Running down life’s obstacles
Buzz-area moms Charlotte Eccles and Lisa Eicher competed in San Antonio this March on the NBC TV show “American Ninja Warrior.” The episode is scheduled to run 7 p.m. June 19.
As Charlotte Eccles stood on the high platform, she felt ready. Along with about 100 others, she was about to compete on American Ninja Warrior.
She looked at the giant obstacle course ahead. She would have to jump, climb, hang, throw her tiny body at impossible tasks, reaching for every remaining shred of mental and physical strength. Her dentist-husband Scott and daughters Addison and Caroline were standing on the sidelines watching. She had been practicing for months for this moment.
For an instant, she was overcome with déjà vu.
Only two and a half years earlier, she had been asleep in surgery as doctors removed a rare tumor on a nerve in her brain. She awoke like a small child again. She couldn’t walk, talk, eat on her own or barely even spit out toothpaste.
If you had visited Charlotte in her hospital room back then, and told her she’d be competing in a physical contest on television in front of millions of viewers, she wouldn’t have believed you.
American Ninja Warrior has a loyal following and a tight-knit community of past and present warriors. In the hour-long show, athletes of all types tackle challenging, complicated obstacles in a timed course. The winners from each region advance to the next level.
Charlotte – along with another Houston woman, mom-of-four Lisa Livingston Eicher – were among the lucky few whose applications and submission videos were chosen by the show’s producers. The pair trained together at “Ninja” gym Iron Sports in Willowbrook. The episode featuring them (or at least it’s supposed to – only around 25 competitors of the 100 will actually make the episode) airs this month, at 7 p.m. on NBC on June 19.
Petite and fit, Charlotte embodies the look of physical health. That came crashing down in 2014 when she was diagnosed with the vestibular schwannoma, a rare tumor on the main nerve leading from the inner ear to the brain. She flew to California for the complicated 6-hour surgery to remove it.
Possible outcomes included deafness, facial paralysis and balance deficits. She awoke with a swollen face and learned the doctors had had to completely sever her balance nerve. She spent the next month in intensive rehab before returning to Houston for three more months of physical therapy in Houston.
Eccles said she stayed grounded in her faith. “I wanted to use my hardship for God’s glory,” she said. Her family has a non-profit organization in Africa called Chicks for Children (chicksforchildren.org), which helps feed children. Before her surgery, she had visited Africa to help. Her passion for helping others had to quickly shift to helping herself.
Luckily, she understood the rehab process since she was a pediatric physical therapist herself. “I tried to go back to work. I realized I wasn’t ready to do my job. I was struggling. I thought, ‘How can I help other kids with their balance if I can’t balance?’”
She started additional outpatient rehab at Spero Rehab. There, she met her future Ninja Warrior trainer, Jonathan Parr. He started training her, and little by little, she learned how to regain control of her body. Parr saw potential in her to be a “Ninja Warrior.”
Charlotte took his suggestion. She walked into Iron Sports and said she thought, “This is where I am going to take back everything the tumor has stolen from me.”
She had to work extra hard to learn about her own body’s athleticism, too. “I have not done anything athletic in my whole life,” said Charlotte. “Well, I did a mud run. I didn’t play sports in high school.”
Grip strength is an important aspect of the competition. Often, the competitors have to suspend in mid air and support their entire body weight by just the grip of their hand. Balance is also important, with difficult tasks like navigating rolling logs and rotating, jerky balance bridges.
Even though the competition is over now (she’s not allowed to share details until the air date), Charlotte said she still trains every day to maintain what she worked so hard to earn. She wore a shirt during the competition that said, “What if you fly?” It was taken from her favorite poem, by Erin Hanson, that reads: “And you ask, What if I fall? Oh but my darling, What if you fly?”
Charlotte said she wants to keep training and compete on the show again next year. “It’s been an incredible journey, but full of hope,” she said.
Lisa Eicher tried out for Ninja Warrior after her 9-year-old daughter, Ace, begged her to. They are big fans of the show, along with the rest of the family: Memorial High School sweetheart-husband Joey, 13-year-old Archie and Sevy, 3-year-old Radko and the family’s 3-legged dog, Pip. Archie and Sevy, who have Down Syndrome, were adopted at ages 7 and 12, respectively, from Bulgaria through a ministry called Reece’s Rainbow.
Lisa, with her big smile and boy-short haircut, has 11,000 Instagram followers (@eicherumba) who keep track of her posts. Through social media, she shares daily moments and life as a mom of four and of special-needs children. She said she wanted to use American Ninja Warrior as a platform to raise awareness for the Down Syndrome and the adoption communities.
She was watching the show one night when Ace turned to her and said, “Mommy, you should compete on that.” “I was completely out of shape. I couldn’t hang from a bar or do a pull-up,” she said. Ace persisted. “One night when I was going to sleep, I thought, how cool would that be if I could show my kids that if I work hard enough, that you can [accomplish] a wild and crazy dream.”
Unlike Charlotte, Lisa had played many sports growing up, including softball in high school. She just needed to get back into shape and learn how to do the obstacles. Sounds easy, right? Not so much.
Lisa and Charlotte trained for up to three hours a day at popular Ninja competitor Sam Sann’s gym, Iron Sports. The gym offers strength, conditioning, cardio and obstacle training.
“Your hands get completely torn up,” said Lisa. “That’s the tough part, working through the pain because so much is with your hands, but you have to keep going.”
The women trained with Sann, as well as Houston trainer and Ninja competitor Brandi Monteverde. The preparation involved body-weight training, rock climbing and pull ups, lots of them. They had muscle aches and exhaustion. In addition, they had to be lined up on time for carpool each day to pick up their kids in Memorial.
Lisa said she used her kids as her inspiration: “the fact that every day, everything is an uphill battle” for Sevy and Archie. “Archie just learned after 5 years how to pump his legs on a swing. They inspired me that way.” She promotes her training slogan, “Ninjas Don’t Count Chromosomes,” on social media and T-shirts. She wore one during the competition, too.
Lisa said the highlight of the whole journey was seeing her four kids jumping up and down with excitement during the competition.
“I remember just standing there and taking it all in. I had made it.”
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