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Franklin firefighter chosen as NBC reality show contestant

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A ninja is loose in Franklin.

He can scale walls without rope or ladders, hang from his arms to traverse a watery pit and use his agility to bound along uneven surfaces.

But he’s not a black-garbed shadow warrior, armed with throwing stars and wicked looking blades. Rather, he spends his days as a firefighter for the Franklin Fire Department.


Dan Kelly was chosen to be a contestant on the upcoming season of “American Ninja Warrior,” an NBC reality show that subjects challengers to an extreme obstacle course. Along with 100 other entrants from the Midwest area, he had to bounce up walls using his momentum and limb strength, scale inverted climbs with fingertip grips and navigate a watery pit hand-over-hand.

Though he can’t reveal his fate until the show premieres May 26, the fact that he was able to qualify — as well as lose 50 pounds in the process — made the experience worth it.

“It’s a huge accomplishment for me to be able to say I did it and went through it,” he said. “Even if I didn’t win, I was a winner — just look at the transformation in me.”

To get his body ready for ninja competition, Kelly had to strengthen every muscle group in his body.

He learned to do pull-ups using only a door-frame, hoisting his body up 15 or 20 times by only his fingertips. Hundreds of times, he did multi-movement exercises such as squat thrusts that combined pushups, squats, planks and jumps.

Kelly would jump up on 1-foot-tall boxes to get his legs conditioned, doing dozens of leaps at a time. Clean-and-jerks also helped get his back, legs and core ready.

“Watching the show, you get an idea of what it takes — a lot of grip strength, a lot of upper body strength,” he said.

Kelly was never a big fitness buff. He kept in shape for his daily work as a firefighter but never had done anything so extreme as a ninja workout.

When he started his training, he weighed about 200 pounds. By the time he applied to be a ninja warrior, he had lost 50 pounds.

“I went from being able to not do one pullup to being able to do pullups with 45-pound weights tied to my waist,” he said. “It was amazing to see the transformation.”

Kelly’s prowess in the weight room, as well as his dedication to his job, has earned the respect of his fellow firefighters.

Even after the others on shift finish their workout, Kelly would often be the last person putting in extra sets, fire chief John Henderson said. They were able to witness and encourage him as he maxed out all of the weights the department had, even squatting more than 500 pounds one time.

“We feel like this is a wonderful opportunity to reward his work,” Henderson said. “He’s one of the most respected people in this department, and he is so well respected because of the work he puts into it.”

Kelly had been a fan of “American Ninja Warrior” for the past few seasons. The show started in 2009 as an Americanized version of a famed Japanese show.

Competitors were asked to drag themselves through a hellish obstacle course mimicking the skills of the ninja, covert spies and mercenaries from 15th century Japan.

In the history of the American version, no competitor has finished the course in the finals.

Despite this fact, Kelly turned to his wife, Andrea, after the 2013 season finished up last summer and said, “I can do that.”

Filling out a 10-page application, Kelly answered questions about his medical history, his reason for trying out and his background story.

He also submitted a three-minute video that showcased who he was, his family, his job and his fitness level.

“They wanted to know your physical prowess, how you would train for it,” he said.

Kelly completed the application and turned it in, never expecting to hear back from producers.

But he was sitting at home one Sunday night in March when his cellphone rang. He had just put his 2-year-old daughter, Samantha, to bed.

“I wasn’t expecting a call at all, just because of the odds of getting selected, because there were thousands of people who applied,” he said. “But when they told me, I threw the phone in and ran to find my wife to tell her.”

Of the more than thousands of people who submitted applications, only about 500 were chosen to actually compete on the show. They were assigned to regional events in Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, Denver and St. Louis.

On the weekend of April 13 and 14, he met the other competitors, filmed short human-interest pieces with producers and sized up the obstacle course.

Each person had to tackle the nightmarish route that asked them to hang from their arms and roll a bar across an open pit, leap and pull themselves up on a wall and bounce off an disjointed track designed to throw their pace off. Their run was timed, with only the best moving on to the finals in Las Vegas.

Anyone who slipped or fell into the water underneath the course was automatically disqualified.

Kelly looks forward to the broadcast of his performance after the premiere of “American Ninja Warrior.” Just the opportunity to compete against so many other world-class athletes made it an experience he cherishes.

“It was an adventure. I met a lot of people I’d probably never meet in my life any other way. It was a great group of guys — almost like it wasn’t a competition, where everyone wanted to see everyone else do their best,” he said.

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