When NBC producers asked Robin DeHaven—who was interviewing for a spot on the hit television show American Ninja Warrior — if he had ever been called a hero, he smiled.
“Actually, yes,” he said, referring to the Carnegie Medal that he received in 2012 after rescuing six people from the second floor of a burning office building that had been struck by an airplane. In March, DeHaven, of Round Rock, Texas, competed in a regional qualifier for the ninth season of the sports competition show, where participants attempt to complete a series of physical obstacles that test strength, balance, flexibility, and speed.
The season premiere will air on June 12, 2017, with DeHaven’s arm of the competition, filmed in San Antonio, Texas, slated for June 19, 2017. He is not allowed to reveal his results before then. “The first time I saw the show it looked like the competitors were playing on an adult-sized playground,” DeHaven said. “It looked so fun. Like recess in elementary school. I knew I wanted to do that.”
Although he has trained for the show for the last four years, it was the life-or-death situation for which he was awarded the Carnegie Medal in 2012 that helped keep him grounded throughout rigorous training, he said. On Feb. 18, 2010, DeHaven, then 28 and working as a glazier, was driving in Austin, Texas, when he saw the single-engine plane descending from the sky. Tracing the smoke, he drove to the scene, where the pilot had intentionally crashed the plane into a four-story office building, killing himself and a man inside the building. Six people on the second floor were trapped by heavy smoke and fire and shouted for help from broken-out windows.
DeHaven took a 17-foot extension ladder from his truck, climbed it to the second story, and entered the burning building to clear glass from a window. He then stepped to an outside ledge and aided the six coworkers, one at a time, onto the ladder, where they descended to safety, before he also climbed down. He suffered smoke inhalation and minor cuts, but he recovered. “My life didn’t really change after the plane crash,” DeHaven said. “I was in the right place at the right time, and I’m glad I could react when the time called for it.”
But, DeHaven said, the Carnegie Medal serves as a reminder to keep things in perspective. “This competition is supposed to be fun, and when I find myself getting discouraged, I can remember I’ve been very close to real danger. I can do great things. I can make a difference. I have made a difference.”
DeHaven had applied to the show twice previously before getting selected to compete. He said he was walking on the treadmill when he got the call that he had been selected. “I didn’t have the over-the-top reaction I expected. Most are screaming and jumping up and down,” DeHaven said. “Not me. I almost started crying. I was fighting back tears.” DeHaven coined the name, “Hero Ninja,” for his Warrior alter ego and wore his Carnegie Medal to the starting platform of the obstacle course before beginning the competition.
Show producers select applicants based on video submissions, and those selected go on to compete in regional qualifiers and then city finals. The top 15 finishers from each city move on to compete in the four-stage national finals course in Las Vegas. When looking through submission tapes, producers look for people who have a great story, said Brain Richardson, an executive producer for the show. “Most of the people who apply are elite-level athletes, but what made Robin stand out is that he had good appeal,” Richardson said. “He’s already a hero, recognized by a national hero organization, and he also is an Army veteran. He has a lot going on.”
DeHaven said that he’s already begun training for the next season of the show and is looking forward to competing again. “Everyone was very encouraging. It’s the greatest community of people I’ve been around in sports, and I can’t wait to keep coming back,” he said. “It’s us against the obstacles, not us against each other, and it feels like everyone is helping to spread positivity in the world, sort of like the winners of the Carnegie Medal. It’s a group of people working to show that we can do amazing things.”
To learn more about DeHaven the Hero Ninja, see his Facebook page.
—Jewels Phraner, Case Investigator/Social Media Coordinator