Hollywood stuntman Kevin Cassidy banks on the warrior craze to launch an obstacle-course business.
In what looks like a massive warehouse, people climb, twirl and zoom above a padded gym floor at Ninja Nation in Huntersville, just north of Charlotte. One group scales the side of a looming rock wall while others swing across a set of brightly colored monkey bars in the 11,500-square-foot arena. It’s like a child’s playground on steroids.
What might seem like bizarre and daring feats of physical prowess have quickly become more commonplace in the general public with shows like NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, in which elite athletes compete on extreme obstacle courses. (Now in its 12th season, the show still attracts more than 3 million weekly viewers, though that is fewer than half compared with its peak popularity in 2015.). So-called “ninja” or “parkour” gyms have popped up around the country, including Fuquay-Varina’s Rock Solid Warrior, Kinetic Heights in Charlotte, and Winterville’s Warrior Zone.
For Ninja Nation’s owner Kevin Cassidy, 44, it feels like home. He spent more than 17 years bursting through windows, leaping from buildings, and sprinting from explosions during his Hollywood stuntman career that includes eight Marvel superhero films.
His resume has as many twists and turns as his on-screen stunts. While a teacher in Baltimore, a sport called SlamBall featured on the Spike TV channel caught his eye. Combining elements of basketball, football, hockey and gymnastics, players score points by shooting balls into hoops while competing on trampolines.
“I found out about a [SlamBall team] tryout in Philadelphia,” Cassidy says. “So we drove to Philly for the weekend and just kind of not taking it very seriously. I ended up making it to the next round of tryouts in L.A.”
He played SlamBall in Los Angeles for six months, which led to his entry into the movie stuntman world. He was invited to try out for the 2005 remake of The Longest Yard, a sports comedy that starred Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Burt Reynolds. “[It] was a really cool experience. I made more money in that movie than I did a whole year teaching.”
After 17 years stunting for movies such as The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Ant-Man, Black Panther, and Avengers: Endgame, he decided to pursue his dream of starting his own business. With fond memories of growing up in Charlotte, he thought it would be an ideal place to raise his three daughters with his wife, Megan, while building a business that he enjoyed.
He met with Wayne Cavanaugh, the CEO of Colorado-based Ninja Nation, and loved the concept of a gym franchise and the company’s philosophy on getting kids involved in fun physical activity. Despite challenges during the pandemic, Cassidy opened the state’s first Ninja Nation location in Huntersville in May.
Founded in 2017, Ninja Nation has four other locations in Colorado and Texas with plans to add a site next year in Nashville, Tenn.
“Well, it’s definitely a wow factor,” Cassidy says. “It’s big, it’s shiny, it’s nice, it’s very, very clean.We pride ourselves on cleanliness. A lot of people compare it either to an urban air trampoline park or gymnastic studio — we’re kind of a hybrid in between both.”
Ninja Nation offers a variety of options including open gym times, classes, birthday parties, summer camps, and a professional team. The gym also sets up obstacles at outside locations and hosts special events such as a class and meet-and-greet with Karsten Williams, a McKinney, Texas, personal trainer who has competed on American Ninja Warrior eight times. Prices range from $17 for a one-hour open gym pass to $350 for a week of summer camp. At this time, the business is mainly geared toward kids, though Ninja Nation does offer a few adult-only classes and will expand its services to include more adult training courses in the fall.
Cassidy says that although shows such as American Ninja Warrior sparked a renewed interest in obstacle courses, the concepts covered at the gym are nothing new.
“Kids have been climbing on monkey bars for 100 years,” Cassidy says. “So they didn’t reinvent the whee; they short of optimized the wheel … [to make] playgrounds kind of competitive and fun and had the right mentality.” ■