It all came down to one moment.
Years of training and dreaming had brought Bootie Cothran to this moment, as he stood shirtless before a crowd of people, spotlights shining over him, cameras rolling.
It was a warm night in Miami, Florida, and Bootie was here to compete in the 2018 “American Ninja Warrior” qualifiers. It wasn’t his first time competing. This was his sixth season on the show, but despite the hard work he’d put in, he still hadn’t been able to press that button at the end of the course. He’d always fallen short – one hand grip that was just beyond his reach, one rung that slipped from his grasp. Now Bootie knew this might be his last shot. At nearly 50 years old, his body wasn’t what it once was. He could feel the strain more and more every day.
But that crowd – that cheering crowd wouldn’t let him doubt himself.
“Bootie! Bootie! Bootie!” they chanted, many of them waving banners that read Bootie Bandwagon!
A second later the buzzer sounded, and Bootie took off.
A growing sport
In early March, far away from the lights and cameras of national TV, Bootie and his partners were putting the finishing touches on the setup inside Motive School of Movement, the massive new gym they’re opening up near Haywood Mall.
Regular viewers of “American Ninja Warrior” might recognize the team behind Motive. In addition to Bootie, there’s Grace Sims, who has competed in multiple seasons, as well as her bearded husband Brett Sims, who appeared on the show’s very first season and has been a regular ever since. As if by fate, Bootie’s father and Brett’s grandfather actually owned a real estate business together back in the 1970s, but neither Bootie nor Brett knew about that association until after they themselves met on the “American Ninja Warrior” set years later.
Rounding out the Motive crew is Bob Reese, a world-renowned parkour athlete whose skills have earned him more than a half a million followers on social media.
After three years of planning, Motive was initially set to open March 23, although the threat of the coronavirus meant they had to postpone a grand opening and will be monitoring the situation moving forward. For now, the team is using the extra time to “make the gym even better,” according to Bootie.
But that uncertainty, plus the late nights of setting up equipment and going over the final details, have not dimmed their excitement. The gym is unique for Greenville. With obstacles and courses identical to those seen on “American Ninja Warrior,” it will give people in the Upstate a chance to become ninjas themselves, as well as to compete in the wider orbit of “American Ninja Warrior”-style competitions.
Bootie hopes it will open a new outlet for kids and adults alike.
“I never played sports in high school or college,” he said. “I was so small. Just a thin-frame kind of guy. I never had an outlet to compete, and when I stumbled across ‘American Ninja Warrior,’ I knew this was the sport I never had.”
It’s a sport that is now growing at a major pace. In the first season of “American Ninja Warrior,” about 1,000 people submitted audition tapes. By season 10, that number had risen to 50,000 submissions.
The sport – and it truly has become a full-fledged sport, with regular regional competitions operating outside of the show itself – has received praise from other major athletes. Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently called it “the sport America needs.”
“In what other sport can you watch a doctor compete alongside a stay-at-home mother?” Abdul-Jabbar wrote in The Guardian. “It is a sport that welcomes the huddled masses. Even when competitors bounce head-first off a padded obstacle or splat foolishly into the water after a fail, most pop up waving their arms triumphantly. They celebrate the journey as much as the destination.”
Now Bootie and his partners believe that journey for a new generation of competitors will begin at Motive. The gym will offer regular classes for people of all ages in ninja-style athletics and parkour, open gym time and guidance from seasoned pros like Bootie, Grace and Brett, and Bob.
“A lot people see only the high-level stuff,” Bob said. “They see people jumping off roofs and doing crazy flips, or just plowing through the ‘American Ninja Warrior’ course, and they never really see the progression, the basic things anyone can learn.”
In a way, though, it’s strange for the Motive team to see the sophisticated obstacles, the safe padding, the flush-with-the-floor trampoline, the elaborate parkour course and all the other amenities of the gym – strange, they say, because it’s such a far cry from where they themselves began.
Like so many other early adopters of the ninja life, Bootie started out training on his own in his backyard. Grace started out as a rock climber. Brett was working at a gymnastics gym. Bob learned to do parkour-style backflips on a dirty old mattress in his backyard.
“It’s really cool we were able to be at the ground level of this,” Grace said. “You can look back and remember when there were only about five gyms in the whole country, all of them run by your friends. Compare that to what it has grown to, and to what it will be.”
Those who tuned in to watch Bootie appear on “American Ninja Warrior” in 2018 saw him dazzle though the course, this middle-aged superhuman moving from obstacle to obstacle with apparent ease.
They saw him reach the final obstacle, a giant curved wall rising 15 feet tall.
They saw Bootie take a deep breath, all those years of training leading to this moment, all his hopes hinged upon this next move.
And then they saw him bound up the wall. His fingers gripped onto the top, and with one final heave, he pulled himself up and over, and he finally slammed his palm on that button.
“What people watching on TV might not see in that moment is how supportive we all are of him,” Grace said. “It’s less about competition than it is about camaraderie. These are your friends out there, and you’re just rooting for everyone.”
The crowd was on its feet, screaming Bootie’s name. Cannons shot out plumes of smoke around him as he thrust his hands in the air, shouting out a joyous “Yes!”
“Having that community behind you is what makes it,” Bootie said, as he and his partners now look toward another big moment together. “It’s all about being cool to one another, having fun and staying positive. I got hooked on it and I don’t ever want to stop.”