BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - When word started to get around that Berkeley Heights native Anthony DeFranco would be competing on this season of American Ninja Warrior, fellow residents were excited to tune in and see how he would do.
It seemed like everyone in town was watching on a Monday night back in June when DeFranco not only completed the obstacle course, but was dubbed as the “Run of the Night,” a high honor for the rookie ‘ninja’.
“Finishing the course and hitting the buzzer was a huge accomplishment in itself,” DeFranco said. “I actually was so out of it that once I hit the buzzer one of the producers had to tell me to turn to the two announcers.
They were telling me how I had the fastest time of the night and I was just like ‘are you kidding me? How is that even possible?’ I just didn’t know how to react. And they couldn’t even show my post-run interview because I was just so overwhelmed.”
DeFranco didn’t sit on his high of finishing the course for long, though. After his race, he took care of his responsibilities as the Governor Livingston pole vaulting coach and made the 45-minute drive to Mansfield, NJ to coach at the State Sectional meet.
“Between the two days, I went to coach at the meet and I was there for about an hour, maybe an hour and a half,” DeFranco said. “I didn’t even get to coach them, I told the guys who were competing what to do and then I had to leave and go back to Philly.”
The other competitors thought he was crazy for using valuable resting time to go coach, but DeFranco used the time that he did have to sleep in two folding chairs that he brought with him.
Like his first run, DeFranco’s second run happened in the middle of the night at the Richmond Power Plant in Philadelphia. However, unlike his first run, he was competing without his training partner, Greg Smith, who failed to make it past the qualifying round.
Smith and DeFranco’s friendship was chronicled on-air in a montage leading up to DeFranco’s try at the course. It told the story of how Smith was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 and how he overcame that to become a competitor on the show.
DeFranco and Smith first met when DeFranco was on his official recruiting trip to Rider during his senior year of high school. When everyone went out to dinner that night, Smith, who was a sophomore at the time, was one of the only Rider athletes talking to him because “that’s just the kind of person he is.”
The two really started to become friends about halfway through DeFranco’s freshman year, before eventually rooming together two years later, when DeFranco was a junior and Smith was a fifth-year senior.
After watching his friend suffer through treatment and have his body ravaged by the disease, DeFranco was surprised when Smith made the decision to start training, but was excited to have him along for the ride.
“It was a blast having Greg as my training partner and it kind of enhanced our friendship,” DeFranco said. “I had made the decision that I was going to start training for the show and then he was like ‘I think I’m just going to start training for it too.” I was surprised, but I wasn’t going to deny my friend to come start training, so he jumped on the bandwagon and it went from there.”
The two spent a lot of time together when training, often traveling up to an hour away on Friday nights to ‘ninja-specific’ gyms.
The travel was worth it and the training has paid off. DeFranco‘s second shot at glory will come when the finals round for Philadelphia airs on August 22 at 8 p.m. on NBC.