The Strength to Conquer Obstacles
The American Ninja Warrior courses seem to be designed to thwart success. Conquering them requires a mix of physical athleticism and mental acuity. You’ve got to be a well-rounded athlete, with problem-solving skills who can stay calm under pressure.
From the first year he competed on ANW, Joe Moravsky has seemed to have the entire package.
Even when obstacles looked almost impossible to conquer, and even when they knocked out almost every other competitor, Joe Moravsky seemed to find a way to get it done. And not just get it done, but doing it with apparent ease. He went fast, but not carelessly fast where he would make a silly mistake.
When he went down, you knew it was because he had reached his physical limit. Each year, he came back stronger than the year before, and went a little farther.
On top of all of that, he seems to be a genuinely nice guy. He humble, centered, grounded. Moravsky is a natural leader; a is a fan favorite of both spectators and within the ninja community.
If you were taking bets on who would complete all four stages of the finals course, Joe Moravsky would be on the short list of good bets. In 26 runs on the ninja courses he had hit the water only twice, other than Stage 3 of the finals course. He is consistently one of the last competitors standing, and he seems to do it with a coolness and composure that belies the difficulty of the courses.
He had never failed on Stage 1 of the finals in regular competition. Until last night.
Running Stage 1 of the finals, Joe got an uneven hold on the second bar of the Double Dipper obstacle. As Joe rode the bar through the dip, it went off the rails. There was no way to save it. He and the bar crashed into the water.
Just like that, his season was over.
Joe, in the water, could only shake his head and utter, wow.
His face said it all.
Shock. Sadness. Disappointment.
As the camera panned the crowd, you could see the shock on the faces of the spectators and the other ninjas.
The Anguish of Defeat
Trying to respond to Kristine Leahy’s questions in the post-run interview, Joe could hardly speak. He shook his head in an effort to fight back the surge of emotion. You can hear him audibly choke back what he was feeling.
But the body doesn’t always cooperate. His face flushed and his eyes welled with tears.
As he tried to articulate what was making him so “emotional” (Leahy’s word) about this moment, he could hardly look up at her or the camera.
I don’t know … There’s so many… oh, man… Could I have shown a better performance for my fans and family? Yeah… 6 years. But, I’ll be back. It’s just a hard one to swallow.
Watch the video, and you can feel his anguish. Who among us can’t relate to that?
To work so hard for something, investing time and energy into the training and the work, and sacrificing time with friends and family, and then, in a split second, it’s over. Who hasn’t felt that lump in the throat, the pit in the bottom of the stomach, and the hollow emptiness of disbelief.
Find me a high-achiever with passion for his or her work who hasn’t, at some point, felt like she disappointed those who believed in her, supported him, and rooted for her.
And who among us hasn’t felt the anguish of disappointing ourselves?
I imagine that probably the last thing that Joe Moravsky wanted to do was speak to anyone, let alone have a camera in his face. And yet allowing us to see his emotion was perhaps among his best moments as a competitor on American Ninja Warrior.
In fact, I believe that he sent a more powerful and inspiring message to his fans through this failure than he could have sent by scaling to the top of Mount Midoriyama.
The Myth of Masculinity
Our culture socializes us to believe that “real men don’t cry.” This creates a false narrative that boys and men who do cry or otherwise show their “softer” emotions are weak and not “masculine.”
Boys learn at an early age to bottle up their emotions, and they grow into men who bottle up their emotions.
this [is the] hallmark of the masculine psyche — the shame over feeling any sadness, despair or strong emotion other than anger, let alone expressing it and the resulting alienation.
He notes that
Many young men … compose artful, convincing masks, but deep down they aren’t who they pretend to be.
The shame and alienation eventually bubble to the surface, often in destructive ways. To catalyze true healing we need a cultural shift. We must show boys and men that it’s ok to express what you’re feeling.
What does it mean for a man to be strong? Does it mean he cannot cry, he cannot be vulnerable, he has to be invincible and never show someone he trusts his weak or vulnerable side? Does that make him any less of a man? Or does it make him more human, genuine, and honest?
The Strength in Tears
Joe Moravsky isn’t the first ANW competitor to show his tears after an early exit. But as one of the most popular competitors, his tears will no doubt be seen by the many boys and girls who consider him a hero. His tears will make an impact.
This is a great thing for all of us.
By all existing cultural standards, Joe Moravsky is the embodiment of the masculine ideal: a strong and athletic conquerer of obstacles. A provider for his family. A supportive friend in his community.
He hangs from one arm and does backflips off of walls. In a remarkable display of persistence and calm under pressure, he once broke an obstacle and still managed to complete the course.
When a man like Joe Moravsky dares to be emotionally honest and show us his tears and his disappointment, he debunks the cultural myth of masculinity as stoicism and emotional suppression.
Emotions are not gendered. Men cry. Women cry.
Tears are not like kryptonite; they do not diminish strength. When we are willing to show our tears, we strengthen the muscles of our shared humanity and foster deeper connection. It’s this strength that allows us to overcome the big obstacles in life.
Every fan of ANW knows that the course can be unpredictable, that the greats inevitably fail. It’s no different from life. Those moments are inevitably disappointing and it’s normal to feel the pain of that. The people who don’t want to feel that pain of defeat are the ones who don’t even try in the first place.
Part of success is getting back up and doing it again. I have no doubt that Joe Moravsky will return next season with the same passion, focus, and consistency in his results. When he does, it will serve as a wonderful teaching point on the principle of resilience and the importance of never giving up.
For now, he has imparted another lesson: real men do cry. And it’s ok.