Pro wrestler Zach Gowen on defying the odds and his American Ninja Warrior experience

Scott Fishman
Joe Robbins/NBC

Amputee pro wrestler Zach Gowen overcame cancer, battled addiction and has been in the ring with some of the biggest names in WWE history, Now the 33-year-old is ready to write another chapter in his inspirational story — as a participant in American Ninja Warrior‘s Indianapolis qualifier Monday, June 13 at 8/7CT on NBC.

Zach Gowan Joe Robbins/NBC
American Ninja Warrior — Zach Gowen
Photo Joe Robbins/NBC

His newest adventure started back in January when Gowen posted on Facebook about considering trying out for the competition series. His phone began to blow up with people getting behind the idea. With social media abuzz, Gowen decided to at least fill out the application. A phone call followed, and before long, he found himself looking for a local gym to train.

“I had no idea how big the show was,” Gowen said. “People live and train specifically year-round for this show. All of their training involves ninja training. They are trying to get the ninja course in the Olympics. I mean, this thing runs really deep. There are dedicated athletes that live for this. In a way it reminded me of the CrossFit culture where if you are into it, you’re really into it.”

Gowen ultimately hired a coach at Edge Fitness in Commerce Township, Mich. The competitor had just six weeks until his run in Indianapolis.

“I thought, watching the show, I was a pretty good athlete and could do it,” he said. “Then once you are hanging by your fingertips and you are about 15 feet above the ground, it becomes a whole different story. It’s one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done. I have a skill set in professional wrestling and motivational speaking. That doesn’t translate too well in terms of techniques for ninja training. But with hard work, perseverance, dedication and always coming back for more no matter what, that helped me out tremendously. I’m grateful to Coach Carey and Edge Fitness for seeing it through.”

Much like when he wrestles, Gowen chose to compete without a prosthetic. He has learned to succeed without his left leg, which he lost to cancer at age 8. The performer sees American Ninja Warrior as another way to introduce himself and his story to new audiences  and, in doing do, to potentially help others.

“My whole life is built around me carrying the message of hope and inspiration,” Gowen said. “I do that through the telling of my story. It doesn’t matter what the platform is. It can be a DVD, a documentary, DDP Yoga, a wrestling ring, on stage at a school or on NBC in American Ninja Warrior. These are all platforms for me to share my story and carry this message of hope and inspiration in enduring hard times, facing challenges.

“This is for someone who doesn’t think they can do something,” he continues. “I’m here to show them there are other options and there is another way and that anything is possible. I’m so grateful to NBC and American Ninja Warrior for allowing me to showcase my story.”

Zach Gowen
Zach Gowen

For Gowen, the experience exceeded his expectations.

“Whether I fall on the first obstacle or I make it up the wall, I consider it one of the greatest victories of my life just showing up and honoring my commitment,” he said. “I was honoring my word and seeing it through.”

Cheering him on from the sidelines was his tag team partner, Gregory Iron. Together the duo is collectively known within pro wrestling as the Handicapped Heroes. Iron, who lives with cerebral palsy, was a lifelong fan  who watched Gowen during his stint with WWE in the early 2000’s. During that time, Gowen was still early into his career. It was trial by fire working alongside the likes of Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon, John Cena, Kurt Angle, Hulk Hogan and Brock Lesnar.

“Brock Lesnar is my favorite wrestler — possibly of all-time,” he said. “I believe he is a once-in-a-generation athlete. I love the fact that he is fighting at UFC 200 and SummerSlam. That’s unheard of. He was extremely professional in my dealings with him, and I think we did really good business together in terms of what he needed to do in terms of his character and his future. I think he recognizes that and is grateful for that, from what I understand. He was always super cool with me, and I’m forever grateful for the time I got to spend with him backstage and in the ring.”

During his time with WWE, Gowen was a regular fixture on television and in a position many only dream about. However, he released within a year.

“I have zero regrets how things have panned out because I’m in such a comfortable place in my life right now in terms of being an independent professional wrestler, a speaker, a father, a husband, a ninja,” he said. “ That’s the beauty of it, that in 2016 we don’t have to be defined by one thing with the advent of social media and the ability to access a large audience. We can do it ourselves. I find that incredibly empowering. The culture of wrestling has changed. The contracts have changed. Because the landscape has changed, the contracts reflect that.

“I mean this past weekend I wrestled Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa,” Gowen continued. “These guys are on NXT each week. You have more freedom and control over your career. To me, that’s what I’m excited about. I’m excited about getting creative and the artistic expression that I can create on my own. Whether I fall flat on my face or am super successful, it all ends up on me. So I have that control, and for me, that’s more valuable than any sort of contract with a major wrestling company.”

Gowen says he and WWE haven’t officially spoken since 2012. Even though there are no immediate aspirations to return to the company, he is open to any opportunities. The latest example of this is his participation in American Ninja Warrior.

And if you need any more reasons to get behind Gowen, how about the fact he is part of the nonprofit Wrestling for Warriors?

“We marry the magic of professional wrestling with the unbelievable duty and responsibility we have as former kids with disabilities,” Gowen said. “It’s to help kids who are sick or facing challenges. What we do is put on wrestling shows, and 100 percent of the profits from the wrestling show go toward a specific childhood cause or illness. We visit the children’s hospitals. The kids with disabilities, we will put in the front row and give them a chance to meet the wrestlers.

“It’s really a way to give back, because, as Greg grew up with cerebral palsy, I grew up losing my leg to cancer. What really got us through those hard times was our love of professional wrestling. To be able to give back in a way and provide those moments for kids facing challenges, now in 2016, it’s really an amazing thing. It’s one of the projects I’m most proud of. It’s really phenomenal thing, and we hope to make announcement soon in terms of when the next show will be.”

American Ninja Warrior airs Mondays at 8/7CT on NBC.