Sep 5, 2017
Girl Power

This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.

Last April, out-of-season female athletes at Virginia Tech added a new line to their athletic resumes — ninja skills. They earned this badge through the daylong Hokie Women’s Ninja Warrior Challenge led by Megan Evans, MSEd, CSCS, Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports.

The competition echoes the setup of the television show “American Ninja Warrior,” but it focuses more on female empowerment and building camaraderie across teams. “As women in athletics, if we are not empowering each other to do better and excel, then we are doing a disservice to our gender,” Evans says. “We should be encouraging each other to be rock stars, and that’s what we see in the Warrior Challenge.”

To participate, members from all fall and winter women’s sports are broken into four squads, creating a mix of athletes competing with and against each other. “College sports are cliquey enough,” Evans says. “We want them interacting with athletes from other teams and creating intersquad camaraderie.

“Take our basketball players, for example,” she continues. “Their practice gym and locker rooms are in a separate facility than our other female sports, so they don’t get a lot of opportunity to talk with women from those teams. This event gives them a chance to meet people they might not know and show off what they can do.”

The Warrior Challenge also allows athletes to work with women who can serve as role models off the field and court. Female athletic administrators at Virginia Tech usually serve as coaches of the four teams, enabling the athletes to get to know women who have succeeded in athletics careers. (Sport coaches serve as fans and cheerleaders on the sidelines.)

“Many young women believe there is a glass ceiling when it comes to getting a job in athletics,” Evans says. “Seeing women who have broken this ceiling shows the athletes that athletic administration does not have to be male-dominated. It sends the message: ‘There are women in these roles who do a great job, and you could be one of them.’

Another benefit of having administrators serve as coaches is that it gives players a glimpse of who is doing the behind-the-scenes work in the athletic department. “Our athletes rarely get to interact with some of these administrators,” says Evans. “They might not even know who they are. But these people are important to the day-to-day running of our athletics program.”

Female empowerment is a big part of the event itself, as players conquer tough obstacles together and impress one another with their speed and strength. “The next day, I hear them saying, ‘I can’t believe so-and-so was that fast,’ or ‘I was amazed that she was so strong,’” Evans says. “It’s fun to see them acknowledge each others’ talents.”

The Warrior Challenge always begins with a stadium run, set up like a relay race. The teams then rotate through stations, which vary from year to year and are similar to those on the television show.

This past April, the challenges included an agility course with speed ladders and hurdles, a prowler relay race, and a weightroom circuit. The nutrition staff even got involved, creating a station that included fueling trivia. There was also a truck push, where groups of four or five athletes pushed a pickup about 100 yards. At the end of the event, the teams went head to head in tug-of-war.

Strength and conditioning interns develop many of the challenges, and they work hard to make them fun and inclusive for everyone—including those who are rehabbing. “Even if an athlete is injured, I want her to be part of a team at the Warrior Challenge,” Evans says. “If a player has a knee injury or an upper-body injury, she should still be able to participate in something.”

The event first began a decade ago and has been held most years since, requiring time and effort to put on. Evans says she always finds it worthwhile when she can put all the pieces together. Along with initiating new bonds among female athletes, it inserts some fun into the rigors of training.

“Somebody asked me, ‘Why do you do it?’” Evans says. “At the end of the day, it’s because I love seeing the girls laughing and enjoying themselves. And they keep talking about it for days afterward. Their sports are important, and their training is absolutely 100 percent important, but so is letting them be 18- to 22-year-olds. The Warrior Challenge is a fun release for them after a long, hard semester of training.

“It’s also something that the coaches believe in and enjoy, and they’ve started to put it on their calendars,” Evans continues. “Coaches and athletes come into my office every January asking, ‘Are we doing it again this year?’”

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