Tristan Poffenberger had been waiting for 10 hours in Baltimore on April 28. He’d jogged to keep himself ready. He’d kept warm by a propane heater. He’d anxiously watched from a holding area as 40-some of his fellow competitors took their turns on the famous obstacle course that’s been the Middletown native’s fixation for the better part of five years.
Being a competitor on NBC’s hit show “American Ninja Warrior” isn’t easy. Poffenberger said the temperature dropped into the 30s that spring night. It was 2 a.m. He was surrounded by 130-plus rivals, some of whom were already well-known stars of the show and none of whom were as young as his 19 years.
And, finally, it was the ninja neophyte’s turn to chase his dream.
“The nerves were through the roof,” Poffenberger said on the phone late Monday night, moments after ANW’s taping of the Baltimore city qualifier aired and he was done signing autographs at a watch party hosted by the Frederick ninja gym, Jump Climb Extreme, where he works.
“I was excited. I was scared to death. I was like, ‘This is my moment.’ I pointed up, said a little prayer and took off to see what would happen.”
Poffenberger could finally talk about his run on the course. And based on the speed of his speech, the same sort of adrenaline seemed to be coursing through his body that had helped fuel him in the wee hours about two months ago at Rash Field near the Inner Harbor.
Ninja Warrior competitors are sworn to confidentiality agreements that prevent them from leaking results of the competition ahead of telecasts. And even though he didn’t appear on the show Monday, everyone who watched it entirely got to see his name flash on the screen around 9:59 p.m., when a list of those who advanced to the city finals was shown.
Poffenberger placed 14th in the qualifying round. He didn’t make it all the way through the six obstacles, but he made it far enough to advance to the next round — an episode that will air later this season.
His running number that night was 46, so he went near the middle of the competition. And he was nearly a basket case due to the “waiting and waiting and waiting.”
He’d only been imagining this moment since 2014, back when he’d turned the partially finished basement of his parents’ rancher into his personal obstacle course, where he swung from the 10-foot wooden rafters even as his mother gave him homeschool lessons.
On that early morning in April during the show’s taping, Poffenberger wasn’t performing in any basement. He was out in the cold air, as numerous cameras rolled, in front of a cheering crowd and a pair of famously exuberant ANW hosts.
The first obstacle, a set of five Shrinking Steps, “weren’t too bad,” Poffenberger said. He leaped off the last one onto a rope that swung him safely to the next phase.
The Double Twister — two swinging, twisting bars several feet apart — “are really fun,” he said. “I did those [with] no problem.”
Next, he handled the daunting Dangerous Curves — a curved, vertical board that ninjas had to climb up, followed by a board at the top that rotated to a set of two more boards they needed to descend before dismounting.
“Took care of that,” Poffenberger said.
The fourth obstacle, four spinning Hazard Cones, required speed, balance and explosiveness. Poffenberger said he sprinted over the first three before going airborne and clearing the fourth cone to land safely on the other side.
“That’s where I really celebrated for a minute,” said Poffenberger, whose family — his mother, Heather, his father, D.J., his sister, Audrey, and his grandmother, Mardelle — cheered him from the sideline every step of the way.
“Through the whole course, I felt great,” he said. “I was moving quickly.”
Poffenberger then approached Crank It Up, an obstacle unlike anything he’d ever seen, and one that host Matt Iseman called “a ninja killer” early in Monday’s telecast. It’s a set of three handles, about six feet apart, that ninjas must use their entire bodies to crank up and over.
Poffenberger cleared the six-foot gap between the first and second set of handles, but it had taken a toll.
“I was tired and couldn’t quite get it going,” said Poffenberger, who slipped off while transitioning to the final set of handles.
He splashed into the frigid pool below, missing out on the chance to scale the Warped Wall and hit the final buzzer.
However, by end of the night, he’d done enough to reach the next stage. Poffenberger said he spent three days in Baltimore for the show, but he couldn’t reveal how his second attempt went, though he said he left the obstacle course to do interviews with the network at a nearby hotel after his qualifying run. Viewers will have to tune in later this summer to see how he fared, along with how Urbana High School alum Jessie Graff did in the Seattle-Tacoma city final.
“It exceeded every expectation I ever had,” said Poffenberger, who also got to meet some of his ANW idols. “It blew me away, and I was happy for days.”
Follow Joshua R. Smith on Twitter: @JoshuaR_Smith