Durham Academy Student Named Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association Champ

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John David Spatola placed first in his age group at the Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association world series championship finals in late July. This marks John David’s first national level championship win.

John David Spatola

By Morgan Cartier Weston  |  Photography by John Michael Simpson

“Some people express their creativity through painting, music or writing,” says John David Spatola. “Designing obstacles is my creative expression.”  The 11-year-old “American Ninja Warrior Junior” competitor gets as much joy out of planning and designing ninja courses as he does swinging from them. 

“He will come up to us with toothpicks and paper clips, describing how a course might go using these everyday household objects,” says Jamie Spatola, John David’s mom. “Sometimes he will create mockups of courses on paper, even calculating time estimates and difficulty. It’s so fun to watch.”

“American Ninja Warrior” caught John David’s eye on TV when he was 6 years old, and he was hooked. Five years later, he’d make his own appearance on the popular show in May 2020. He performed well but was knocked out in the quarter finals; the experience only inspired John David to improve. “It’s a slow progression, but I’d say I’m five times better now, because I practice five times as much, and it’s always on my mind,” he explains. His love for competitive strategy goes back to first grade, when John David was part of a national championship chess team (this is also the origin of his ninja nickname: “The Dude”).

John David redeemed himself more than a year later during the Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association world series championship finals, where more than 7,000 others competed. He claimed the No. 1 spot in the 11-under age category in late July. “He has placed high in national tournaments before, but this is his first national level championship,” Jamie says. “We are so very excited for him.”

John David Spatola
John David placed first place at the UNAA world series championship finals in Las Vegas.

Like many artists, John David sees his craft everywhere he goes, envisioning jumping from one light fixture or support beam to the next on family outings to restaurants and museums. “I couldn’t do any of this without my family,” John David says of his parents, Jamie and Chris Spatola, and sisters Mackenzie, 9, and Madeline, 4. “Their support is really what impacts my performance most. From taking me to practice to showing up for competitions, it means everything.” 

The whole crew enjoys road trips together, making stops at ninja gyms around the country on the way. “He gets to talk to the owners and learns about administration of it,” Jamie says. “I love watching him talk to them, because even though they are speaking this ninja language that none of us understand, you can so clearly see the joy in his face.”

John David attends classes locally at USA Ninja Challenge Durham and works with coach Achiri Acha. “We are so thankful for Achiri,” Jamie says. “He and John David have formed such a special bond.” Mackenzie and Madeline have begun taking classes, too, and at home, their dog, Larry, helps supervise while the siblings jump from one obstacle to the next in their backyard.

Spatola family in Durham
His family – sisters Madeline and Mackenzie and parents Chris and Jamie – are always there to cheer him on.

During the pandemic, USA Ninja Challenge began offering “bubble classes” for families that were comfortable practicing with one another. “We love the competitions and the experience of being in LA for the show and seeing John David on the TV when it premiered last May was so much fun,” Jamie says. “But the most special part of ninja for our family has been the community they’ve had access to over the course of this past year.”

At the end of the year, John David wanted to do something for his bubble class, which included his sister Mackenzie. He planned a daylong competition in his backyard, designing the course and acting as coach, timer and judge. “It meant a lot to express my creativity and bring all my friends together at the same time,” he says. 

He continues to practice and compete, but John David says his ultimate goal is to run his own gym one day and coach other kids just like him. “I want to see them improve and grow,” he says. “I would love that to be my future, coaching kids into being great ninjas.” 

John David Spatola
John David Spatola is always updating and changing his backyard ninja course in order to practice.

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Morgan Weston

Durham Magazine freelancer Morgan Weston is a North Carolina native who loves exploring the Triangle's diverse food, arts and craft beer offerings.

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