Ex-Quinnipiac acrobatics & tumbling athlete Taylor Johnson set for 3rd season on 'American Ninja Warrior'

Photo of Maggie Vanoni

Taylor Johnson pours small drops of water on the ground and rubs the bottom of her shoes in the puddles for extra grip. She looks up at the towering obstacle. More than the average height of an elephant, the wall is intimidatingly steep and slick. Its curvature is designed to make it near impossible for anyone to run up to the top, which measures 14 feet and 6 inches tall.

Taylor is 4 feet and 11 inches tall.

The difference in size is jarring, yet this is where she feels the strongest.

She inhales. Her expression becomes almost still with focus. Her parents call this her “laser look.”

She exhales, pumps her arms forward and sprints up the wall.

Her speed takes her up the majority of the height, but not all the way. Her sneakers squeak in defeat as she glides back down. The wall has won this attempt, but maybe not the next.

She dreams of what it’ll be like to finally run up the wall and hit the red buzzer at the end of the course, becoming the shortest person to do so. She’s done it in practice, but not yet on the show. And this year, in her third appearance on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” she feels more ready than ever before.

Taylor, 26, has never been one to give up. She’s been an athlete her whole life, from gymnastics to high school competitive cheer and four years on Quinnipiac’s acrobatics and tumbling team.

But it’s in ninja, a sport largely based on a TV show, that she has found more than just an outlet for her hunger to compete, but the sense of identity she’s always wanted.

“I finally have been able to see myself like I can become a professional athlete and I can live that life,” she said.


Perhaps the first sign of Taylor’s competitive drive came at 4 years old when she told her mom, Mary, she wanted to do gymnastics after not liking the spotlight attention of dance.

For nine years Taylor did gymnastics. She competed at one of the best gyms in Massachusetts, Brestyan’s Gymnastics, whose alumni include future Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman.

When gymnastics became too much financially and commitment-wise, Taylor started competitive cheerleading. She balanced competitive cheer at East Celebrity Elite, high school cheer, and track and field. She became the first cheerleader at Foxboro High School to be voted the most athletic female as a senior.

Homemade vision boards decorated the walls of her bedroom, representing her goals and passions. One such goal was to earn an athletic scholarship for college.

However, not many college cheer programs offered scholarships. She refused to give up on the idea of becoming a student-athlete.

So, after one of her friends from ECE spoke highly of the University of Maryland’s acrobatics and tumbling program, she decided to look into the sport. Intrigued by its combination of gymnastics and competitive cheer, she attended a summer camp in 2011 hosted by the Quinnipiac team.

To her, the sport met where her worlds collided, merging her love for elaborate tumbling with the sensation of flying high in tosses.

“It just kinda blended perfectly for a sport for me,” Taylor said.

She was hooked and only applied to Quinnipiac.

In her four years with the Bobcats, she helped the team win multiple NCATA national event titles and reach the NCATA national championship in 2013. She received NCATA All-American honors as a junior.

Taylor remained a student at Quinnipiac after her collegiate career ended to earn her master’s degree in business. But it wasn’t long before her parents noticed she was missing competing.

“After acro ended, I could tell she was a little down because she didn’t know what to do with herself,” Mary said. “I mean, this girl has been in a gym for her whole life.”

At the random suggestion from a former teammate’s mom, Taylor and two of her friends decided to take a ninja class at a gym in Hamden during the fall of 2017. All three had watched “American Ninja Warrior “on TV but didn’t know much else about the sport.

In the class, they attempted obstacles designed similarly to ones on the show, including the warped wall. Taylor fell in love with how every obstacle was a new challenge demanding a solution.

Her obsession started almost instantly. Whether as background noise or marathons of the show on TV, she was always watching competitive ninja.

“You could just tell the fire in her eyes when she’d watch the episodes,” said Jason Grossman, one of Taylor’s friends who took the first ninja class with her. “She could see herself in those positions of achieving and getting past all of those obstacles. I mean, that’s all she talked about. It was just ‘Wake up and ninja.’”

She went home for winter break and binged the “American Ninja Warrior” series with Mary. They’d meet on the couch and watch the show all night. When Mary left, Taylor would continue watching.

Her viewing became inspiration and motivation. She wanted to be serious about the sport and made trips to train at the ninja gym a priority.

“I sat there, and I had this moment where I was like, ‘I could do this,’” Taylor said. “I was looking at the obstacles and I was like, ‘This is something I can do.’”

When her graduation from grad school neared, she had a decision to make: find a job in the professional realm or continue training ninja.

She looked for ways to do both by researching how far away jobs were from ninja gyms. If they weren’t close enough, she didn’t apply.

An athletic department in Texas expressed interest in her for a job in their compliance office — the career she had been pursuing in graduate school. Yet at the same time her ninja coach in Hamden was offering her a coaching job.

Her professional career would always be there, but at age 24, the extension of her athletic career was either now or never — an opportunity too enticing to pass up for the girl who always felt her best in the gym.

“I said, ‘Which one am I going to regret more?’” Taylor said. “I knew it sounded crazy, but I’m that kinda person where I’m willing to jump into something that I’m passionate about and I knew I was passionate about this.”


While “American Ninja Warrior” has made ninja well known, it’s not the top level of the sport.

Ninja athletes compete in various leagues across the world, including the National Ninja League, which was created in 2015. In competitions, athletes complete a series of intricate obstacles testing extreme strengths.

“When people see the show, they’re just like, ‘Oh, these are people who are just swinging on these obstacles.’ They think it’s like ‘Wipeout’ and I’m like, ‘No. We’re not on here to get pummeled by some random thing.’ I train for this every single day,” Taylor said.

With her experience of performing controlled explosive moments from her acrobatics and tumbling career, like contorting and flipping her body mid-air during a toss, Taylor quickly became a top course tester for “American Ninja Warrior” in her first year of the sport.

After a year of competing in NNL meets, including her fourth-place finish for women at the 2019 NNL World Championship, Taylor applied to compete on “American Ninja Warrior.”

A few months after sending in her application for the show’s season 11, Taylor was called by producers during the middle of a coaching session to tell her she had been selected.

“It’s like they couldn’t say no to her,” said Taylor’s dad, Richard. “We weren’t surprised. We were very excited for her to be on the show and have a chance to be on TV. We weren’t surprised because like we said: When she puts her mind to something, she accomplishes it.”

In April 2019, 20 members of the Johnson family traveled to Baltimore to watch the taping of Taylor’s episode on “American Ninja Warrior.” Halfway through the course she fell, ending her chance to advance to the next round.

When the episode aired months later, Quinnipiac acrobatics and tumbling head coach Mary Ann Powers said she jumped off her bed in excitement when she saw Taylor compete. To Powers’ knowledge, Taylor is the first acrobatics and tumbling athlete to be on the show.

“It was exciting for us to have,” Powers said. “It’s like our Quinnipiac hockey players that go on to play in the pros. There’s no pro place for acrobatics and tumbling to go, so to watch one of our former student-athletes find a place and say ‘I’m doing this’ was exciting for the entire community.”

Despite falling early on the course, Taylor volunteered the next day to test obstacles for future competitors. She flew to Cincinnati to volunteer to test another course and it was there show producers asked her to test the National Finals course in Las Vegas.

For the show’s 12th season in 2020, Taylor was selected to compete after the show limited competitors to 150 instead of its normal 600 due to the pandemic.

She built a ninja course in her backyard out of supplies from Home Depot to practice when the gyms shut down. The structure, which resembles giant monkey bars that can be adjusted to incorporate different ninja obstacles, is made out of wood and stands 9 feet tall and 16 feet long.

Taylor finished second overall for women and ran the 12th-fastest time despite falling on the fifth obstacle in the first round of season 12. In round two of the semifinals, she fell on the third obstacle, ending her season.

Taylor was notified in January she was selected for season 13.

At 4-11, she has the goal to become the shortest person to climb the warped wall on the show. The record is currently held by Barclay Stockett at 5 feet.

“I want to get that wall,” she said. “I want to hold that record. I want to break her record and be able to get up that wall because I definitely know I can do it.”

This year with a new coach, training at a new gym with a new training partner, and in the process of opening up a gym in Acton, Massachusetts, she feels more ready than ever to climb the wall.

But until then, she continues practicing.

Each new sprint up the wall carries more momentum to get up and over. She fails plenty but gets back up every time. Soon, the sound of her powerful steps up the wall become louder than the squeaks of her sneakers giving way.

She’s too close to give up now.

The first rounds of “American Ninja Warrior” season 13 will be filmed in Tacoma, Washington, at the end of March and are set to premiere on May 31 on NBC.