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How Josh Levin Went From NASA To “American Ninja Warrior” To Athlete Role Model At The Youth Olympics

By Brandon Penny | Oct. 16, 2018, 5:23 p.m. (ET)

Josh Levin climbs before Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018 on Oct. 6, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.


BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Josh Levin has yet to compete at an Olympic Games, and regardless of whether he ever does, Levin says he has already had an incredible, life-changing Olympic experience that he wouldn’t trade for the world.

Though his Olympic experience is unique.

The sport climber has participated in both the 2014 and 2018 Youth Olympic Games – neither time as an athlete and both prior to his sport actually being on the Olympic program.

He was part of climbing’s appearance in the Sports Lab in Nanjing, China, four years ago, where it was essentially a demonstration sport. Now, with climbing a medal event at the Buenos Aires Games, Levin was invited back as an Athlete Role Model.

The 19-time U.S. champion is also an Olympic hopeful for his sport’s debut at the Tokyo Games in less than two years.

Before a potential Olympic debut, Levin has already been seen by millions on televisions across the country. He has competed on the last three seasons of “American Ninja Warrior,” finishing on Stage 2 of 4 in the national finals each time.

Outside of the sports world, Levin holds a mechanical engineering degree and has interned at both NASA and Apple.

Following a “Chat with Champions,” where he provided advice to Youth Olympians at the Youth Olympic Village, Levin spoke to TeamUSA.org about everything from “American Ninja Warrior” to his Youth Olympic Games experiences to the format of climbing at the Tokyo Games.

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On the challenge climbers face mastering all three events – lead, speed, bouldering – to compete in combined for the Olympic Games:
It’s definitely tricky. With three disciplines, one of them being speed and the others being difficulty-based, what we’re seeing is there’s certain ways people are transferring into their events. For speed climbers it’s the most difficult; obviously you have to transfer into two separate difficulty-based events, instead of another speed-based event. I think the boulderers have proven themselves to have the best ability to adapt. Bouldering is the one where you climb 15 feet. Transitioning from a power-based athlete to an endurance-based athlete, at least in climbing, is easier than the other way around. They’re able to transition to speed more quickly.

On his specialty of the three:
Interestingly enough, I have always really enjoyed participating in all three disciplines. I really, really enjoyed challenging myself physically in the three different areas climbing has to offer, and being the most well-rounded athlete I could be was a super awesome way of trying to prove to myself how I could be the best all-around climber I could be. When the announcement was made combined would be the Olympic event, I was like, great, awesome, exciting! But of course, for me it’s also been a challenge because the past three or four years, I’ve taken off a lot of time due to injury or internships or school, so it’s interesting going back to a sport that has changed so much in the past few years and seeing all the major differences that have come about.

On his goal of qualifying for the Olympic Games in Tokyo:
I think for me my goal has always been to qualify for the Olympics. That’s such an incredible opportunity that we now have in our sport. Climbing is something a lot of people started not because there was millions of dollars to be made or because it was an Olympic sport or NCAA sport or high school varsity; it was because they were passionate about it. That’s why I love it and why so many people around the world love it, and that’s why it’s gaining so much popularity, especially in the United States, with so many new climbing gyms popping up.

That dream of going to the Olympics for your sport has been such a powerful pathway for me. Also, having these Olympic experiences already of being in Nanjing for a demonstration sport, being here in Buenos Aires as an Athlete Role Model to witness the first-ever Olympic medal in climbing history, it really has given me a much deeper sense and broader perspective on my Olympic journey. I’m already here at the Youth Olympic Games for the second time.

If I make it to Tokyo, great. If I don’t make it to Tokyo, also great. My knowledge is that I’ve already had an incredible Olympic experience and the most important part for me is the ability to share that experience with others. This is the turning point for our sport where we are now able to have any kid say, ‘Hey, I want to become an Olympian in the sport of climbing,’ and have that dream come true.

On climbing’s appearance at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games and his selection to participate:
In Nanjing, it was part of this new development of the Olympic movement in general with Olympic Agenda 2020 and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach’s vision of how the Olympics can evolve. Once they made sure new sports can be added more easily, that paved the way for the idea of the Sports Lab in Nanjing and the new notion that the Youth Olympics can be this kind of testing ground for new ideas, new concepts, new sports, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing here and more so than anything else in the history of the Olympics.

The idea of having this Sports Lab where people could not only watch new sports but also try them out for themselves was an incredible innovation. Seeing this come to fruition meant the IOC could choose sports relevant globally but also to a local Chinese community that was there. Our international federation solicited 10 diverse countries to nominate athletes to come to Nanjing for the Youth Olympic Games. I was fortunate enough to be nominated by USA Climbing and then chosen by the International Federation of Sport Climbing.

That experience was one of the most powerful in my own life, not only because we got to go and experience the Games, but really to learn what the Games and being an Olympian can mean not only to us, but to everyone else affected by these new, sweeping changes. Instilling the Olympic values in these athletes from such a young age is incredibly important because when all of these athletes are going to go home, they’re going to be future leaders. Whether they are going to continue with their sport or go into some sort of leadership role in finance, technology, business, anything, they’re going to have this Olympic experience instilled in them at a really young and impressionable age. Having these experiences can really bridge gaps that nothing else can.

On his role as an Athlete Role Model in Buenos Aires:
The Athlete Role Model program is designed to help the athletes who are competing here in Buenos Aires to not only experience their Games in their sport, but to really instill the Olympic values of friendship, excellence and respect, and to help them participate in the Athlete Education Program, come to the Chat with Champions events, etc. The function of my role is not only that but to provide solid, concrete examples from my own career, both inside and outside of sport, that can help them visualize what sort of paths they might be interested in taking.

I think one of the reasons I was chosen, the IFSC was interested in finding athletes who have not only had success in the sport but have gone beyond that in terms of finding ways to give back or challenge themselves academically or pursued something beyond just climbing. My experience competing, being an ambassador in Nanjing and interning at both NASA and Apple as a mechanical engineering intern, I’ve been able to share those experiences as applications of what I’ve learned from my sport.

Problem solving is something intrinsic to climbing. It’s something you need from figuring out how to make the next move, to collaborating with other athletes before you climb, to figuring out how your training program is going to work – and problem solving is specific to climbing, but also general enough it can be adopted by all sports. Sharing my experiences both inside of sports and outside of sports, with these athletes, with concrete examples, is a reason why this program is so powerful and engages an athlete in a way that would be difficult with someone from one area.

On his passion for “American Ninja Warrior”:
Ninja Warrior in general has always captured my imagination and my attention from a much earlier age than I ended up participating in it. I watched many videos of the Japanese version, “Sasuke.” The idea that there’s this incredibly tough, physically demanding set of challenges that competitors have to face spoke to me intrinsically because it’s sport and people are trying to better themselves, but also because of the way that it works. It tells a very different story because in the center, almost any sport or realm that you see tells the man-versus-man storyline, and the kind of story Ninja Warrior tells is man versus nature. This is a different style of story because it’s not exactly about direct human-to-human competition, but instead humans overcoming obstacles to overcome themselves. That spoke to me on such an intrinsic level because it’s about defeating a natural obstacle, and that’s exactly the same as outdoor rock climbing; you work together with others to overcome this big goal. So, it came to the United States, I waited until I was the minimum age of 21, then I tore my labrum. When I recovered and was 22, that was my first opportunity to compete on the show.

I realized “American Ninja Warrior” is different than the Japanese version because they take this idea of an obstacle and turn it into an incredible metaphor for life. They really, really, really emphasize the human overcoming obstacles and that’s the backstory they try to tell, whether someone overcame cancer or lost a loved one. For people watching TV, it’s a natural draw because you see them overcoming these incredible odds and then doing the same thing with physical obstacles on the course.

It’s was a way to tell a very powerful story and that’s how I got to share my story about Stacey. She was my first climbing coach, who started coaching me when I was about 5 years old, and when I was 10 years old she was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease and the only cure for that at the time was a double lung transplant. Stacey died just before I came down here to Buenos Aires. Knowing she was literally the person responsible for who I am today, it was a chance for me to give back to her by sharing her story. She’s the reason I wear a green wristband for Donate Life and I’m an advocate for organ transplant. That was my way of making it about overcoming obstacles in this grand metaphorical sense.

On being unable to pass Stage 2 of the national finals all three seasons he has competed:
Oh man, my goodness. It’s tough, not going to lie. The goal is always to complete all four stages in Las Vegas and achieve total victory. I’ve had 100-percent success rate on every single course through city qualifiers and finals and Vegas, in regular seasons and special episodes, yet on Stage 2 I’ve had a zero-percent success rate! It’s incredible frustrating to have such difficulties on one specific thing. That’s the point of “American Ninja Warrior.” As many times as it knocks you down, you stand up and keep trying and become stronger from it.