Let 10-year-old Makena Cook loose and she’ll clamber up walls, swing from poles and jump across an abyss — all in her backyard.
Makena’s home in a quiet Costa Mesa neighborhood belies its elaborate backyard ninja course, the training ground for her recent stint competing on “American Ninja Warrior Junior,” a TV show on the Universal Kids channel. The second season premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Makena is a returning competitor on the show, along with Season 1 champion Kai Beckstrand. “I’ll try it, we’ll see,” she said.
That’s Makena’s attitude for all her athletic endeavors — and there are many. Her main thing is soccer, which she plays with Newport Beach’s Slammers Football Club. But she also plays basketball and runs sprints at track meets.
Makena was recruited to join the boys’ flag football team at her Corona del Mar school — she is the only girl.
“They saw me throw and they were like, ‘Come on, play quarterback!’” Makena said. “‘Oh my gosh, you’re really good!’”
Makena took time from her busy schedule to spend a few days competing last summer on “American Ninja Warrior Junior.” She spent a day practicing, getting a feel for the big-time ninja course. The second day was devoted to competition: jumping, swinging, vaulting, running. The sprints, which pit two competitors against each other and a clock, were a blur for Makena.
She just remembers her pre-competition mantra: “C’mon, just do it, just go fast!”
The first episode of Season 2 is already up on Universal Kids’ website. (No spoilers here!)
When she’s not practicing one of her myriad sports or swimming or skateboarding with friends, Makena often takes to the streets of her neighborhood to continue playing. She’ll shoot basketballs at a nearby park or kick a soccer ball outside her house, practicing her cheers as much as her technique.
Makena’s mother, Stefanie Cook, noticed her athleticism at an early age. It wasn’t hard to miss. For her sixth birthday, Makena asked for a pull-up bar in her bedroom.
One time, Stefanie heard noises coming from her 6-year-old’s room around midnight. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Mom, I told myself I was going to do 50 lunges and I only did 30,” Stefanie recalled her daughter saying. “So I’m going to keep doing it.”
“I’m like, ‘What is wrong with you?’” Stefanie said with a laugh.
Makena pored over episodes of “American Ninja Warrior,” NBC’s adult competition. Stefanie and Makena first heard about the youth version at a basketball tryout. Since they were already at a park, Stefanie snapped a video of Makena and submitted it to Universal Kids. Soon after, they were notified that Makena was accepted to compete in the first season.
“Everything in the house became an obstacle course,” Stefanie said.
Makena, then 9, failed to get to the final round and a chance at a $15,000 prize.
Makena itched to do better. Practicing flips in the living room and dangling from a single monkey bar strung up from the house to a backyard tree would no longer cut it for her.
So her mother bought the equipment for a ninja course and, together, they fashioned one in their backyard. They strung PVC piping, softballs and lacrosse balls to a wooden rigging. Several wooden platforms, a couple of trampolines, plastic hurdles and a soccer goal completed the course.
Stray tokens of Makena’s other athletic endeavors litter the backyard: a football here, a soccer ball there.
“From a mother’s standpoint,” Stefanie said, “you couldn’t ask for more for your daughter.”
Despite Makena’s busy athletic schedule, Stefanie said she has typical 10-year-old responsibilities, such as doing chores and completing homework.
“At the end of the day, I just want her to be a happy, normal kid,” Stefanie said.
As Makena worked hard to improve after the first season of “American Ninja Warrior Junior,” she was buoyed by messages from viewers around the world. Stefanie recalled one message from a mother who wrote that after watching the show, her daughter said, “I want to be like Makena and I want to be kind.”
“It was so cool to see all those other girls writing to me,” Makena said.
Makena’s aspirations are high: She wants to be on the adult “American Ninja Warrior” show. She also hopes to play for the U.S. women’s soccer team and win a World Cup.
Brands are lining up to book her. In June, she appeared in a Nike ad alongside top soccer players from across the globe. Last February, she teamed with “American Ninja Warrior” star Meagan Martin for a production with Athleta.
“To meet people that you’ve looked up to and you watch on TV, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re so cool.’ It’s really cool to meet them,” said Makena, sporting a black T-shirt reading “She’s one tough cookie.”
“Once you meet them, it’s a whole different ... amazing experience.”
Her goals for this season of “American Ninja Warrior Junior”?
“Obviously to win,” Makena said. “Also to … inspire girls and to show them that they can do anything.“