American Ninja Warrior! NBC’s obstacle course competition where a supportive community of athletes don fun outfits and flashy titles as they take on the toughest obstacles in the world.
I often asked myself what is it really like behind the scenes. Aside from the sheer physical strength and rapid thinking, competitors appeared to be in a community that genuinely wanted to help others.
On one episode, the hosts introduced the Giving Ninja (Where do these titles come from?!) and piqued my interest. If he won the million-dollar prize, they explained, he was going to give it all away”.
This positivity and desire to help others is the kind of story we like to carry, so I reached out to Sean Darling-Hammond, “the Giving Ninja.”
Everyone has a dream or a passion. But how many sit down, make a plan, and pursue it? That number is not very high, but what do you do when you have lots of things before you that you want to do, and when you are good at most of them? That is what I thought as I spoke to Sean. We chatted as he drove down the California coast to cheer his sister on as she defended her Ph.D. dissertation at Stanford University.
Before the interview, I “checked up” on Sean via Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. I kidded with him about a Facebook picture of him behind a drum kit because I am a drummer. He replied, “I need to find more time to drum. I miss it! It’s hard to find time for my other passions with the Ninja Warrior training and my jobs, but I really love music.”
What I discovered was a man who was passionate about life and wanting to leave the world in a better place than when he came into it. Sean is currently a Ph.D. student, majoring in Public Policy, at the University of California, Berkeley. This is his second time at Berkeley, where he earned a JD in 2014. In between, he clerked for a federal judge and worked as a legal and policy consultant in the field of education. Before the JD, he studied Sociology and political messaging at Harvard and spent 5 years in that field, even working as the Press Manager for John Kerry.
My conversation about his professional career revealed a deep desire to combine his law and policy backgrounds, and implement “common sense solutions to make our society more empathetic and socially connected.” He wants to raise the quality of education for all. How does one do all this, let alone become an American Ninja Warrior?
While talking to him about his family background, he described, two loving parents who were not only committed to the process of bringing up a family, but to the community around them. His father, Allen Hammond, is a law professor who went from being a kid in poverty in DC, to a practicing attorney, to law professor and€”along the way€”never stopped giving back to his community. His mother, Linda Darling-Hammond, graduated from Yale then Temple and is a Stanford University emeritus education professor and the founder and principal of the Learning Policy Institute, a think-tank devoted to expanding educational opportunity (a goal Sean shares).
Sean has been married to his wife and best friend for about 2 years and the two have rock climbed around the US and world, in West Virginia, Nevada, Italy, and even Thailand.
My initial interest in Sean stemmed from this statement from the show. “I want to be known as the Giving Ninja.” He continues, “If I win, I plan to donate all one million dollars to organizations that expand educational opportunity.” He stated, that his parents were the influence for wanting to make things better from others and give back. “My parents made it their life’s work to try to make the world a better place, my mom through education, my father through business and law.”
When competitors apply for the show, NBC asks them if there is a name they would use or like. Sean chose “The Giving Ninja.” He shared with me that many receive names “on the fly” from announcer, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, as he is narrating their performance.
As he applied for Ninja Warrior, Sean’s biggest concern was that it would be a vapid reality TV show. What he discovered was the people were genuine and the community real. He shared that when a ninja competitor or member of the community is going through a difficult time, or when they or their family is hit with illness or a natural disaster, a page on “GoFundMe” will always appear so that ninjas can support whoever is going through a hard time.
He has nothing but the highest regard for the show, its team, and their trio of announcers; Matt Iseman, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, and Kristine Leahy. Because of Sean’s desire to help others and his love of the show, he and some others began a nonprofit, Neighborhood Ninjas. Their page reads:
We are a nonprofit organization providing services to kids facing obstacles in their lives. By partnering with participating ninja warrior gyms to offer two exciting programs, Neighborhood Ninjas will spread connection, growth, and positivity, one kid at a time.
In asking about his athletic background, I learned he was more than a casual rock climber and had competed in and won local climbing competitions. He was quick to tell me, though, that he did not consider himself anywhere near as strong as the climbing professionals and admired their incredible ability. He also grew up playing basketball and said the combination of climbing and basketball primed him for Ninja Warrior.
After a great rookie season in 2015, Sean suffered a sophomore slump, letting stresses from his law firm job take him out of the moment. He came back determined in Season 9, qualified for the national finals, and made it all the way to the wing-nuts in Stage 2, placing among the top competitors on the year. He told me that much of what ensures competitors succeed was their mental preparation and that once he understood that, and understood that he just needed to stay calm and apply his understanding of the physics of each obstacle, it changed everything.
At the end of the interview, I asked Sean “what question do you wish you were asked?”
He thought on that for a moment. Then, he said, “I would love to be asked why I split my life rather than just pursuing positive change through either through my body or my mind.€ I asked if he viewed it as a holistic approach. He stated that the two lives, of body and brain, brought unique experiences, taught distinct lessons, and supported each other. He compared giving a public policy speech to taking on Stage 2 in Ninja Warrior. Both were “scary, but if I can swing twenty feet in the air, then I can speak to a room full of people. And strategizing to make sure my voice is heard in a public debate helps me use the mental muscles necessary to plan my attack on the course. The skills really did reinforce each other, and he hoped to inspire kids to exercise not just their bodies, but their minds and spirits, too.
Sean had just returned from Michigan and could not share the results but said that he thought the episode would be amazing and he couldn’t wait to see it. I also discovered he worked out together with Sean Bryan, the Papal Ninja, at Apex Movement Norcal, a gym in Concord, California.
Sean is determined to leave a big footprint on the world. As we prepared to end our conversation, so Sean could attend his sister’s graduation, I was glad to be able to speak to him.
I have always appreciated American Ninja Warrior and seeing the spirit of giving and commitment that surround Ninja’s like Sean Darling-Hammond caused me to have tremendous hope for the future.
(A couple of great videos of Sean on American Ninja Warrior.)
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