Nine months after her fifth knee surgery — the fourth on her right knee — Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine-Georgia physical therapy student Alyssa Varsalona wasn’t sure about the integrity of her ligaments as she landed, jumped and pivoted through obstacles at an Atlanta-area “ninja gym.”
The more she saw herself jumping, though, the more confident she grew in her preparedness to compete on NBC’s reality TV show “American Ninja Warrior” in late March.
“I am the kind of person who is always giving 100 percent when I put my mind to doing something, whether that is PT school or competing in ‘American Ninja Warrior,’” Varsalona said.
Varsalona, a Lassiter High School alum and native of Marietta, is a first-year PT student at PCOM and a former level-nine gymnast. Her first knee injury occurred in 2011 while training to move up to level 10. She was tumbling when she sustained an injury to her left knee that required reconstructive surgery. Back then, she didn’t know how much pain she’d need to tolerate or for how long. The recovery process, though, was something she’d soon get used to.
Varsalona had fully rehabilitated her left knee and was roughly four years removed from surgery when she critically injured her right knee in 2016 while tumbling. Less than a year later, her right knee gave out again while tumbling.
The fourth accident re-injured her right knee, but this time it required two surgeries. She’d already set aside the sport she’d trained for since she was 8 years old. Then a car accident in 2017 forced her into rehabilitation again.
“Each one, after the first one, I did at least know what to expect,” Varsalona said. “I knew how high the pain levels would be and how long. The fourth injury, I was bummed that I wasn’t even tumbling. It wasn’t my fault at all, which was frustrating. It was difficult that my knee had been through so much and the recovery was much harder.”
She was able to make a full comeback after her first surgery, but hardly had time between the others to get back to peak fitness before the injuries happened in rapid succession. During her recovery from her fifth surgery, she stumbled upon “American Ninja Warrior.”
If the timeline for recovery was anything like her first three knee injuries, she knew she’d be ready in time to audition for the show and potentially compete on the set in Atlanta on March 24. That possibility drove her through rehabilitation.
“I didn’t know if I would be able to do it, because I’ve had so many surgeries and done so much damage,” she said. “I didn’t know if they would be healthy enough for something like that. I took everything slow because I wanted to be very careful and didn’t want to take chances. I started feeling like I could do more and more.”
Varsalona submitted a three-minute audition to NBC, along with an essay. Her story and level of fitness earned her a shot to compete with 100 other athletes from the Southeast. The top 30 overall plus the top five female athletes advance to the city finals. At city finals, the top 12 overall plus the top two women advance to the national finals which are held in Las Vegas. The winner takes home a grand prize of $1 million.
Once she regained confidence in her knee, she focused on honing the skills required to complete “American Ninja Warrior” obstacle courses. Ninja Warrior courses require elite grip strength, so Varsalona practiced leaping and grabbing onto different surfaces. She honed her balance as best she could as the day of the competition crept closer.
Varsalona does not describe herself as a night owl, so when she arrived on the American Ninja Warrior set in the Home Depot Backyard adjacent to Mercedes-Benz Stadium at 5 p.m., she knew she could be called on for her turn late in the evening or early the next morning. She brought a yoga mat and pillow to stay relaxed and stretched out while she waited.
Once her name was called and she was on the course, all weariness and nervous went away. She donned a shirt that read: “Never Quit Ninja.”
“I was so nervous to be competing with some of the greatest ninja veterans as a rookie, but as soon as I stepped onto the course and heard the crowd going crazy, my nerves disappeared,” she said
Varsalona can’t reveal the results of her run until the episode airs in June, but she said she hopes to get back on the show next year as an experienced ninja. The official air date for the Atlanta qualifying course is not set, but Atlanta was the second of six cities that hosted and will host qualifiers from March to late May.
Varsalona’s trials and recovery processes were part of what inspired her to go to PT school after receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia. She wants to use her platform with “American Ninja Warrior” and as a future physical therapist to advocate for strict injury prevention protocols. Once she graduates from PCOM, she hopes to work with local teams and gyms by showing them injury-preventative exercises and providing quick injury-risk evaluations.
“I just think the importance of rehab and pre-hab aren’t well known,” Varsalona said. “I think many athletes and normal people have muscle imbalances that lead to injuries. I want to work with young athletes as a PT, and I want to be able to implement those things and show how important physical therapy is. I didn’t fully understand how important rehab was, but that can honestly make a huge difference.”