Lance Pekus may be the best athlete you’ve never heard of.
But the strapping, young Idaho cowboy, who runs cattle at his father-in-law’s ranch in Salmon and works seasonally for the U.S. Forest Service, is making a name for himself on the TV sports competition “American Ninja Warrior.”
Now in his sixth season on the show, Pekus is known as the “Cowboy Ninja.” His sexy signature look highlights his brawny physique: Shirtless, jeans and black cowboy hat. His Twitter bio says he’s “powered by beef.”
“You’re a BEAST! Way to represent small town Idaho,” one fan wrote on the cowboy’s Facebook page earlier in July, after Pekus took first place on a qualifying course in Kansas City, Missouri.
“Powered by Beef?? You ARE da BEEF!!! WOOOOOF,” wrote another.
The TV competition is a spinoff of the Japanese show Sasuke. Competitors try to get through a series of complex obstacles with names like Salmon Ladder and Warped Wall that require tremendous strength, agility, balance and timing.
In Kansas City, Pekus slipped on an obstacle called “broken pipes” — a series of two pipes that are not in line and may spin when you step on them — but he was able to use his upper-body strength to pull himself up to the platform.
The crowd roared when the 30-year-old saved himself from the water below without losing his hat. He took it off before tackling the next stage, breezing through the final obstacles.
“The Cowboy Ninja is back on his horse!” one of the show’s hosts yelled as Pekus finished the course in 2 minutes and 10 seconds — more than 30 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher.
“Yeeeee-haw!!!!!!” the other host screamed.
Two other Idahoans this year
Tammy McClure and Rhett Allen, both of Boise, also got selected from tens of thousands of wanna-be ninjas to participate in this year’s competition.
It was McClure’s third time on the show, and Allen’s first. That show taped in May.
McClure, who co-owns Indian Creek Winery in Kuna, said her friends urged her to try it. She loved the challenge of trying to navigate the obstacles on the fly — they don’t get a chance to practice or try it out before the cameras start rolling and the crowd starts cheering.
“It’s almost like an out-of-body experience when you step up on the platform,” said McClure, a 34-year-old rock climber who did triple-jump and long-jump as a walk-on first and then as a scholarship athlete for the University of Idaho. “It seems surreal and strange. There’s nothing like it.”
Filming 100 people running through an obstacle course one at a time takes hours, and McClure didn’t get called on until 1 a.m. She had an excellent run in the Denver qualifer, placing in the top 30 of all participants and third among the women. She has advanced to the next round.
Allen, 28 and a children’s ministry pastor at Calvary Chapel, ran the course at 4:30 a.m. He made it through two obstacles before wiping out on the Bouncing Spider.
The Bouncing Spider begins as a spider climb on plexiglass walls, transitions to a trampoline and concludes when competitors bounce from the trampoline to cylinders, then swing over to a platform.
“When I hit the trampoline, I didn’t get any vertical jump — it all hapepned so fast,” Allen recalled. “The next thing I knew I was in the water.”
He said he was honored to be selected to participate, and he hopes to be back next year. He met McClure at one of the Boise “ninja” gyms that popped up in recent years, and he’s had his photo taken with Pekus.
“I’m a big fan of his,” said Allen, who is a ninja coach at Camp Rhino in Boise.
Elusive million dollar prize
Pekus won $3,000 for placing first at the city qualifier, and he advanced to the finals in Kansas City. There are similar qualifiers and finals in five other cities around the country; McClure and Allen both competed in Denver.
Those who make it to the show’s finals in Las Vegas get a chance at winning $1 million — but only one person in the last eight seasons has won the prize. Rock climber Isaac Caldiero took home the prize at the end of the seventh season in 2015.
Pekus now has sponsors and other supporters who make sure he’s properly outfitted.
“Some of my biggest supporters and sponsors are the beef community, the Idaho Beef Council,” said Pekus. “A lot of people I compete with are vegans and vegetarians. I feel like there’s a lot of negative connotation to the beef and beef industry. I work in the beef industry.”
He’s never had a personal trainer or coach to prepare him for “American Ninja Warrior,” and Pekus works out primarily on a makeshift obstacle course he has created in a calving shed at his family’s ranch.
“I’ve built good grip strength naturally from doing ranch work,” said Pekus, who now gets frequent invitations to be a celebrity guest at gym openings. “In ranching, you’re constantly picking up heavy stuff and tossing hay bales around and moving pipe. It builds your grip.”
So how did the Idaho cowboy get involved in the TV competition in the first place?
He saw the show at a friend’s house — before it moved from an obscure cable channel to NBC — and decided he had the right stuff.
“I was always good at running and jumping and climbing on things,” said Pekus, who was also a scholarship wrestler at the University of Great Falls in Montana. “I thought, ‘I can do that.’”
Now Pekus and his wife, Heather, and their two young children watch the show with family and friends at the community center or Elks Club in Salmon.
The competition is over but it will be weeks before all the shows have aired and we know this year’s outcome, so be on the lookout for episodes featuring Pekus and McClure; participants can’t talk about shows that haven’t aired so we didn’t get any hints.
Watch “American Ninja Warrior” on NBC at 7 p.m. Mondays. (The episodes often repeat. Check your local listings.)