Jennifer L’Hommedieu Stankus, MD, JD, FACEP, is always looking for a challenge. “When I saw [NBC’s] American Ninja Warrior [ANW], it looked like so much fun that I had to try out,” she said.
The avid sports enthusiast, who works at Tacoma Emergency Care Physicians and Madigan Army Medical Center, both in Tacoma, Washington, is no stranger to testing her limits. “I participate in tons of sports and outdoor activities, including cave diving, rock climbing, mountaineering, skiing, surfing, and running, among other things,” the 45-year-old athlete said. She’s even competed in national Xterra off-road triathlons. “But nothing can really prepare you for ANW other than being a well-rounded athlete,” Dr. Stankus said.
Dr. Stankus, who served as an officer in the US Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps and as a medic in the US Navy Reserve after high school, was selected from 50,000 applicants vying for fewer than 700 spots on ANW. She competed in a special military edition in San Pedro, California, in June this year. Contestants on the show compete in one of six cities, with 15 finalists from each city going on to the national finals in Las Vegas. The winner, if there is one, is awarded $1 million.
The competition runs from dusk until dawn. The first night is the city qualifiers, where a pool of 110 is pared down to 30. The city finals are held the second night on a longer and more difficult course, cutting the field down to 15. The course consists of a series of obstacles that test strength, speed, balance, and agility.
“Very few people finish the course, but anyone who finishes, regardless of time, moves on to the finals,” Dr. Stankus explained. Those who go the farthest fastest fill the remaining slots.
Finding Balance Between Work and Play
So how does Dr. Stankus balance her training regimen with her professional responsibilities? “I work hard and play hard,” she said. “When I’m done at work, I’m done, and that’s when the play starts.”
Staying fit is a lifestyle, said Dr. Stankus, just like getting a good night’s sleep. She does daily cardio exercises, such as running, swimming, biking, or hiking. For strength training, she focuses on pull-ups, push-ups, dips, planks, jumps, and other body-weight and core exercises, plus works out on an obstacle course that she created at home. “Your body gets conditioned to the same exercises pretty fast, so you have to keep mixing it up,” she said. She can achieve desired results by working out between 20 and 45 minutes four to five times per week.
Dr. Stankus, who is 5’5” and 114 pounds, has sworn by a vegan diet ever since reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, PhD, and Thomas M. Campbell II, MD, in 2006. “If you eat a whole-food plant-based diet while limiting fats, you will get all the nutrition you need and nothing you don’t,” she said. “You don’t have to count calories or think about glycemic indexes, and the idea that carbs are a bad thing is insane! Such a diet supports good health, prevents disease, and allows you to reach optimal athletic performance.”
Indeed, Dr. Stankus has a lot on her plate, as she is actively involved with ACEP as chair of the medical-legal committee and as a member of the board of directors of Washington Chapter ACEP. She also serves on the ACEP Now editorial board, is a reviewer for Annals of Emergency Medicine, serves as an ACEP Councillor, and contributes to multiple task forces, among other duties. She was also featured—to her surprise—at ACEP15 last month when the opening session speaker, Mark Scharenbroich, called her to the stage to talk about her Harley Davidson Softail Slim motorcycle.
“It is a bit intimidating to be on national television with a big audience, cameras, and lights in your face while facing obstacles you never tried before. Keeping a positive focus and calm nerves is important.”
—Jennifer L’Hommedieu Stankus, MD, JD
Earning a Spot
To get on the reality TV show, Dr. Stankus created an audition video that showcased her athletic abilities while presenting an interesting story. But she is actually not the first emergency physician to compete on ANW. Noah Kaufman, MD, an attending emergency physician at Emergency Physicians of the Rockies, University of Colorado Health Systems in Fort Collins, is in his third season of the competition.
“I wanted a larger platform to motivate people to get healthier,” said Dr. Kaufman, who is 6’2” and 180 pounds. “They call me the ‘ninja doc,’ and I have inspired a ton of people to quit smoking and lose weight; it feels really good. Viewers are constantly communicating with me about their health goals and progress via social media.”
To date, the 40-year-old has made it to the Las Vegas finals twice, putting him in the top 1 percent of ninjas. Another highlight of his experience was being the first emergency physician to reduce a fellow competitor’s dislocated shoulder on primetime television.
Another emergency physician, Richard Shoemaker, MD, of Delaware County Memorial Hospital in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, also competed in ANW this year.1
Reflecting on the event, Dr. Stankus said it’s most important to maximize your strength-to-weight ratio. It’s also important to be well rested since most competitors are awake for nearly 24 hours before their run. “It is a bit intimidating to be on national television with a big audience, cameras, and lights in your face while facing obstacles you never tried before,” she admitted. “Keeping a positive focus and calm nerves is important, but I’m used to that as an emergency physician.”
Dr. Kaufman also sees commonalities between being a ninja and an attending emergency physician, such as working under pressure, dealing with many personalities, and working in the middle of the night.
Unfortunately, Dr. Stankus will not advance to the next round this year. She expects it will take several years of training and competing before being successful, as has been the case with many other competitors. She plans to reapply to be on ANW next year and believes her chances of being selected are good since previous competitors are often chosen again.
“I eventually expect to make it to the Las Vegas finals because I don’t give up until I reach my goals,” she said.
Editor’s Note: This article has been update to include Dr. Richard Shoemaker.
- Wascavage M. Crozer-Keystone ER doctor to compete on ‘American Ninja Warrior.’ Crozer-Keystone Health System website. June 11, 2015. Available at www.crozerkeystone.org/news/press-releases/2015/june/dcmh-er-doctor-to-compete-on-american-ninja-warrior. Accessed December 15, 2015.
Karen Appold is a medical writer in Pennsylvania.