A ninja’s focus was once their secrecy in executing missions. But in a time when people face various aggressions daily, a ninja’s mission may require exposure on national TV to deliver the public hope. This is a mission that the “Papal Ninja” understands more than anyone else.
Cal alumnus Sean Bryan, a Catholic Church worker who was a member of the Bears’ men’s gymnastics team from 2006 to 2008, is set to take on challenges presented by a brand-new season of “American Ninja Warrior,” in which he is a fierce competitor. He competes as the Papal Ninja, a nickname that perfectly describes both his exceptional athleticism and his strong Catholic faith. Bryan has been a main competitor in one of the United States’ most popular TV series since 2016.
Reflecting on his dramatic journey from his time as a Cal student to his new life as a ninja, he sat down and gave The Daily Californian an interesting insight into the show’s new season.
Upon starting this season, Bryan admitted, he was “the most nervous” he’s ever been — and with good reason. As one of the few “in-person” Hollywood productions during the COVID-19 pandemic, “American Ninja Warrior” took strict precautions to ensure the safety of both audience members and competitors.
The regional qualifiers were canceled, and instead, selected competitors gathered in St. Louis for a shortened duration of two weeks for the event. On top of social distancing and a face covering mandate, the competitors were required to undergo constant tests and health checkups during filming. Disinfecting obstacles after every run was also a crucial process.
Tremendous energy from a live studio audience in usual seasons was replaced with video calls from competitors’ supporters, which, for Bryan, had their benefits.
“(Video call) was actually more intimate than what it usually is,” Bryan said. “You can actually talk to them right before you start, instead of them being stuck four or five obstacles ahead.”
The competitive dynamic of this season — especially with a new rule that puts competitors with similar backgrounds in teams, giving athletes a chance to save their teammates — may work for the better for a former collegiate gymnast such as Bryan. Not only is the body structure that he developed over the years beneficial, but how he handles pressure — getting into the zone just with a salute — also prepared Bryan to be an exceptional ninja. One critical difference between “American Ninja Warrior” and gymnastics that he raises, though, is quick adaptability to the obstacles you’ve never touched before.
“You don’t get to test the obstacle before competing,” Bryan said. “Gymnastics have a lot fewer variables, whereas in ninja, you never know how the obstacles react.”
Cal gymnastics’ unique culture is also an essential component that formed the Papal Ninja. In addition to the team’s tradition of appreciating sports as an artistic endeavor rather than pure competition, Bryan found teammates who shared the same passion for gymnastics and provided a space where he could truly be himself. It was in this space that he discovered a new appreciation for his religion and faith.
“Coming to Cal, I made myself a few promises: One, I will always be myself; two, I was going to get a girlfriend right away; and three, to take my faith more seriously,” Sean recalled. “In the process, I found immense inner joy and respect for ministry.”
Shifting gears from his initial plan to become a business consultant with his degree in physics and taking his realization as a calling from God, he decided to get involved in Catholic ministry, obtaining a master’s degree in theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology after graduating from Cal.
His faith eventually led him to become the Papal Ninja.
It would seem as if the series of events leading up to Bryan’s time on “American Ninja Warrior” was in fact a perfect storm. And while watching fellow former Cal gymnast Kyle Litow on the show gave him some interest in the program, actually participating in the show seemed unrealistic to him at first.
“I started to watch the show two years before I applied, and I thought, ‘Maybe I could do that,’ ” Bryan said. “But I never took it seriously — this is a TV show, and who actually applies to these things?”
However, within the same week or two, he received messages from four different people who have no connection to one another, urging him to try out for the show. On top of those, finding a gym that had a ninja training program in his neighborhood convinced him that all of these events were in fact a calling from God, inviting him to become a ninja.
Once Bryan decided to take on the challenge, his progression came quicker than expected. Not only did he endure an extremely selective process to appear on TV, but after only two seasons, he became one of three finalists to make it to the furthest stage in the ninth season. Rather than simply enjoy the fame and increasing recognition, he intends to use them to fight back against some of the stereotypes of the religious population in the contemporary secular United States.
“I tried to leverage that platform to inspire people and to help them grow their faith,” Bryan said. “Being religious doesn’t mean sitting in a church all day. If faith doesn’t take a concrete place in your life, what is it for?”
During the pandemic, his job as the Papal Ninja was not limited to competing on the show. One of his observations was that people are becoming more accepting of the divine than before. As the COVID-19 pandemic made death a more imminent matter to people, coupled with increased isolation as the de-facto lockdown prolongs, Bryan has received many inquiries on how to understand the situation.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I decided to start writing a book,” Bryan said. “Many of the inquiries were the same kind, so I started to put together a document and to slowly respond to these questions.”
In addition to offering spiritual help for those in need, he dealt with current racial discrimination issues by holding a Zoom conference. He invited well-known guests, including fellow ninja Najee Richardson, former NFL player Anthony Trucks and Dr. Bennet Omalu, on whom the movie “Concussion” is based, to offer some perspectives.
“Being the Papal Ninja at this time is helping me realize my own vocation and keeping me accountable to the presence of people and responding to their needs,” Bryan said.
In a sense, during the pandemic, undercover missions that ninjas used to perform are now brought onto the national stage, reaching out to those who need them most. And in order to reach more people who need help, showcasing their endeavors on “American Ninja Warrior” to expand support is the new mission of a ninja.
Whether on the show or in ministry, Bryan’s purpose always stays the same: to be there for the people who need him most. For the Cal alumnus, who is a perfect integration of athletic stardom, religiousness and compassion for others, being the Papal Ninja may be the most fitting vocation.
“Be courageous, and go deep,” he said. “Courage helps someone overcome fear, and asking a deeper question can help you respond in a loving way.”
Through his fight on “American Ninja Warrior” this season, the courageous Papal Ninja will embody his promise and come running to the rescue. Fans can tune in and bear witness Monday at 8 p.m. on NBC.
Contact Eriko Yamakuma at [email protected].