Through dealing with an international adoption, life-threatening illness and battles with depression, Bethel University freshman Ben Martin is taking a message of perseverance with him to the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course in Tacoma.
By Sam Johnson
Born in South Korea, Ben Martin came to the United States at four months old.
In early May, the 19-year old Bethel University freshman embarked on a journey to Tacoma, Washington to compete on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior. Along with jitters, his family and a group of friends were in Tacoma cheering him on from the sidelines.
When his adopted family, the Martins, got their son, they knew his health was a question mark. He already had pneumonia, and two days after he arrived, they took him to see a doctor about a grunting noise he made.
The sound turned out to be a sign of a seizure. Five days in Children’s Hospital determined that a 106-degree fever from a kidney infection was the cause of his seizures, not epilepsy. Had it not been treated, Martin’s mother, Deb, thinks her son would have died.
“It was scary,” Deb said. “You just take it one day at a time.”
He had seizures intermittently up until the age of seven and had to miss half of his preschool days because of it.
“Health has not been on my side for most of my life,” Martin said. “But I’ve tried to overcome it.”
A diagnosis of ADHD only encouraged him to explore more, as sitting in a classroom, his mom remembers, “drove him crazy.”
“If we were at a playground, he would always climb to the highest peak,” Deb Martin said.
The slippery curves of any slide could not stop Martin from reaching the top. Credit Martin’s innate core strength, something that his high school physical education teacher told Martin was the greatest he had ever seen.
Looking at his bookshelf growing up, it was no secret what Martin’s dream wanted to be. He filled it with Asian history books and the series “Young Samurai,” while becoming obsessed with the sport of ninja. But Deb’s one rule was clear: no ninja stars.
This now being the show’s 11th season, Martin does not have to imagine competing in — it was about to come to fruition.
“Ben has dreamed of this since season one (of American Ninja Warrior),” Deb said. “It’s a big deal.” So big that everyone from Martin’s dermatologist to his pastor has heard of the show. And they will be watching.
Fast forward to April 5. Sitting in the 3900 Grill, the campus chatter around became silent to a single phone call.
“Hello, Ben!,” a show producer said. “I’m calling to congratulate you on being chosen to compete on American Ninja Warrior Season 11!.”
Participating in this competition he dreamed about seemed almost impossible 19 years ago when he was fighting for his life.
“I feel like a completely different person [since his illness as a child],” Martin said.
When he was 15, he and his adopted family took a trip back to South Korea to meet his birth parents. With tears in his brother Erik’s eyes, they located Erik’s birth mother. However, they could not find Martin’s birth parents.
The Martins traveled with a social worker from the Eastern Child Welfare Society, Martin’s adoption agency, and wrote a telegram to his biological parents. Somehow, the letter had been signed for by an unknown man, someone the Martins still do not know the identity of.
There was no other response from Martin’s birth parents, who, his adopted parents say, may not have even been aware that Martin was in South Korea at the time.
“That was devastating,” Martin said, looking back on the trip. “It took a huge toll on my faith.”
Throughout his high school years, Martin says he slipped into a state of depression and anxiety that he said was tied the devastation not finding his birth parents. He got to a point where, as he put it, his “faith almost died out.”
Martin stood in the front row of Benson Great Hall at Bethel University, hearing the reverberations of a Vespers set bounce off the walls. With every song played, tears filled his eyes. Years worth of pain and uncertainty felt superseded by God’s presence in that moment.
“It was overwhelming in a good way,” he said.
A declared business major, Martin spent hours filled with drum set sheet music in jazz band rehearsals, studying in the 3900 Grill and pumping iron in the Wellness Center.
He trains there six days a week, three or four days specifically for ninja training. Some of his exercises required more thought than a typical workout regiment. PVC pipes were the victims of Martin’s creativity, by building new contraptions to work on his balance. Those designs were accompanied with weird glances bombarded Martin from those working out in his vicinity.
Before ninja training became a passion for Martin, something else captivated his attention: parkour. Parkour is an activity that involves navigating an area by running, jumping and climbing, made famous by YouTube videos showing people do anything from jumping across tall buildings to cartwheeling down stairs.
He founded a parkour club in his freshman year at Roseville High School.
With every morning, his bones seemed to take longer to wake up, and the pain grew and grew. Broken ankles and countless lower body injuries took their toll and Martin found that he no longer could execute his flips. Even the simplest activities, like walking up stairs, produced pain.
He realized something needed to change.
His mom did, too.
She discovered Five-Star Ninja Warriors Gym in Roseville, which seemed like a new world to Martin. He began training there in January of 2018 and immediately found that ninja was a safer alternative than parkour.
“Ninja was where I found my love for movement,” Martin said.
High school friends of Martin nagged him to get into wrestling, but Martin felt uncomfortable with that. He wanted to control his outcome. Wrestling, as a team-scoring sport, did not allow him to decide if he wins or loses. If he overcomes or falters. If he survives or fails.
Controlling what he can control is his anthem. And then, just before the biggest competition of his life, he took that hymn with him to Tacoma to compete in NBC’s American Ninja Warrior.
“Physically, I feel ready [for the show]…mentally I’m a little nervous,” he said.
Now, his next obstacle in life to climb over is a tangible course. Dreams of hitting a buzzer and moving on to the next stage in the competition, replay in his mind.
But regardless of how his run goes, Martin’s story goes beyond hurdling physical objects. It is a message of perseverance.
“I want to inspire others that you can get through tough times,” he said.
(Additional Reporting by Josh Eller and Joe Hiti.)