It was June 20, and Amber Dawkins and her husband, Jerry, were driving back to Kansas City after spending time with family Palmer, Kansas, when she got the call from a Los Angeles area code that would change her life.
At first glance, she didn’t recognize the number, so she ignored the call.
“We got on the highway, and we were about at the Flint Hills, and I remembered that I had a voicemail,” she says. “I looked at the transcription. It said, ‘Hi, Amber. This is Dave from American Ninja Warrior.'”
That phone call was the moment that Dawkins had worked toward since the first day she began ninja training in 2017 at Overland Park’s Apex Climbing Gym. On that fateful first day of ninja training, she nailed the lache bars, a higher-level obstacle that involves hanging from bars (like monkey bars) and thrusting your body from bar to bar, which can space to six feet apart.
“I had enough of an athletic history,” she says. “I was never a super serious athlete. But I’d done gymnastics and cheerleading and martial arts and diving.”
Dawkins has faced one major obstacle outside the ninja course, an obstacle she has battled since birth: cystic fibrosis.
“I was diagnosed at birth and have had pretty good health maintenance all along,” she says. “CF can be absolutely debilitating and a full-time job maintaining health, and I definitely have a lot to maintain. I take about 180 pills a week and do breathing treatments every day. I have to be very careful about picking up illnesses because a common cold can turn into a three-week respiratory infection.”
Three years, a few local ninja competitions, hundreds of breathing treatments, thousands of pills and one audition tape later, Dawkins was ready for American Ninja Warrior‘s national stage. She filmed her part of the show at the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis in July and her episode aired last week. And although Dawkins didn’t make it to the final buzzer, she considers being there and raising awareness for cystic fibrosis a “win.”
Here’s what Dawkins (full disclosure: she’s shot photos for our magazine) had to say about the experience.
How does CF impact your training?
Training ninja with CF is complicated because when I do get sick, I have to get on some pretty heavy-hitting antibiotics that put your tendons at risk of spontaneous rupture. Every time I’m on medication, which is a two week round, I have to stop training. And I’ll have usually already been out for about a week battling the respiratory infection. So it’s usually a three, sometimes four-week break of all physical activity.
However, in January, I got to start a new medication, which was a huge breakthrough in the CF community: Trikafta. It is changing everything. People are coming off of lung transplant lists. Symptoms are disappearing. It’s the first of its kind that successfully treats the mutated protein at a cellular level. Within about six to eight weeks of being on that, my cough disappeared. I feel better than I ever have. By March, I really wasn’t even needing to do my daily breathing exercises anymore. I had the complete disappearance of all respiratory symptoms. I was so excited to see what that was going to translate to a ninja. Unfortunately, by then everything shut down [because of the pandemic] and I had to stop going to the gym.
Do you have a favorite obstacle and a least favorite obstacle?
I love to fly through the air, so anything that involves flying or swinging high is my jam. The biggest lache bar jump I’ve done to date is eight feet apart.
My least favorites are the pure upper body obstacles. The salmon ladder is very hard. I can get through a couple rungs, but I only get through because I get creative with my technique. Some people will just get up there and pull up, pop, pull up, pop. I swing and throw my hips up and do all sorts of crazy things to get up.
What was it like when you got “the call” from American Ninja Warrior?
I got the call to compete on June 20. At that point, I had been out of the gym for four months. It was such mixed emotions—I got my dream call and hadn’t touched an obstacle in four months. I had three weeks to prepare. Luckily, I was able to get in some after-hours training time at the gym, so I came in and started working on agility and balance, knowing that I wasn’t going to rebuild any massive strength in that period of time, but I could rebuild my confidence.
How did you feel when you got to St. Louis for filming?
I really flipped back and forth between terrified and excited the whole week. It was such a surreal experience and the community is so incredibly supportive of each other. You become family. They welcomed me with open arms. Before I even ran the course, on my first night there, I just kept thinking, all of these legendary ninjas are in the same place at the same time, and I am one of them. It’s not like you can play football as a hobby and then find yourself on the field with Patrick Mahomes. I felt kind of like this was a hobby for me that has grown into a passion has now landed me under the same roof as these athletes. It was just such a surreal feeling. I met a few ninjas in the elevators and hallways. Every time the hotel elevator door would open, I kind of held my breath wondering who was going to be on the other side.
As for seeing the course itself, it was beautiful. I was amazed by the magnitude of it. I’m used to training at a gym where, to me, the obstacles seem like normal-sized obstacles. And with all of the lighting and the banners around the course, it was incredible.
Did you share your CF story with American Ninja Warrior?
Yes, my interview was very emotional. I talked a lot about being born with a life expectancy of 20, and what that must have been like for my mom. When I was a little girl, my mom was with me at a CF appointment. We were in the waiting room, getting ready to be called back into the clinic. She says that there were two sisters also in the waiting room, both with cystic fibrosis, who were probably about 10 years older than me. They were both the picture of health: They had a color in their cheeks, they were a healthy weight, they seemed really strong and active. After having been told at birth that my life expectancy, on average, was 20, it gave my mom so much hope to see these girls and to think that maybe I wouldn’t follow that projected path of health.
She told me that story when I was a teenager, and I always wanted a chance to get to do that for somebody else. Now, I get to show the CF community what’s possible and that CF doesn’t have to stop you from living your dream. You can choose the life you want to live and drag CF along for the ride. Even though I didn’t do great on the course and even though I didn’t get a lot of air time, they get to see that I made it there. I’m 36 years with cystic fibrosis and look at what I’m capable of. I wanted to be for those families what the girls in the waiting room were for my mom.
Tell me about the moment before it was your turn on the course.
When it’s your turn, you have a moment with the confession cam to say your last-minute thoughts before you run the course. Then you’re led up these stairs that take you to the starting platform. I remember wondering if I was going to be able to make my foot step up onto the stair. In slow motion, it all starts hitting you: There’s the course, then there’s the water, you can hear [American Ninja Warrior hosts] Matt and Akbar, the cameras are on you and there’s my family on the screen. It’s a surreal and unbelievable feeling.
I was wearing the vest that I use for my breathing treatments for airway clearance. I had planned to take the vest off and throw it down to symbolically throw down CF and conquer the course. I remember taking it off and just feeling so proud that I had gotten there despite all the obstacles that CF had thrown at me. I still get emotional just thinking about it.
I fell on the first obstacle, totally stunned, because I had practiced that obstacle dozens of times in the three weeks that I had to prepare. I had completed it at home, at my gym in Overland Park, at a gym in St. Louis just days before filming. I knew I could do it, but I just didn’t get a very strong push off the last step. I was kind of tilting, which led to me grabbing the rope with straight arms. It’s really hard to hold on and grab with straight arms because you can’t absorb the shock of your body weight.
What were your emotions like when you got off the course?
I kept it together and just breathed through it for the rest of the episode filming and then we were given lunch on set. A ninja friend of mine, Whitney, who I met through this experience and became really close with through this experience, came up and put her hand on my shoulder. That was it and I lost it. I hightailed it to the bathroom and cried it out all of the pent-up emotions and the tears and the frustration and the disappointment. Someone walked into the bathroom, right when I didn’t want to see anybody. But I knew that whoever had just walked in was also a ninja and had likely been through something similar. So I stopped hiding in the stall, and I came out.
And it was Jessie Graff.
She is such an icon for so many people. She has incredible athletic ability and is one of the most talented ninjas out there. But she’s also such a great person full of so much positivity. I told her I had fallen on the first obstacle, and she told me that she had fallen on the first obstacle before too. She then started to give me a pep talk, and I remember thinking, “I’m getting a pep talk from Jessie Graff right now.” After that moment, it was just better. I was able to enjoy the rest of my time there.
So what’s next in your ninja career?
There’s really no guarantee of getting another call next year, but I think I’d like to try. I want to be a part of this community as long as I can. And I want a chance at redemption, to get back on the course and make it to the other side of the obstacle one platform!