, and they acquiesced.
As word that she’d be on TV spread around the bar, they tuned more TVs to NBC. There was still a half hour or so before she’d be on, but commercials were already teasing her obstacle run. After a few, the older couple sitting next to her looked over. “It was funny. She looked at us, and at the TV, and said, ‘Wait a second, is that you?’” Catanzaro recalls.
Yes, it was her – and they were about to see Catanzaro do something that had never been done in ANW’s six seasons: in the pre-recorded episode, the 5-foot, 95-pound ball of muscle became the first woman to ever complete the ANW city finals course.
As she worked her way through the course, the announcers’ excitement was contagious. They seemed as shocked as everyone else as Catanzaro effortlessly completed one obstacle after the next. She never looked nervous, keeping her composure even as she nearly slipped off the ring ladder and had to leap from one vertical pole to another over a pool of water, even stopping at one point to yell “I love you guys, thank you,” to the crowd. “She’s just amazing!” the announcers exclaimed more than once.
The ANW course is based on the courses designed for the Japanese show “Sasuke,” which has been around since 1997. The obstacles test every part of the competitor’s body, from grip to core to agility. One part of the course is called the Warped Wall. Earlier this year, Catanzaro became the first woman to complete it, and was invited onto "Good Morning America" to do it again. That was her first taste of fame. As she worked her way through the Dallas city finals course, she had no idea how much more fame she’d soon experience.
She needed two attempts to conquer the Warped Wall at the city finals. As soon as she made her way to the top, the crowd roared. Next came the Salmon Ladder, and she made it look like a playground activity. The final challenge was the spider climb, a 30-foot vertical chute. She practically flew up it, pounding the red buzzer at the top to signal that she was done.
Doing so earned her a place in the national finals, which will air on Sept. 1. She was invited to compete there last season, but this was the first time a woman had qualified.
Back in Branson, everyone in the bar was pumped up. “Oh, no way, that’s the coolest,” she remembers them saying to her. She’d soon realize that thousands across the country agreed. “I was totally not prepared for how big it would be, didn’t think everyone would care so much,” she told me last week.
Overnight, Kacy Catanzaro became a household name. Her Twitter following jumped from about 8,000 to more than 24,000. During an interview that morning, a reporter mentioned the video had more than 2 million views.
“I was like ‘Wait, what? What do you mean million?’” By the next week, that number had doubled. She was featured in countless articles and NBC flew her directly from Branson to New York, where she appeared on the "Today Show" with Kathie Lee and Hoda. While there, she did satellite media interviews with more outlets than she can remember. The hashtag #mightykacy trended for weeks, and there is now a Mighty Kacy clothing line.
She heard from stars, politicians and countless reporters. Men and women of all ages were reaching out, telling her she'd inspired their entire families.
The most surprising tweets? Those would be the ones from Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake. “Justin Timberlake is my all-time love,” she said, adding that she was a huge N’Sync fan growing up. “All the celebrities are awesome, but he’s different.”
@jtimberlake Thanks so much! Always thought you were so badass! :)— Kacy Catanzaro (@KacyCatanzaro) July 23, 2014
“It’s definitely been overwhelming,” she said. “And definitely amazing. It’s surprising how many people have been really caring about it.” Perhaps one of the reasons they keep reaching out is that she keeps responding. Catanzaro is one of the sweetest athletes you’ll meet. She attempts to answer every Tweet sent her way.
“I love whenever someone comes up to me to talk about it. I’m super flattered,” she added. “It makes their day and it makes mine, too.”
This is exactly how Kacy has always been. We’ve known each other since we were kids; our moms grew up together in Rutherford, N.J., and have been friends for more than 50 years. They started softball and volleyball teams together in 1973, and even as they reach their 60s, are still playing. Kacy and I spent countless summer nights cheering them on. And since Kacy started competing, the ladies on that softball team have been her biggest fans.
During her years as a Division 1 gymnast at Towson University, our moms and their friends had T-shirts made. “We Flip for Kacy,” they said. The group traveled to meets every year to cheer her on. When she moved to Texas to train for ANW and work at the Alpha Warrior gym in San Antonio, they started throwing ANW viewing parties at the Park Tavern, a favorite watering hole in East Rutherford. They have shirts made every time her episodes air. For awhile, I thought they were a bit nuts. When my mom sent me the link to Kacy’s July 14 performance, though, I realized what they’d been so hyped up about. Like the people in that Branson restaurant, I thought it was the coolest.
And when I saw her last week, at the softball team's annual end-of-season party, you'd never know she was famous. We all sang happy birthday to her mom and devoured the chocolate cake. She'd just flown in that morning, on a red eye from Los Angeles, and yet here she was, sitting on the back deck, hanging out with her mom's friends and looking forward to a week at the beach with her family. Thankfully, fame hasn't changed Kacy at all.
Perhaps the most amazing element of the story is to realize how hard she has worked to get here. In high school, she missed nearly six months of training during her senior year as she battled a rare condition called Guillain Barre Syndrome. It is an immune system disorder that can effect anyone at any age, but only hits about 1 in 100,000 people. It left her too weak to do a cartwheel, or to even get out of bed. She spent more than a week in the hospital undergoing an immunoglobbin transfusion, and had to be homeschooled throughout the fall. She worried the time away from gymnastics might threaten her scholarship chances – a goal she'd long dreamed about – but she kept in touch with the Towson coach and hoped for the best.
That spring, she had to start back at the beginning, rebuilding her strength and flexibility. Amazingly, she worked hard enough to qualify for the regional championships, held just a few months later. She was offered the scholarship, starting at Towson as planned. While there, she was the 2012 Regional NCAA Gymnast of the Year, and she often credits those years with preparing her for ANW.
As of Aug. 29, the YouTube clip of her ANW Dallas city finals performance has been viewed more than 9 million times. Catanzaro has more than 65,000 Instagram followers and 38,400 on Twitter. On Sept. 1, she'll be honored at the Towson University football team's home opener, and later that night, her ANW Finals episode will air. Two days later, she'll throw out the first pitch at the Baltimore Orioles game.
This week, though, she's taking her first break since July 14, on an annual family vacation in New Jersey. Of course, she's also plugging away on Twitter and Instagram, responding to fans who continue to show an endless amount of support.