Wonder womanAfter a groundbreaking run, Towson alumna Kacy Catanzaro wants to continue to compete on 'American Ninja Warrior'

September 09, 2014|By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun | By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun

At the Towson University football team's home opener late last month, the loudest cheers arguably came for the smallest athlete on the field.

With the current Towson gymnastics team by her side, 24-year-old alumna Kacy Catanzaro stood in the endzone and waved to the roughly 8,000 fans in attendance.

"Let's go, Kacy! Let's go, Kacy!" the student section began to chant as Catanzaro — dressed in a black top, denim shorts and boots pulled up to her knees — flashed her megawatt smile.

Nineteen months after she graduated with a degree in early childhood education, the 5-foot-tall Catanzaro had returned to Towson as one of the school's most famous alumni. She quickly became a star this summer after becoming the first woman to advance to the finals of "American Ninja Warrior," an NBC reality competition show where competitors race through a physically taxing obstacle course.

Catanzaro, who was featured on "The Today Show" this summer, described life as "crazy" since becoming a viral sensation. (The YouTube clip of her completing the show's semifinals course in Dallas has more than 8.8 million views since July 14. Her nickname, Mighty Kacy, came from a social media hashtag.)

"It's been really amazing to see how many people it has touched," Catanzaro said after halftime, seated on a gym mat in Towson's SECU Arena. "Every time someone comes up to me or writes me a message saying it's inspired them and now they're getting up and doing stuff, it makes me feel so good. I want to keep that going."

People seem drawn to Catanzaro, a constantly smiling young woman from northern New Jersey who doesn't turn down a fan request. As we walked from the football field to the arena, she was approached more than once for a photo, and cheerfully obliged each time. Even A-list celebrities have taken notice.

"Jessica Biel tweeted at me, and then Justin Timberlake retweeted it and then wrote back," Catanzaro said. "I was like, 'What?'"

More specifically, Biel wrote, "This girl is five feet of 'knock your ass out!' #gogirl #schoolthemboys." Viewers seemed to respond to Catanzaro's size as much as they did her gender. In person, she looks smaller than you'd expect from an "American Ninja Warrior" competitor, but it is also clear the 100-pound athlete is all lean muscle.

When Vicki Chliszczyk arrived at Towson after the 2010 season, the gymnastics coach installed a new three-day-per-week strength and conditioning plan that Catanzaro, a junior at the time, responded to. She said Catanzaro was "always" in shape, but her routines improved after the weight training.

"Kacy was one who definitely benefited from that, and became a lot stronger," Chliszczyk said. "Senior year she was in the best shape of her life."

The work paid off, as Catanzaro was named the Eastern College Athletic Conference Gymnast of the Year and the NCAA Southeast Regional Gymnast of the Year. Chliszczyk called the latter Catanzaro's greatest accomplishment in the program.

"That's voted on by the head coaches in the region, and our region is very strong," she said. "She was up against Olympians for that award."

After college, Catanzaro began researching "American Ninja Warrior." (Years before, she often watched the original Japanese version with her dad.)

"Once I graduated, I was like, 'I've done gymnastics my entire life. I need something to fill this hole that's going to be there now,'" Catanzaro said. "I was watching 'Ninja Warrior' on TV and I was like, 'This is what I need to do next.'"

She started to interact with the show's community, and eventually met her coach and now-boyfriend, Brent Steffensen. Steffensen, who is one of the most successful competitors in the show's six-season history, trained Catanzaro in a Texas warehouse filled with replicas of "American Ninja Warrior" obstacles.

In May, Catanzaro was ready for the bright lights of network TV. First, she became the first woman to climb the 14-foot "Warped Wall." Then, at the regional finals in Dallas, Catanzaro made national headlines as the first woman to complete the course and qualify for the national finals in Las Vegas.

"I've seen greatness during my NFL career ... and I've been in awe of people, but I've really been in awe of Kacy," said the show's co-host Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, during her Dallas run. "This girl is not human!"

Although Catanzaro failed to complete the Las Vegas finals' four-stage course modeled after the Japan show's Mount Midoriyama (the walls of the Jumping Spider obstacle were too far apart for Catanzaro to gain the footing required to suspend herself in air), she has no intention to stop competing on the show.

"I'll definitely be competing on ["American Ninja Warrior"] as long as they keep taking me back," Catanzaro said. "The ultimate goal is to get to the top of that mountain."

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