Heart of a Warrior

PALMDALE -It all started on a routine family trip to Las Vegas two years ago.

Palmdale resident Martin Vartanian, his wife, Monica, and two teenage boys, Anthony and Alex, were in the city when he received a call from his workout parter, Luiz Perez, inviting him to a taping of “American Ninja Warrior.”

The Vartanians stood in line for an hour and a half waiting for the event to start. When it finally did, a light bulb went off.

“When I saw it happen, I said, ‘This is it. I gotta do this,'” Vartanian said while sitting on his living-room couch in East Palmdale, surrounded by his family.

Thus began Vartanian’s two-year journey that recently culminated in his selection to compete on Season 9 of the popular TV show. He ran his race on March 7, but could not disclose how he finished. The show will air sometime in May.

It took two attempts for Vartanian to be invited to the competition. Last year, he applied with Perez but did not make the cut. Perez, however, did.

This season, he almost wasn’t chosen again. But a producer tipped him as to how he could make it on the show. But it wasn’t easy.

Vartanian had to wait in a line of walk-on candidates every day for two weeks. He took time off from his job as a training director in information technology, and his family was left to hold down the fort at home in his absence.

“Everything was on hold,” Monica said. “We were on our own. Everybody was putting in what we could to get it done.”

But the waiting – and his family’s sacrifice – paid off. Vartanian ended up as one of the 33 remaining in the walk-on line, all of whom were given a spot on the show due to injuries and dropouts.

When Vartanian decided to take on this endeavor, he had to shift his entire fitness routine. Already a daily gym-goer, Vartanian incorporated training to improve his balance, grip strength and upper body. He also started indoor rock climbing, which he had never tried before.

Vartanian said he lost 20 pounds to get ready for the show.

But the 58-year-old wasn’t always so focused on fitness. Vartanian decided to make health a priority when he learned his wife was pregnant with their first son, Alex, who is currently 17.

His desire to stay fit for his children is rooted in a tragedy from his childhood.

Fatherly Love

Vartanian grew up without a father.

As a young boy living in Baghdad, Iraq, Vartanian and his Christian Armenian family often experienced persecution. When he was about 8 or 9 years old, his father was arrested and sent to an Iraqi prison on suspicion of spying for the British government.

Vartanian didn’t see his father for the next year and a half – until he received a phone call telling him his father would be hanged the very next day.

Vartanian remembers the scene of his father in prison “like a freakin’ movie.” He witnessed his dad embrace his mom, pluck a hair from her head and swallow it – all because he wanted a piece of her with him when he died.

Since that day, Vartanian was hellbent on becoming a father. It finally happened when he was 41 and happily married to his wife, Monica, whom he met in December of 1999 while he worked a part-time job selling computers at Sears. Monica, who was 18 at the time, worked there as a seasonal employee.

But Vartanian was already at an older age when he learned Monica was with child. As soon as he found out, Vartanian decided right then and there that he would make his health a No. 1 priority so he could be there for his children as long as he could.

“I still wonder sometimes what my life would be like if my dad were still alive,” Vartanian said. “That’s why I want to be around for those guys.”

When Vartanian was 21 and living in London, he lost another member of his family: his mother, who died of bone cancer, he said.

Vartanian makes sure he gives his kids ample attention, Monica said. With a four-year gap between his sons, Vartanian will sometimes spend time with Anthony and 13-year-old Alex separately, participating in activities unique to their individual interests.

Vartanian and Anthony are scheduled to attend Comicon in the near future, and he will accompany Alex to a video game convention as well.

“My dad does a lot for all of us,” Alex said. “He’s really helpful. He really wants to just give others a really good time. He’s a really funny guy. He has a sense of humor. He really makes me laugh and really makes us have a really nice time and makes just any day just really fun and special and just different than all the other days that he’s not here.”

Monica reveres Vartanian’s skills as a father, and said his memory of seeing his own father and mother together for the last time is what makes him good at being a dad.

“That’s why you’re the best father you are,” Monica said to her husband. “Because of that.”

Giving Back

After Vartanian fell during his turn on the obstacle course two weeks ago, Alex immediately sent a text to his dad, who didn’t receive it until he retrieved his phone sometime later.

“Dad, I’m still proud of you,” the text read.

But that wasn’t the first time Vartanian’s youngest son said those words. The morning of his dad’s big race, Alex told Vartanian that he was proud of him, despite his mother telling him his father was trying to sleep.

After hearing the words from his son, Vartanian felt like he had already won, he said.

“After that, I said, ‘Whatever happens, it happens,'” Vartanian said.

The relationship between Vartanian and the rest of his family made it easy for them to support his quest to become the next American Ninja Warrior.

Although he failed to make the cut last year, Vartanian didn’t give up, and neither did his family. So when he succeeded getting on the show on his second try, those closest to him couldn’t hold in their elation.

“When he wants to get into something, he really gets into it,” said Anthony, who attends Palmdale High School. “It was really exciting to see him really try his best to get on the show even after he failed the first time.”

Even the long wait to see Vartanian compete didn’t seem to faze those who went to support him, which included his sister, along with his wife and two sons. They had to stand in line for more than six hours in the sun, without chairs, surrounded by throngs of other people.

“It was not the most comfortable situation,” Monica said. “But we just wanted to be there to support him. We had to see it.”

Vartanian said his loved ones “suffered more than I did.” But to them, it was worth it.

“This is his time,” Monica said.

Charging Ahead

Vartanian is already training for the next season of “American Ninja Warrior,” and he said he won’t stop competing on the show until he reaches his ultimate goal: the National Finals in Las Vegas.

To do that, he’d have to finish in the top 15 of competitors in the Los Angeles race. But Vartanian isn’t getting any younger.

Vartanian has torn the meniscus in his right knee twice – once at 18, another time at 20 – and has undergone two surgeries. His knee is “bone on bone,” he said, and he’s considered knee replacement surgery recently.

But as long as he’s healthy, his journey will continue, he said.

Vartanian will augment his training yet again, this time opting to find more “ninja gyms” where he can better prepare for the obstacles he could face next year. But, Vartanian admitted, sometimes there exists no preparation sufficient enough.

“There are certain things you can train for, but there are some obstacles there’s no way you can find a way to train (for),” Vartanian said.

Nevertheless, Vartanian doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon. There is a $1 million prize for whomever wins the entire competition, but only one person has won the money in the show’s eight-year run.

Vartanian, however, said he doesn’t care about the prize. He just wants to prove to himself – and, most of all, his family – that anything is possible.

“My goal is to motivate not just my boys here,” Vartanian said, “but just anybody who thinks that you’re too old to do anything. Age is just a number.”