Until just a few years ago, Joey Ray was a “behind-the-scenes kid.”
“He was shy and he wouldn’t talk to anybody,” Joey’s mom, Deeanna Ray, said. “He’d just hide behind me.”
Now 12 years old, Joey isn’t staying behind the scenes anymore — and not only because his bright pink dyed hair makes it difficult. Since he entered his first Ninja competition in 2018, Joey’s self-confidence has “skyrocketed,” Ray said.
Joey, who had never participated in a Ninja competition before, finished second on the Saturday of that first competition in October 2018 and first on the Sunday, beating out kids who had trained at Ninja gyms.
“I thought, ‘Oh, snap, this is real,’” Ray recalled.
This year, Joey was selected to compete on the TV show “American Ninja Warrior Junior.” His episode will air Sept. 16 on Peacock.
The show is the children’s edition of the sports competition game show “American Ninja Warrior.” Competitors try to complete an obstacle course that includes climbing, swinging and balancing elements without falling and being eliminated.
Ray said Joey, who she adopted out of foster care along with his older brother when he was 2, has always been “a climber and a jumper and a swinger.”
“We just never knew there was a sport for it,” she said.
When Fredericksburg Ninja, a gym with a Ninja-style obstacle course, opened in 2018 (it has since closed), friends sent her a link, suggesting Joey would love it.
Ray, a special education paraprofessional with Spotsylvania County Public Schools, signed Joey up for a competition that October “just for fun,” and he crushed it.
“He was able to do everything the very first time,” she said. “He made it up the 11-and-a-half foot wall. I thought, ‘Hey, maybe you’re good at this.’”
Joey, an honor roll student at Ni River Middle School in Spotsylvania, started watching “American Ninja Warrior” and studying competitors’ techniques.
He began taking classes in parkour — a discipline with roots in military obstacle course training and martial arts — at Ninja gyms in Northern Virginia and Williamsburg. Ray eventually had a custom-built Ninja rink installed in her backyard so Joey could practice his skills.
Last year, he decided he wanted to start competing more seriously and the Rays — Deeanna, Joey and his brother, and two younger sisters also adopted from foster care — decided together as a family that they would support him.
Joey now competes in three different Ninja warrior leagues. Almost every weekend, the family travels to Ninja competitions all over the country. They’ve been down to North Carolina, up to New Jersey and out to Las Vegas.
“We made the commitment as a family last year when he wanted to start competing, because we all have to go with him,” Ray said. “We didn’t want to separate on the weekends.”
Early this spring, Joey — who competes in bright pink New Balance sneakers and a bright pink T-shirt bearing his nickname, “Kangaroo Ninja” — submitted the lengthy application to compete on “American Ninja Warrior Junior.”
Ray said the application included pictures and videos, as well as a “hometown tour,” for which Joey filmed himself visiting Spotsylvania Civil War battlefields and talking about Chick-fil-A sauce — which was created by Hugh Fleming in the 1980s at his Chick-fil-A store in what is now Spotsylvania Towne Center.
Joey plans to keep competing and moving up in age groups. He wants to compete on the adult show “American Ninja Warrior” and eventually become a Ninja coach and own his own gym.
His Instagram bio reads: “The Lord is my strength and my shield. I love ninja, I love new challenges. If I could I would do ninja all day everyday.”