PA Trains as Ninja Warrior

Verdale Benson Competes in Popular Summer Series

May 7, 2018

By Kate Maloney

Verdale Benson, PA-C

Verdale Benson, PA-C, stands below an intricate network of gymnastic rings and inch-wide ledges mounted to specialty cork boards. The metal contraption hangs from the ceiling, just out of reach. He takes a deep breath, jumps into the air, and grabs one of the impossibly small ledges. Swinging his body side to side, he moves from one ledge to another, keeping his momentum while he moves both higher and lower depending on the placement of the ledges. He needs to get to the other side of the contraption and he releases his grip, flying into space. His entire body flies through the air for a fraction of a second, and then, unbelievably, his fingers find the inch-wide ledge and he jolts, catching himself. He spends only a few seconds regaining his composure, finding his momentum, before he leaps again. While his actions may seem not only impossible but scary, Benson is actually practicing. This is cliffhanger training, and he’s preparing to compete on this summer’s America’s Ninja Warrior.

America’s Ninja Warrior is an action-packed TV series, “which follows competitors as they tackle a series of challenging obstacle courses…in their continuing quest for physical excellence…and a grand prize of $1 million.” The series has been on NBC for seven summers, and this summer, Verdale Benson will be a contestant.

Becoming a PA 

Benson was first exposed to obstacle courses, and how much he enjoyed them, during his time in the military after college at Clemson University. He was commissioned as a Medical Service Corps officer in the Army, and spent most of his time on operations and logistics. But a PA in his platoon mentored him clinically and inadvertently sparked his interest in the profession. After a stint in medical sales, he realized that his true passion was in clinical practice, and he decided to apply to Emory’s PA program.

Benson loves the freedom being a PA gives him. “I’ve enjoyed being able to experience different aspects of medicine,” he says, “and am excited about all the career possibilities.” He’s worked in a number of different specialties already – primary care, orthopaedic surgery, sports medicine, and emergency medicine. He currently staffs an occupational medicine clinic in Martinez, California. In his position, he’s able to utilize all the skills he’s acquired from his time as a PA and his military service. The role also allows him the flexibility he needs to spend time with his family and train for his upcoming competition.

Ninja Training

Benson competes in a Spartan Race.

Benson’s path to America’s Ninja Warrior actually began before the show aired in the U.S. He had always been an active child and played basketball and ran track in high school. After college, he joined the military, which gave him the foundation of adult fitness. His military training included many obstacle courses, and he found himself enjoying them immensely. Physical fitness, though, is far more important to Benson than just a TV competition: his father passed away because of poor health and it “lit a spark in me to ensure that I stay healthy and am able to perform athletically as long as possible.” Benson has tried to challenge himself physically every chance he gets – marathons, Spartan Races, and weight lifting, to name a few.

He’d been a fan of America’s Ninja Warrior for years, and when he and his wife moved five minutes from a local ninja gym, he says he had no excuse. “I went one weekend and took an Intro to Ninja class, and have been hooked since then!” he shares. “I began my path to competing on America’s Ninja Warrior that day.” His fitness regime at the time led to an easy transition to ninja training. “I was rock climbing mostly. I had to switch to working on muscle endurance rather than muscle hypertrophy.” His background as a PA contributed to training success: “Understanding medicine and anatomy has definitely helped. Also managing injuries and planning proper rest and recuperation has been invaluable,” Benson says. Additionally, the ninja community has been welcoming and helpful. “Ninja veterans are quick to offer advice and help push you to get better.” Luckily, Benson found he had a natural ability to tackle many of the obstacles and was able to complete most on his first day in the gym.

Upcoming Competition

To make it onto America’s Ninja Warrior national stage, you must first compete at the local level. Benson trained for 10 months before the Los Angeles competition. While many hopeful ninja warriors apply again and again, Benson was lucky to be chosen to compete after his first application. He had several weeks to focus his training after finding out he’d been picked to compete. His training then shifted dramatically; rather than refining strengths on individual obstacle types, Benson spent his training running and re-running mock courses. “’The challenging aspect of ninja is that most people can complete any one obstacle in isolation,” he says. “The key is to complete 10 obstacles in a row without failing. It is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. There are no do-overs on the ninja course. You fail one obstacle, your season is over!”

The balance obstacles are the ones Benson is least looking forward to. When you compete, you don’t have the option to practice on any of the obstacles beforehand, he says, and therefore “you have no idea how tricky the exact set-up is until you’re actually on the run. Anything that spins or rolls always gives me a little anxiety when I see it on the course!”

Benson’s schedule while he trains for the competition has been brutal. He trains at least five days a week, and sometimes twice a day. He schedules his “standard gym” visit in the morning – cardio and strength training – and then his ninja gym training in the evening. On a heavy training day, he is up at 5 a.m., at the “standard gym” by 5:30, works a 10-hour shift, spends about an hour at home with his family, and then goes to the ninja gym where he trains obstacles for 90 minutes.  He returns home for a late dinner and gets up the next morning to do it again. “Thankfully,” he says, “my wife has been very supportive and doesn’t mind the early morning and late nights that I’m away to pursue my passion.”

Benson is clearly excited about his ninja training and the opportunity he had to compete on America’s Ninja Warrior. “I want to be competitive in this sport as long as possible,” he says. He and his wife just had a baby boy, and he intends to juggle his passion for fitness and his family, while he continues to hone his PA skills.  “Eventually, I’d like to move into academics and teach at a PA program,” Benson says.  First, though, he’ll be practicing those cliffhangers until his competition day this summer.

Kate Maloney is AAPA’s senior manager of corporate communications. Contact her at communications@aapa.org.