When it comes to the legendary television shows of my generation’s youth, few can compare to “Battle of the Network Stars.” The real draw was the amazing obstacle course: the monkey bars, the tires, the high wall.
If you go
2915 W. Montrose Ave., Chicago
Open Gym: ages 6-15, Saturday 9 a.m.-noon and 7-9 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m.-noon. One hour: . Two hours:
Thirty-some years later, my motherly instincts were alerted when the house suddenly fell silent. I found my three sons mesmerized in front of the TV, watching a bare-chested cowboy swinging from his fingertips in front of a cheering crowd.
“American Ninja Warrior.”
Before I knew it, my house was facing daily abuse as the boys tried recreating the show’s most epic obstacles. Thankfully, that was when I heard about Chicago’s new 12,500-square-foot Junior Ninja Warriors gym in the Albany Park neighborhood.
Back in mid-2015, owner Jackie Piejak noticed a similar fascination in her young daughters, Izzy and Hadley. After consulting course experts across the country, she was then able to secure former contestant Ethan Swanson, a Tinley Park native, as course operations director.
Along with its myriad of obstacle course offerings (Rope Alley, Peg Board, Ring Slider, Tumble Track, Rock Wall and Jumping Spider, to name a few), the gym also provides designated basketball and dodgeball areas for special events. Many obstacles can be adjusted (resistance, height, etc.) as children progress, adding a fun component of conquering an obstacle in multiple ways.
For birthday parties, areas are sectioned off so groups experience a set of obstacles in two 45-minute increments.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Piejak says. “We are booking 22 birthday parties a weekend. Our open gyms are often at capacity. We are constantly listening to feedback and making important changes as we go.”
Some of those changes include providing options for younger children. Diehard fans of the show clamored for a higher Warped Wall and a revised Salmon Ladder. Piejak is also considering adding classes for adults.
Safety remains a key component. For classes, there is one instructor per every eight kids, with a maximum capacity of 32 kids. For open gyms, that ratio is 10:1. The most difficult obstacles are surrounded by 8-inch mats (with 2-inch mats everywhere else).
With plans to open more facilities in Libertyville, Schaumburg, Naperville, Orland Park and Crown Point, Ind., Piejak is delighted that kids are looking for unique alternatives for being active.
During my recent visit, the biggest obstacle I faced felt truly insurmountable: It was getting the three moms I brought along to finally come off the climbing wall and drive home.