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'American Ninja Warrior' princess packs mental and physical punch

By Dorene Internicola

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When gymnast Kacy Catanzaro, the first woman to reach the finals of the “American Ninja Warrior” fitness TV competition show, faces an unfamiliar challenge she closes her eyes and pictures herself conquering it.

The 5-foot (1.5-meter), 100-pound (45-kg) powerhouse is known as Mighty Kacy ever since she leapt, pulled, climbed and swung her way through the show's obstacle course that has bedeviled many men. She credits her victory to mental focus and upper body strength.

“The course might even be more mental than physical,” said the 24-year-old New Jersey native. “Once you get out there you need to control your mind to tell your body what you want to do.”

“American Ninja Warrior,” which is in its sixth season, is based on the long-running Japanese show “Sasuke.”

At one point Catanzaro had to hang high in the air on big red rings while swinging them from one peg to another. That, she said, was a surprise.

“I’m a big visualization person, so if I didn’t have a technique prepared I had to visualize what would work for me,” said the former competitive gymnast.

“A foot can slip, an arm can give out. I never took it for granted until I hit that buzzer (to complete the course).”

Catanzaro prepared at Alpha Warrior, an obstacle-course gym in San Antonio, Texas, where she works with her boyfriend and fellow Ninja competitor Brent Steffensen. He was disqualified from the competition when he fell from the rings.

“We do body weight circuit training exercises, using just our own body weight, in a circuit that really gets the heart rate up so we have the endurance to make it through,” she said. “We’re not doing dumbbells or heavy weights.”

Stretches and cool downs punctuate Catanzaros’s roughly 90-minute routine, which centers on high-intensity aerobics and includes pull-ups, leg-lifts, jumps and squats.

For the course Catanzaro, who works out four to six times a week, said her lightness is a plus, but her height is a challenge.

“I might have to jump when others don’t, but then I don’t have as much weight to hold up,” she explained.

Exercise physiologist Jessica Matthews said gymnasts like Catanzaro exemplify the effectiveness of body weight training.

“There’s a bit of misconception that in order to gain strength we have to add load,” said Matthews, who teaches exercise science at Miramar College in San Diego, California.

Catanzaro’s method, she added, embodies the principle of specificity training, which states that to be really successful, you must train in the way your body will perform.

“To run a marathon, you train by running,” Matthews said. “Catanzaro had a strong foundation from college gymnastics and knowing that, she trained specifically at an obstacle gym.”

Catanzaro will be one of 90 competitors to compete in the Las Vegas finals of the show in September.

“I want to do well, especially because I’m a girl it would be extra nice,” she said.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Tom Brown)

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