Najee Richardson, a former gymnast, is well-known as one of three 2018 finalists in NBC's American Ninja Warrior championship. The action-packed series follows competitors as they tackle challenging obstacle courses in both city qualifying and city final rounds across the country. Those who successfully complete the finals course in their designated region move on to the national finals round in Las Vegas, where they face a four-stage obstacle course, competing for a cash prize.
As an athlete with asthma, Najee's story has inspired kids and adults alike, and he has been named the American Lung Association's 2019 National Fight For Air Climb Ambassador.
Q: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
A: I grew up in North Philly, in a very rough neighborhood. There were a lot of drugs, gangs and crime— bad influences. I am my parent's only child but we grew up with a large extended family, lots of aunts, uncles and cousins. My mom and dad were the hardest working people I’ve ever known. With their limited means, they signed me up for gymnastics at the age of 10, I joined a gymnastics team at 12 and started competing. I was in the gym six days a week from 12 years old on.
Q: When were you diagnosed with asthma and how did that impact you as a kid?
A: I was diagnosed with asthma as a baby. I was born prematurely, with a lot of complications and breathing problems. They didn't expect me to make it through the night. I grew up as kind of a frail kid, trying to keep up with my friends. I didn't really understand asthma, I knew I had to carry an inhaler and use it when I was out of breath, but I didn't really grasp what asthma was. I had to work a little harder to keep up with my friends, but I didn't use it as an excuse and I never felt sorry for myself having it.
Q: How did you learn to manage your asthma through being an active kid?
A: I was hospitalized for asthma on and off as a kid and of course, they'd tell me what to do and not do, and I didn't really listen. I think I learned how to manage my asthma by trial and error. I would become aware of when I needed to rest, when I felt it kicking in. I was always very much into understanding my physical fitness and health, even as a kid, and especially as I got into sports.
Q: Why American Ninja Warrior?
A: American Ninja Warrior was a good fit for me, coming from gymnastics. I was 21 when I retired from gymnastics and was looking for something to stay in shape. I tried MMA (mixed martial arts), baseball, bodybuilding, but I never found anything that really was a good fit. Then I learned that one of my buddies was doing American Ninja Warrior and opened a gym. I asked more about it and he invited me down to the gym to check it out. I fell in love with it instantly. The athleticism is very similar to gymnastics and I became more addicted to it every day that I trained.
Q: What's the significance of The Flying Phoenix?
A: My gymnastics career ended when I went through a very tough injury. I tore my lateral meniscus in my right knee my senior year of high school. At the time, I was being scouted by colleges with some of the top men's gymnastics teams in the country. I was training to compete in the Olympics and was regularly competing against Olympic-caliber gymnasts. Realizing that I could never come back from my injury and be the gymnast I had been, and I didn't want to come back as less than myself, I retired from the sport. I went into a very dark depression for next two years. Leading up to the injury, my entire life had revolved around gymnastics and training to be an Olympian. I felt like the last 13 years of my childhood and all of the work and sacrifice my parents went through were all for nothing. That's when I decided I needed something to bring me back to life. I needed to find my smile again. When I discovered American Ninja Warrior, I felt like I had a purpose again. I saw a reason for why things had happened the way they did and I jumped full force into it. Like the Phoenix, my spirit felt like it had died and I needed to rise up again.
Q: How do you mentally prepare for obstacles on and off the American Ninja course?
A: I prepare the same way on and off the American Ninja Warrior course, which is the way I prepared for my gymnastics competitions. I put in the work. I put in the time and effort needed to accomplish my goal. If I want to be great at American Ninja Warrior, I need to put in the time and effort to be great, training, pushing myself to do new things, trusting myself to do things I'm afraid of, visualizing my routine, saying a prayer, telling myself no matter what happens, there's a reason you're here and you're going to be great. There's a lot of mental preparation.
Q: What do you want to accomplish as the new American Lung Association Fight For Air Climb Ambassador?
A: I want to spread more awareness of the Climb, bring more support to people dealing with lung disease, engage younger people, with or without asthma, and introduce it to a new audience. I also want to let people know they don't have to be an American Ninja Warrior to do the Climb—if you can walk a mile, you can do the Climb!
Q: What do you find most meaningful about the Fight For Air Climb?
A: I think it's really cool and super inspiring to see this large group of people getting together to do something fun and support a good cause. People with asthma, people with other lung disease, their friends and families, all come together at this really fun, unique event and the whole goal behind it is to do some good.
Q: What kind of inspiration do you want to provide to kids and adults with asthma?
A: I've always been a very intense guy. I don't like making excuses for my struggles or weaknesses. I want kids to see they can do whatever they put their minds to, whether they have asthma or some other illness, it doesn't have to hold you back. Just go after it, be dedicated. The only thing stopping you is lack of effort, not your illness. I want to inspire them to think, "Hey, if Najee can do it and he's got asthma, I can do it, too."
Q: Tell us about how you're working with kids on American Ninja Warrior Junior?
A: I'm a mentor on the show—there's a total of six of us—and I have the 11- to 12-year-old age group. We're there to provide support and get them mentally prepared. They're the first generation of kids who are going through the American Ninja Warrior course and that can be incredibly terrifying. These kids are going back to their schools and everyone will know who they are. There's a lot of pressure to perform, there are a lot of emotions. So, we're there to help them see the bigger picture. We help them handle interviews, show them what to do if you fall off the course and teach them how to be better athletes.
Q: What does the year ahead hold for you with American Ninja Warrior?
A: I'll be competing again this year, and I'll also be focusing on other lifelong dreams. I'm taking acting classes and getting my actor’s reel done. Having success on American Ninja Warrior helped motivate me to go after other things I want to accomplish in life. I believe that whatever I put my mind to, I can achieve,
Q: What is one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?
A: I'm one of the biggest Harry Potter nerds you'll ever meet. You can ask me anything about any of the characters, and I'll go into excruciating detail about it!
Q: What is the one thing you want people to know about you?
A: I’m someone who truly believes in not making excuses and in going after the things you really want. My parents went through so much and worked so hard for 18 years to make sure that I would have the opportunities I've had, and they succeeded. With their income level, having as little as they had, and growing up in that neighborhood, there's no way I should have been able to compete in one of the most expensive sports, gymnastics. I should not be in this place, but I'm here because my parents didn't make excuses for their circumstances. No matter what it is, you don't make excuses, you just do it.
Q: What is your biggest success in life so far, what are you most proud of?
A: I'm most proud of the fact that I was able to find my way back from depression when my gymnastics career ended. I know people still don't talk about depression a lot, but somehow, in the midst of that, I was able to make my way back and do some amazing things with my life. Sometimes it's hard to see the silver lining when things are really hard, but now all these years, later I'm thankful this happened to me. Even if I had succeeded in gymnastics, it probably wouldn't have given me the opportunities that I have today, and I couldn’t be more thankful for it.
Join Najee’s virtual Fight For Air Climb team at Lung.org/flyingphoenixclimb OR join him at one of the following Climbs in 2019. Don't forget to share your posts on social #FlyingPhoenixClimb!
Denver March 3
Chicago March 10
Philadelphia March 30
New York City April 6
Atlanta April 27
Blog last updated: April 13, 2020