Ninja champions relied on energy, teamwork

There was no stopping the three-person Wisconsin team on their road to the “Team Ninja Warrior: College Madness” championship. ” Zack Kemmerer, Taylor Amann and Andrew Philibeck beat MIT in the finals on Dec. 20. Kemmerer reflects on the triumph.

UW's Zack Kemmerer competes on the obstacle course in the match against Maryland. Photo courtesy Esquire Network.

UW’s Zack Kemmerer competes on the obstacle course in the match against Maryland. Photo courtesy Esquire Network.

1. What kind of reaction have you had in Wisconsin since winning the competition?

We’ve had a very positive reaction from an array of people here in Wisconsin. Collectively, our family and friends have come together with such an enormous amount of support – many of them are still in shock that we were able to accomplish such a lofty feat! It’s been an amazing experience and we are so grateful for all of the support and recognition we’ve received.

2. Were you surprised you won, or were you pretty confident going in?

Going into the competition, I was confident that Team Wisconsin could make some serious waves. Even though I had only known Andrew and Taylor for a few months, our chemistry was undeniable. I also recognized quickly that both of my teammates were extremely gifted on the ninja course. Taylor had never touched obstacles before May or June, but she was a natural. Andrew is a savage as well, and improved so fast in the months leading up to the competition. He’s an elite competitor in my mind. We studied film from the first season and had a strategy going into the competition. But what separated us from other teams was our course mentality. It’s hard to explain but I’d describe Andrew and Taylor as “gamers.” When the spotlight is on, they take their skills to another level! That, along with my experience, made me confident that Team Wisconsin could legitimately contest for a championship.

3. What was the key to your win — what made you better than the other teams?

There were many talented athletes in this competition, most notably Team MIT. On paper, MIT probably had the best team with two of the nation’s top rock climbers and arguably the fastest athlete in the competition (Tomas Cabrera). However, we had absolute faith in one another to ‘take care of business.’ And if one of us lost a race, we believed the other two would pick up the slack. I believe this confident mindset enabled us to go out there and perform at the highest level.

In the final relay, this mentality was key. It was all grit and heart to pull off the ‘come from behind’ victory. Down by nearly 15 seconds after the first 3 obstacles (in a 9 obstacle relay), Andrew and I dug deep to erase that lead in remarkable fashion. At no point did any of us doubt our abilities – it was just a matter of digging deep and taking our skills to the next level. Dream big, believe it is possible, and never give up.

UW's Andrew Philibeck tackles a ramp during the race against Maryland. Photo courtesy Esquire Network.

UW’s Andrew Philibeck tackles a ramp during the race against Maryland. Photo courtesy Esquire Network.

4. What’s next for the team — Is it possible for you to defend your title?

That’s a question we are asking ourselves. The first season of College Madness is over, so until next year, our team will remain dormant. Taylor is preparing for another great season of pole-vaulting here at UW, while Andrew and I continue to train for the regular show, American Ninja Warrior 9. The cities and dates have been announced, and if selected, Andrew and I will likely compete in Kansas City on April 24 and 25. We hope to use this team experience to springboard into the ninja elite with breakout seasons that take us to the national finals in Las Vegas.

Defending our title would be incredibly enjoyable though! I’m happy to say that through this experience Andrew and Taylor have become two of my closest friends in Madison, and to compete alongside them once more would be wonderful. We don’t know if College Madness will be brought back for a second season, and even if they do, it’s up to the producers who is invited to compete. However, if all things work out, you can expect Team Wisconsin to be faster and better prepared to claim victory once more in season two!

5. Do you think your team gave UW-Madison pretty good publicity on a national stage?

I certainly hope so! We wanted to show the utmost respect for our fellow competitors and those providing this wonderful opportunity to compete. We wanted people to know Team Wisconsin as a classy, organized, and fun group of competitors. And like other successful sports programs on campus, we let our athletic prowess speak for itself on the ninja course. We demonstrated a ‘no quit’ spirit and walked away victorious in dramatic fashion. This is what Wisconsin athletics are all about, and I hope the Team Wisconsin ninjas were able to live up to the UW reputation.

6. Were people cheering for the Badger team at the competition?

Absolutely! Andrew’s parents and friends made the impromptu trip to Los Angeles for the competition. They were ecstatic from the first race all the way through the final relay. I’m sure it was an exhausting day for them, since we were the only team in the competition to run all of our races on the same day. Interestingly, after our bracket episode, we garnered the support of the other three Big Ten schools that were in attendance. Michigan and Ohio St had large crowds, so that was great to have their support for the final episode. The competitors from those schools were also pulling for us – if they couldn’t be in the finals, they at least wanted a Big Ten team to walk away with the title. And maybe it’s just my bias, but it seemed like the entire crowd felt the energy between our team. They seemed to sense that Team Wisconsin would do something big, and many people I did not know were cheering for the Badgers before the competition was complete.