American Ninja Warrior: Passafaro and McLean – Road to the Top

American Ninja Warrior: Passafaro and McLean – Road to the Top

Single mother. Entrepreneur. Physical fitness trainer. Nurse practitioner. American Ninja Warrior competitor. A person fitting any one of those descriptions probably leads a very busy, sometimes hectic life. All five apply to Casey Passafaro, co-owner of Crossfit Loudoun/Northern Virginia Ninja in Sterling.

Passafaro, who has competed on the TV show “American Ninja Warrior,” met business partner Janice (JJ) McLean several years ago when McLean was her CrossFit trainer. That friendship grew and a series of events led to the spur-of-the-moment idea to go into business together.

To Passafaro, a nurse practitioner at Virginia Cancer Care, Inc., the new business fit right in with a change in direction she was taking in her life.

“As I started training more for American Ninja Warrior and less for CrossFit, I realized there was no real gym to train that style around here,” Passafaro said. “Then one day, I literally sent Janice a message: ‘How do you feel about opening a gym.’ The thought was to open a gym which would focus on Crossfit, yet also adapt to Passafaro’s Ninja Warrior training needs.  McLean texted back, ‘Are you serious? Yeah!’ ”

The idea was born.

The popularity of American Ninja Warrior has made it a household name over the past nine seasons. For Passafaro, it became a passion to train, tryout, eventually make it past all of the city finals, land on the televised show – and win.  That, however, meant competing in a pool of over 70,000 applicants and potential competitors.

American Ninja Warrior is a sports entertainment competition and television phenomenon which is a spin-off of the Japanese television series Sasuke. Going into its 10th season now, the show features hundreds of competitors attempting to complete a series of nearly impossible physical obstacle courses of increasing difficulty, trying to make it from local city finals to the national finals on the Las Vegas Strip, in hopes of winning the title, “American Ninja Warrior”. To date, out of hundreds of thousands who have tried, only two competitors, rock-climbers Isaac Caldiero and Geoff Britten, have won the televised four-part course and achieved “Total Victory” in the final show where the largest obstacle course is called, Mount Midoriyama. Caldiero is the only competitor to win the cash prize of $1,000,000 which occurred in season seven.

“The first year, season eight, I got on the televised city qualifying show in Atlanta and got through the first couple stunts. Then I came to this thing that is like a big dipper [the name of a difficult obstacle very few have conqored], and I wasn’t able to get past that one,”  said Passafaro. “I just wasn’t quite able to grab the rope at the end. That was a little disappointing.”

“The next year, season nine, I went back and got to the third obstacle, but only the top five women get to go on to the finals. I missed going to the finals due to the time limit – my time was just slower than the top five.”

“Ninja is a tough sport because it’s one and done,” she said. “You can train forever but if you get off-balance on something you have done a million times, you’re done. You don’t get any second chances, there are no do-overs or editing for the cameras or to better the show.”

Passafaro is no stranger to challenges and competition.  In 2016 she competed on CMT’s Broken Skull Challenge, and grueling outdoor obstacle course, hosted by former pro wrestler, Steve Austin.

For the idea of the gym, neither Passafaro or McLean envisioned the massive 5,600-square-foot facility that became Crossfit Loudoun/NOVA Ninja.  Neither did they envision turning any sized facility into a combination CrossFit and American Ninja Warrior preparation training center.

“At first we had identified a smaller space, and that space fell through,” said McLean, who is also marketing and catering sales manager at Bakers Crust Artisan Kitchen. “At the time, I thought it was a terrible thing but now I realize it was really good to lose the spot. It was only about 1,500 square feet and that would not have been large enough.”

When they secured the larger location on Blackwood Court in Sterling, it became clear they not only had room for CrossFit but a great deal of space could be allocated to Ninja training.

“Originally we were just going to do a CrossFit gym, but Casey was training for American Ninja Warrior so she just wanted to have space with a few obstacles,” McLean said. “Since we had this 5,600 square feet and on two separate floors, we decided just to create an actual full-scale ninja obstacle course.”

“I literally think it was sketched on a paper plate somewhere,” McLean remembered.

Visiting the gym, onlookers would wonder, where are the machines and weights.  CrossFit is a fitness regimen of constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. All CrossFit workouts reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and other physical high-intensity actions.  The CrossFit program is driven by data, scoreboards, keeping accurate records, running on a clock, and precisely defining the rules and standards for performance but based on the person’s age, weight, and other variables.

Outside of gym operations, both Passafaro and McLean maintain separate full-time careers – and they are also both single mothers, Passafaro with two children, McLean with four.

From day one they literally threw themselves – and the six children, ages 5 through 14 – into getting the business ready to open.

“It was the two of them and a contractor here for about a month,” said Girard Ordway, a ninja trainer and obstacle course route-setter who took over as general manager in December. “They were basically living and sleeping here until they got it done.”

McLean and Passafaro said those living arrangements were an easy adjustment as they had already merged their families into a kind of Ninja Warrior Brady Bunch.

“Being single moms we really helped each other through that process,” McLean said.

That was a little more than three years ago, and the business has been highly successful in achieving its balance of CrossFit and ninja training.

“It’s pretty much a community gym,” Ordway said. “It’s pretty much a core group of members. There are a number of CrossFit gyms around the area, but the ninja aspect is what really makes this one special.”

“With CrossFit we have a great core of members who come at various times,” Ordway said. “We have classes in the morning and afternoons. Then, weekends are the big ninja time.”

Passafaro and McLean’s gym has also been shown on a number of American Ninja Warrior participant profiles because it became a popular training facility for other Warriors seen on the show.

According to Ordway, at any time you could walk into the gym and see veterans from American Ninja Warriors. “Like Mike Bernardo. He is a firefighter in DC and he comes over and trains here.”

Crossfit Loudoun/NOVA Ninja is also family oriented.  Parents bring their kids to gain balance and coordination – while often doing the same for themselves.

“The changes in kids and adults training here is seen immediately.  It’s invigorating to watch. Everyone motivates each other and it is so uplifting,” said Naomi Diehl, Customer Relations Manager for the gym.

The gym also designated space available for children’s birthday parties and offers special ninja training events geared to all ages and skill levels.

“We do these things we call Nova Ninja nights Saturday nights and Thursday nights,” Ordway said. “We set up the entire gym as obstacle courses and people come in who range from not even being able to do a pull-up to incredible athletes to people who are trying the make the (American Ninja Warriors) show for the first time.”

With her own space to train, Passafaro has been able to make it on American Ninja Warriors twice.

“People heard about the gym so I was able to start training with people who had already been on the show,” Passafaro said. “The first time we went down, we packed up all the kids and drove down to Atlanta and I had no idea what to expect. It was quite the experience. You don’t get to see any of the courses or the obstacles until right before you are going to go. But I was able to get some inside information because Janice was a course-tester so she tested the course the day before.”

Passafaro said she will continue to train and try out for American Ninja Warrior as long as she is physically able. She said training – not just to clear every type of obstacle once but to train until you can make it through every time – is the key.

American Ninja Warrior is now venturing out much like many television shows, from Shark Tank to Master Chef and creating a kids version. On the cusp, Crossfit Loudoun/NOVA Ninja is training kids to help prepare for the upcoming shows.

“We have something new for the kids. We just launched it and it begins at the end of May. It’s called Team Nova Ninja Youth Comp team. It’s going to be two teams and we’re going to coach them twice a week and focus on competition,” said Ordway.  The kids will go out and compete alongside us.”

“We’re going to take the kids around to all the local races and all the obstacles courses. It’s a team. It’s a commitment,” said McLean.

Passafaro and McLean said their own children now look at ninja obstacles and climbing ropes as a normal part of the family routine.

“They’ve grown up at the gym,” McLean said. “They are all little ninjas.,” Passafaro said. “They love it.”

For more information see

Joseph Dill