Why you should care

Because if athleticism is now about extreme fitness and not about acing that whole pesky hand-eye coordination thing, then maybe we all have a shot at being superstars.

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It took Kacy Catanzaro only 8 minutes, 59.53 seconds to become a national sensation. The 5-foot, 100-pound woman dropped jaws across the country on July 14 when she became the first female to complete an American Ninja Warrior finals course. No obstacle was too big, too daunting or too rigorous for her; she almost made it look easy.

And she doesn’t even play a “sport,” by conventional definitions.

People like Catanzaro could be staking out a new trend in the sporting life: More and more athletes are becoming known for reasons other than playing your standard soccer, football or tennis. Nowadays, these physical phenoms can display their talents in competitions like American Ninja Warrior — or, on an amateur level, by heading to CrossFit after work. Athleticism just got a little more accessible.

We’re seeing our most fundamental definition of a star athlete challenged and democratized.

To be sure, it’s extreme athleticism. Obstacle racing and fitness-related competitions have surged in popularity, gaining on momentum that’s been building since 1997, when the Japanese TV series Sasuke began. Warrior Dash, the world’s largest obstacle racing series, expects 300,000 people to participate in 2014. Catanzaro’s own stomping ground, American Ninja Warrior, recently topped 6 million viewers in its two-hour TV slot, attracting the show’s highest ratings in more than two years. And the number of CrossFit gyms has grown sevenfold over the past five years, to 10,000. Every one of them is measuring, grading and pushing its participants to greater glory.

Which means we’re seeing our most fundamental definition of a star athlete challenged and democratized. Being an athlete may no longer mean a sports star or a professionally trained champion. Today, being a star athlete doesn’t just mean excelling on the field — it means being healthy, fit and active.

“[People] can do something that’s fun that they wouldn’t have thought to do without an organized program at their hands. So they can continue to stay active and continue to stay fit and healthier longer — which I think, personally, will keep it around longer,” says Sandy Colvin, manager and head trainer at CrossFit Riverchase in Birmingham, Alabama, of the new superfit athleticism.

“You can’t just be good at one thing,” says American Ninja Warrior veteran Brent Steffensen of the diverse skills the competition requires its participants to display. (And he does think Ninja Warrior is a sport.) “It really challenges the human body in so many different ways.”

Training facilities to service these events are popping up around the nation, including Ninja Warrior-focused gyms in conjunction with Catanzaro, Steffensen and Alpha Warrior. These facilities may just be what it takes to make the fad last by giving the common man or woman a chance to push limits and exceed physical expectations.

“I think people are really starting to realize it’s a true sport and people are training hard and it requires a lot of different attributes to be good at it. It’s getting people involved and encouraging them to stay fit and be healthy,” says Steffensen.

These modern TV events have their roots in more traditional sports.

Still, some are worried about new fitness extremes. It’s been all over the news: The Washington Post asked, “Does CrossFit push people too hard?” and former athlete, coach, model and fitness guru Erin Simmons even penned an article titled “Why I Don’t Do CrossFit,” citing the danger of rigorous, high-intensity drills in a limited amount of time.

The difficulty level of the challenges will continue to increase, but at what point will the obstacles become too tough for athletes to physically handle? Athletes like Catanzaro are facing down intense new challenges: simultaneous use of numerous muscles, the risk of potentially dangerous heights or distances, even the highest tests of endurance that threaten the heart’s beating capacity.

But this isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it just an American craze. Using this measure of all-around fitness to determine athleticism is as old as, well, sports themselves — so says Olympic historian David Wallechinsky.

“There’s a tradition in Olympic sports of having multiple talents. So these modern TV events have their roots in more traditional sports,” Wallechinsky says.

Even in ancient Greece, the question loomed: Who is the best all-around athlete? That’s why the modern pentathlon, an Olympic event, was invented — the event tests competitors on running, swimming, fencing, horseback riding and pistol shooting. (Competitors on American Ninja Warrior can be faced with anywhere from five to 10 obstacles, depending on the stage of the competition.)

But don’t worry — neither LeBron James nor Lionel Messi will be ditching their sports for small-screen stunts anytime soon. American Ninja Warrior and the like are, ultimately, more entertainment than athleticism — they’re shows that depend on TV ratings and commercial sponsorship to survive. So maybe it’s just a fad. (Remember Tae Bo, the martial arts-like fitness craze that consumed pop culture in the ’90s?)

Fad or not, these obstacle and fitness competitions are definitely having a profound cultural impact, shifting the emphasis more toward fitness instead of technical ability. It’s creating an opportunity for more and more people to enter the realm of extreme athleticism, or at least encouraging them to try. The point is, being an all-around athlete may be a lofty goal, but now, it’s an attainable one.

Elizabeth Robinson is a lover of sports, exercise, faith, family, food and all things Chicago. She’s based in Illinois.

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