Tristan Poffenberger threw caution to the wind and bolted onto the “American Ninja Warrior” course, sprinting, swinging and soaring through the first two obstacles.
But that extreme speed overtook him quickly and with crushing results, as viewers of NBC’s popular show saw the 19-year-old Middletown native’s first appearance come to a splashy conclusion on Monday night in the Baltimore City Finals.
When Poffenberger appeared around 8:30 p.m. during a telecast that was being projected onto a sheet in his grandparents’ garage — essentially bringing to life his childhood dream of making it onto the show — he covered his eyes.
“I couldn’t believe it was really me on there,” Poffenberger said over the phone from a watch party where about 40 friends and relatives gathered for Monday’s ANW airing. “But then I couldn’t watch because I knew what was going to happen.”
Going full blast, with visions of a trip to the Las Vegas national finals in his mind, Poffenberger lost his grip while descending Dangerous Curves — the third of 10 obstacles that 30 Ninja Warrior competitors were trying to traverse in the chilly overnight air on April 29.
“I just kind of slipped, and I don’t know what happened,” he said in an upbeat tone despite the disappointment of seeing himself tumble into the pool of water under the contraption.
Poffenberger entered the City Finals after placing 14th out of 100-plus in the qualifying round despite falling on the fifth of six obstacles the night before. He had his sights set on finishing with one of the top 10 fastest times of the final for a spot in Vegas.
“I was pretty quick in my qualifier,” he said. “I was just wanting to go all out.”
However, as one of the youngest competitors in the field — 19 is the minimum age for ANW participants — he admitted the moment got the best of him.
And who could blame him?
The show is filmed in the wee hours, when springtime temps in Maryland drop to the 30s. Meanwhile, rest is hard to come by for ANW participants, considering the network-television production, anxiety-inducing uncertainty and heart-pounding nature of the activity. Really, it’s not unlike the Olympics.
Just before he stepped onto the stage that night, Poffenberger had been talking with a producer about his introduction. Next thing he knew, he was about to take his turn. He said he lost his focus a bit.
“I got up there and the crowd erupted,” he said, “and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’”
On the telecast, hosts Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila mentioned Poffenberger’s nickname: The Runs Wild Ninja. Those words were printed in baby blue on a charcoal-gray T-shirt worn by Poffenberger that night in a nod to a name he got as a child from his mother, Heather, who is partially Native American.
“His native name is Runs Wild because that’s what he does, he just runs wild, like everywhere,” Heather Poffenberger said in April. “Not crazy. I’m talking with passion and energy and perseverance and all that, and it’s exciting.”
Her son’s exciting run ended early in the City Finals. Tristan, who works as an instructor at the Frederick gym Jump Climb Extreme, hopes to concentrate his training on maintaining speed while going one step at a time through Ninja courses. He hopes to harness his nervous energy. He hopes to gain another berth on his favorite show next year.
Most of all, though, he said he hopes to continue spreading his dramatic story of perseverance, which helped land him a spot on Season 11 of ANW in the first place. The video application he submitted to the show exhibited his enthusiasm and Ninja Warrior skills but also touched on how his family battled through Heather’s drug addiction, how she cleaned up her life and ended up homeschooling her two kids — the eldest of whom, Tristan, espouses a seize-the-moment positivity in everything he does.
“I really wanted, more than just my run, to share my story on [the show],” he said.
Maybe he’ll gain another opportunity in front of the NBC cameras. He’s counting on it.
Poffenberger certainly got off to a blazing start on Monday’s ANW episode, but he said his failure on the course “set a fire under me.”
Follow Joshua R. Smith on Twitter: @JoshuaR_Smith