Courtesy of David Fleming

Everyone at Yale has a backstory. Not everyone at Yale’s backstory involves four U.S. patents-in-progress and years of training to try out one of the world’s hardest obstacles courses on live television. 

David Fleming’s does. 

After spending his high school years learning to propel his body between far-flung rungs and strengthening his grip to climb from millimeter-long ledges, 18-year-old Fleming finally got the call he’d been dreaming of since childhood on Jan. 25. He was going to be competing on American Ninja Warrior, a television show in which trained athletes compete on obstacle courses in order to be crowned the year’s ultimate Ninja Warrior.

“I always had the dream of being on the show … and joining these incredible athletes as they try to conquer the world’s hardest obstacles,” Fleming told the News. “Like most kids, I watched American Ninja Warrior starting when I was eight years old, and it had always been a point of fascination for me.” 

Growing up in Florida, Fleming was an energized and enthusiastic mini-ninja from before the time he could walk — much less sprint up the Warped Wall

Kelly Fleming, David’s mother, noted that her youngest son had always been a dreamer.

As a four-year-old, he wanted only two things for Christmas — a grappling hook, and a jetpack,” Fleming said. “He was always very bright, determined and insightful so I had a feeling that his path would be rather extraordinary.”

Upon encountering serious health issues in elementary and middle school, however, David was unsure whether competing on the show would ever be feasible for him. He worked through the issues — and came up with the concept for a migraine relief device whose various prototypes have been awarded four patents in the process. 

“I plan to have [it] on the market this year,” Fleming explained of the device, which uses acupressure and gravity to relieve head pain. Acupressure has long been used in Eastern medicine, he noted, but techniques like his have yet to be explored as much in the West outside of the chiropractic field.

Fleming first created the device at 13-years-old in an effort to re-assimilate himself into a normal academic and social life after his health struggles, but he waited until adulthood to seek patenting: he feared he would fail to present as an effective salesman when he was not yet a legal adult.

“To see that he now has four patents and is getting very close to making his solution available to others who suffer is truly remarkable,” added his mother. “I couldn’t be more proud of him or more grateful to be his mom and be a part of his incredible journey.”

In high school, a recreational ninja gym opened ten minutes from Fleming’s house in Boca Raton. Fleming and his brother immediately fell in love with the “sport of ninja,” though they took a while to get the hang of it.

“My brother transitioned to ultimate frisbee,” Fleming explained, “but I continued with ninja … over sophomore summer I really fell in love with it and started training three to four times a week.”

Fleming’s coaches noted his improvement and encouraged him to start competing in rec leagues, as he was not old enough yet to go on the show. 

After a last-place finish at his first rec league competition, David began to compete more frequently. Mrs. Fleming explained that he eventually moved up to the National Ninja League, where he experienced great success.

Upon getting into Yale, he immediately sought out the nearest ninja gym — the Hamden Ninja Academy — and worked toward sending in his audition materials to the show, which had recently lowered its age limit from 19 to 15.

“I decided I should wait and see if I could get into a top school [before applying to American Ninja Warrior] which I could proudly represent if I ended up getting on the show,” Fleming stated. 

When offered his spot on the show last month, David learned he would have only a few months to prepare before his taped appearance sometime in late March or early April. The show will premiere in a backlot of Universal Studios in June; now that COVID-19 restrictions have lessened, Fleming is excited to bring any guests who want to watch him.

We are all right behind him, encouraging him to practice, helping with t-shirt logo design and whatever else comes his way,” his mother wrote to the News. “Our extended family will be there for the taping to cheer him on and if he is fortunate, his taping date will coincide with spring break and several of his friends from Yale will be able to attend as well!”

Contestants take this prep time seriously; Fleming noted that since the show films between midnight and 5 a.m. PST, a friend and fellow competitor of his is attempting to adopt a nocturnal schedule to maximize his energy on the show.

“It’s been great being able to train alongside him,” two-time competitor Jay Lewis, the nocturnal friend in question, said of Fleming. “The only thing you can fully control is how much fun you have, so I hope David really takes the whole experience in.”

Lewis took the semester off from Syracuse, where he is a freshman, to compete; Fleming described him as “one of the top ninjas in the world” and noted that it was an honor to train alongside him.

Many ninja warriors have mottos; Fleming is no exception. His American Ninja Warrior maxim? “Embrace your obstacles.”

“I’ve always been interested in the parallels between Ninja Warrior and life, and a lot of people don’t realize this but until you see the set on the day you’re competing you have no idea what the obstacles will be, and they could be anything,” Fleming elaborated. 

Fleming got his inspiration from an ancient Chinese proverb: “Obstacles do not block the path. They are the path.” He has always been fascinated by “Greek philosophy quotes,” he noted, and has thereby found himself drawn to ancient philosophy.

He carries the motto into a larger life mindset, and added that he draws parallels between the obstacles he faces in Ninja Warrior and those he has faced in his life thus far. 

Aside from American Ninja Warrior and pending patents, Fleming looks forward to the obstacles that lay in his path as he continues at Yale: his economics courseload, juggling young ninjadom and extracurriculars like the Yale Entrepreneurial Society and the Yale Undergraduate Aerospace Association, and, he hopes, rushing fraternities in the fall — he had initially planned to do so this spring, but ninja took precedent.

Miranda Wollen is the University Editor for the News; she also writes very silly pieces for the WKND section. She previous covered Faculty and Academics, and she is a junior in Silliman College double-majoring in English and Classics.