Modesto poet, professor tries his hand – and feet – at being an ‘American Ninja Warrior’

mrowland@modbee.comMay 24, 2014 

  • 'American Ninja Warrior' Viewing Party

    When: 8 to 11 p.m. Monday

    Where: Rivets American Grill, 2307 Oakdale Road, Modesto

    Admission: Free

— You might assume poets and ninjas have little in common. But that just means you haven’t yet met Sam Pierstorff.

The Modesto poet will be a contestant on the new season of “American Ninja Warrior,” premiering Monday on NBC. The popular show pits contestants against an extreme obstacle course to show strength, balance and agility.

On paper, Pierstorff might seem an unlikely competitor in a series that regularly features professional athletes and Olympians.

The 38-year-old married father of three has been an English instructor at Modesto Junior College for 14 years. He was the youngest city poet laureate ever named in the state’s history. He is the editor-in-chief of the MJC literary journal Quercus Review Press. And he is the co-founder of the popular annual Ill List poetry slam in Modesto.

I mean, the man even wears glasses.

But Pierstorff defies the often nebbish stereotype of English professors everywhere by mixing plenty of brawn with his brains. So on Feb. 14, the last day to apply for the show, he uploaded an audition video to be part of the new season of “American Ninja Warrior.” He was selected out of more than 7,000 applicants to run the course at a qualifying quarterfinals event in Southern California in March.

“I was watching the show with my kids and I said, ‘I think I can do that,’ ” Pierstorff said. “I think most people who know me think I’m a little nuts. I’m a 38-year-old poetry professor. But it’s all about balance. Some people are nothing but academic and never get out, some people are totally muscle-bound and never read. That balance between athletics and art is really important to me.”

Many around campus and the community already are well aware of Pierstorff’s curriculum vitae – MJC instructor since 2000, Modesto poet laureate from 2004-08, Slam on Rye founder in 2003, Ill List co-founder in 2004 – but they might not be as aware of his jock bona fides.

In high school, Pierstorff lifted weights competitively. He swims with the Modesto Aquatics Club, ran a 32.5-mile ultramarathon, competed in the Alcatraz swim and slogged it out in the Tough Mudder course. At 5 foot 5, he just might be the definition of big things coming in little packages.

“Most of us are kind of wallflowers, but he is not afraid to actually take a chance and actually do it,” said former MJC English department colleague Michael Smedshammer, who is now the college’s instructional design coordinator. “I think he is one of the most special people I’ve ever met. He is gloriously outgoing. He takes great risks and chances to bring wonderful things to the community, not just the college.”

So when Smedshammer and other friends found out about his quest to become an American Ninja Warrior, it seemed only natural.

“I was and I wasn’t surprised,” Smedshammer said. “At first I thought, what? And then I thought, of course. What else is he going to be doing?”

But getting on the show was one thing, preparing was another. Pierstorff had just two weeks between when producers called him about his audition video to the taping in Venice on March 14. The Southern California event was one of five held across the country to challenge contestants. Some 75 competitors were invited to each region – Dallas, St. Louis, Miami and Denver.

To get ready, Pierstorff trained harder and drove several times to Concord’s Apex Movement gym, which has an “American Ninja Warrior”-style obstacle course. While there is no set way to work out to succeed on the show, contestants often use parkour skills, a style of activity that mixes running, jumping and climbing over various urban obstacles. The official course changes each time and includes elements such as the Warped Wall, Jumping Spider, Giant Swing and Rolling Log.

“The whole idea is these are the kinds of exercises you don’t need a gym membership to do,” Pierstorff said. “I work out in the park so much with my kids.”

His children, ages 11, 9 and 5, were among family and friends who went down to Venice with Pierstorff to watch him run the course. His wife of 14 years, Ruhi Sheikh, had another engagement and couldn’t make the trip, but she will watch with family and friends at a public viewing party for the show Monday night at Rivets American Grill in north Modesto.

“I’m so proud of him,” said 9-year-old daughter and frequent workout partner, Ameena Pierstorff. “It was so awesome to see the set. Everything was so big.”

Pierstorff is not allowed to reveal how he did on the show. NBC also does not release which of the competitors will be shown in episodes. The season kicks off with the qualifying quarterfinals in each of the five cities. The first city will be Venice, featured in the premiere. There were some 375 people total chosen to compete this season.

Contestants who complete the course advance to the next round, until the finals in Las Vegas. Each round adds more obstacles to the course.

“It’s like the Oscars,” Pierstorff said. “Just to be nominated itself is an honor. To be picked out of all those applicants alone is something. I went from being on the couch and watching the show to standing next to the competitors I admire.”

He does not know if he will be featured in the Venice episode, though producers did film him reciting a poem he wrote about competing on “American Ninja Warrior,” among other things.

Wwin, lose or fall down, he said running the course was an experience he is glad he tried at least once.

“The course is a metaphor for life,” he said, ever the English teacher. “There are always obstacles. Some people get over them the first time, some people quit without even trying. It’s part of my personality to keep pushing and trying until I’m successful.”

“American Ninja Warrior” airs at 9 p.m. Monday on NBC. Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on Twitter @marijkerowland.

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