Former American Ninja Warrior Jr. Star Soars In Pole Vault

* Eliza Aitken competes at the 2022 Wisconsin Outdoor State Championships last June.

Photo Credit: Breff Haffner/MileSplit Wisconsin

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West De Pere senior Eliza Aitken has become a rather familiar face in Wisconsin track and field.

Just look to her breakout success from the 2022 outdoor season for all the proof you need. 

As a junior, Aitken finished second in the pole vault and 400m at the Division 1 outdoor state championships and set new personal bests during the season of 12-3.75 and 56.38. She also took sixth in the 200m, and her point haul helped West De Pere to an overall girls team title.

Her 12-6 indoor PR, too, ranks her as the top returner in the event both indoors and outdoors in 2023.

But before she starred on both the field and the track, Aitken earned a spot on the national stage in another sport: Ninja competitions.

As a middle schooler in 2018, Aitken competed on season one of Universal Kids'  "American Ninja Warrior Junior" show, a nearly-identical adaption of the popular "American Ninja Warrior" television series on NBC, but for younger competitors.

And it's her background as a ninja athlete that led Aitken to find a love for pole vaulting and track and field once she hit high school.

MileSplit spoke with Aitken ahead of the Wisconsin indoor and outdoor track seasons to learn more about her background in ninja competitions and how it's led to quite the successful career as a star pole vaulter and up-and-coming sprinter.

* Eliza Aitken shares her selection to compete on season one of American Ninja Warrior Junior on her Instagram page in 2018.

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Q: Growing up, you've been part of a very athletic family and environment. Describe what that was like for you and how you were drawn to competing in a variety of different sports early on.

A: "My family has always been involved in sports. Both of my siblings and my dad play hockey. My dad's a college hockey coach. That's kind of always been our sport in my family. I used to play as well. Then in my freshman year of high school, I started pole vaulting. That became my passion. Starting my sophomore year of high school, I only did track and pole vaulting."

Q: How did you then become involved in "American Ninja Warrior Junior" and ninja competitions? What drew you to that sort of training and competition?

A: "A ninja gym opened up really close to my house. I started going there when they opened, this was probably five years ago. I've been doing it for awhile, and I have a gymnastics background, so the ninja stuff just came really easy to me. I started training, and it's really fun because it's like you're working out, but you're always having fun. I just got really strong really fast. And so, yeah, the show was something I wasn't expecting to do, but I applied to be on 'American Ninja Warrior Junior' and they wanted me. That changed how I was training to become more course-oriented. I got to go to L.A. and we filmed. It was a really cool experience. It's really different to be on a TV shot sort of thing, besides just a normal competition. It was a really great experience. Ninja stuff, I do training still right now and it helps with everything. It's just made me really strong."

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Q: For someone who maybe doesn't know what ninja competitions are, how would you describe what it is like?

A: "It's really similar to what's on the TV show 'American Ninja Warrior.' There's trust systems and things hanging from everything and you can hang on to different things just using your hands. There's latches where you go from bar to bar, or any object to any object and you let go with two hands at the same time and you go to another thing. The warped walls, that's like the vertical wall. There's lots of balance obstacles that we do. Sometimes, we set up courses throughout the gym that we weave our way through and we go for time. That's what it's like on the show, so we like to simulate that during practice."

Q: What does a typical ninja training day look like?

A: "We'll warm up first, that's important. Then we find something we want to do during that day. It might just be this weird move, like jumping from a trampoline to another thing, to another thing. We'll take turns doing that for like a long time until we have it perfected, and then we'll sometimes add new moves to a series of things we're doing. Sometimes we end with conditioning, like lots of pull-ups and push-ups and hanging for as long as you can. I go there once a week now and during track season, it's harder to get there, but I'm there for two hours at least, usually."

Q: What was it like to compete on "American Ninja Warrior Junior" when you were in middle school back in 2018? Describe that experience and how it went and what you learned about the ninja community.

A: "There's a lot of kids my age who still do ninja at a very high level right now, so I got to meet a lot of cool people. The community is really unique because it's not really a sport, like most people wouldn't think of it as a sport, but it totally is a sport. They are ninja leagues. On the show, it was a race format, so you go right up against another person. If you fall, you fall, and  then if you make it to the end, you hit the buzzer. The community of ninja was something I really think is very unique and very cool. Everyone wants you to succeed, so that's pretty special about it."

Q: Did your background in warrior competitions naturally draw you to pole vault and track and field? How did you get involved with pole vault?

A: "I noticed that a lot of professional ninja women were pole vaulters in college. I had already been doing ninja, so I just thought, 'Oh, I might be good at pole vault because they seem to go hand-in-hand very well.'"

Q: What are some similarities you see between ninja competitions and pole vaulting?

A: "I think they're both really similar in that at first, you're not going to be the best and you have to learn a lot, but once you get stronger and you get more comfortable, it just can really take off. They're really similar in that sense. Then also, the mental side of it is really great because at ninja, sometimes I'll be scared to do something, but I do it anyway. That's the same feeling that I feel when I'm at the back of the runway sometimes, if I have a new pole or I'm attempting a PR."

Q: Flash forward, you're now a high school senior, signed to go to South Dakota and continue competing in track and field. Track and field wasn't your first love when it came to athletics, but how have you come to grow in the sport, develop, and become very passionate about it? What has been the key to that success?

A: "I think going into last year, I wasn't expecting to have so much success sprinting, but it was great to have a lot of success sprinting and in pole vault. I would say that's not as common for a pole vaulter to be a good sprinter as well. I  think what contributes to that is my teammates, for sure.  We all are just very dedicated athletes and we push each other every single day in practice, so it's great to have a tight-knit community like that. I think I've just been able to be smart with reaching out to people and understanding what my coaches are telling me and really working with them to have the best plan going into training or going into a meet."

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Q: You're one of the top returns in the PV and the 400m this season in Wisconsin, both indoors and outdoors. What's the goal in your final track seasons as a high schooler?

A: "I would say pole vault is going to come first this season. Last year, they were kind of split evenly for me, but this year I'm really looking for some heights. Pole vaulting, my goal is the state record this year. I've jumped equal to it, but at state (last year) while I was running the 400m, it's difficult to vault. State record is for sure what I'm shooting for and I'm hoping for higher heights even than that. I would say I would like to jump 13-6  this year and I think that is an achievable goal. On the track, I'm excited to run because I know I've definitely gotten faster. I don't know what all I'm running. I don't know if I'll stick with the open 400m, and my 4x400m (last year) was really successful, so we're going to continue that. I might jump into some 200s  more this year."

Q: As you move to college, do you still plan to keep up with warrior training? What's the plan with that moving forward?

A: "I would like to continue the ninja stuff just because it's always been a part of my life, and especially in my career in track, it's always been there with that.  Maybe I can find a gym. Maybe there's one not too far away. Otherwise, my coaches at South Dakota know about the ninja stuff, and they think it's super cool."

Q: Looking back on your journey in not just track and field, but athletics as a whole, what can you look back on and be most proud of?

A: "I think I'm definitely proud of our state title this past year because going into the season last year, we definitely did not think we were going to win state. We took it one meat at a time. 'm super proud of our team and what we've been able to accomplish.  I know we're looking to do that again. I am also just proud of how I've been able to push myself because I started out just wanting to pole vault and that turned into me becoming a fast sprinter. I was able to place in all of my events - all four - at state last year. I think I'm just really proud of my determination and how I was able to accomplish things I literally never would have thought I was going to accomplish."