Justin Andelin, the son of Metro Richmond Zoo owner Jim Andelin, grew up with his six siblings at the zoo. But it was the animals he was raised alongside who taught him about his passion — climbing.
Now, Andelin, known as the "Zoo Ninja" will be moving from the Great Ape Exhibits to the course of the TV show "American Ninja Warrior." Andelin competed in the Baltimore qualifiers and will be appearing on Monday's episode airing at 8 p.m. on NBC. "American Ninja Warrior" features contestants attempting to complete strenuous obstacle courses in a variety of cities for a chance to move on to the national finals.
Upwards of 70,000 ninja hopefuls apply to the show per season. This season, Andelin was one of 700 selected to compete in qualifiers, and one of 100 to compete in Baltimore.
Having grown up around animals, Andelin now works as a manager at the zoo. As a child, he would spend time watching the primates climb and try to mimic their body movements. In addition to traditional venues like rock climbing gyms, Andelin climbs with the primates in their enclosures and in the zoo's zipline and adventure park.
Primates have the ability to brachiate, or swing between trees in an arm-over-arm fashion using only their upper body. While humans can only "kind of" do it, Andelin said, he practices the techniques he learns through observation, whether it's brachiation or orangutans' ability to hang from tree branches for hours.
"Primates are six times stronger than man," Andelin said. "Watching them and their body movements — some of it’s not possible for a man to do, but some of it is."
It's not just the primates. Andelin said each animal has a unique characteristic that he can learn from as a ninja, even the less "exotic" ones. Goats, for example, have incredible balance on tight ledges, while leopards have extraordinary leaping ability.
"Every animal has their unique abilities, and just growing up around them is really cool," he said. "(They) make me want to get to my peak self because some of them have such peak attributes that are just really cool."
Andelin also enjoys climbing around Richmond, particularly the downtown area, because there are so many features, including light posts and bridges.
Monday will mark Andelin's first appearance on the show but second time tackling the course. He was selected to take part in 2018's Miami qualifier, but was never featured on the show. This time, producers called to tell him he would be making two appearances in the Baltimore episode.
An unexpected challenge of going on the show is the shooting schedule, Andelin said. His episode was shot from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. on April 28 and 29, and contestants watch others compete until their name is called some time in the middle of the night. In terms of the obstacles, Andelin said he was most nervous for the balance-related features, because one slip could result in a major setback.
"My balance is very good, but still one little trip and you’re down and that’s it," he said. "You get your one shot and you’re done. The whole process is rather challenging.'
The Metro Richmond Zoo is in Mosely, which is in western Chesterfield along Route 360. It opened in 1995.