How a SLO firefighter prepared to compete on ‘American Ninja Warrior’
As he dangled from a row of doorknobs suspended above a chilly swimming pool on the set of “American Ninja Warrior,” San Luis Obispo firefighter Thomas Kofron flashed back to a rock-climbing move he’s practiced for hours on a Bishop Peak cliff face.
Balancing his body in mid-air, he swung out his right arm to grab ahold of a new grip — then twisted his torso to complete the hold with his other hand.
Kofron, 31, will test his mettle once more on Monday on a new episode of NBC’s popular reality show.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound firefighter made his reality TV debut on a June 6 episode of “American Ninja Warrior,” conquering a dinosaur-themed obstacle course to finish at No. 3 among the top-30 male competitors.
If he survives Monday’s Los Angeles city finals, he’ll head to the national finals in Las Vegas — where the winners of competitions in cities including Dallas, Indianapolis, Miami, Minneapolis and Philadelphia will compete for a $1 million grand prize.
On a recent summer morning, Kofron headed to Cracked Wall, located just a few feet off the well-worn Summit Trail on San Luis Obispo’s famed Bishop Peak, to practice for his next on-air challenge.
As birds chirped and sunshine seeped through the leafy canopy of live oak trees, Kofron hoisted himself up a fissure in the 80-foot-tall volcanic rock wall — his powder-dusted fingertips searching for holds on the craggy, tiger-striped surface.
His girlfriend and training partner, Kelly Sosa of San Luis Obispo, waited patiently on the ground, feeding out a rope coil by coil as Kofron climbed.
Kofron, who grew up in Ventura, discovered rock climbing as a Cal Poly student in 2008.
He graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in kinesiology in 2009. But rather than pursue a career in physical therapy as planned, he decided to become a firefighter.
He spent two years with the Five Cities Fire Authority, headquartered in Arroyo Grande, before joining Cal Fire about seven years ago. Currently stationed in Monterey after a stint in Cambria, he plans to return to San Luis Obispo in September.
“I get sent all over the state to dozens of fires each year,” Kofron said, battling blazes that can span hundreds of thousands of acres.
He’s also fought wildfires closer to home. He saved his family’s Ventura home and a neighbor’s house from the Thomas Fire, which burned 281,893 acres and destroyed 1,063 structures in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in December 2017.
“I was by myself. I didn’t have a fire engine or a crew to back me up,” recalled Kofron, who used dirt, bottled water and a half-jug of orange juice to douse the flames after the water shut off. “It was really scary. ... I felt alone and helpless for a lot of the night.”
That experience with high-pressure situations paid off during the Los Angeles city qualifiers for “American Ninja Warrior,” filmed on a crisp February night at Universal Studios Hollywood.
“Competitors were having a hard time with the cold and being up all night,” Kofron recalled. But the long hours and uncomfortable working environment didn’t phase the firefighter, who’s accustomed to spending more than 24 hours straight fighting a vegetation fire.
“It’s stressful, having all these cameras pointed at you,” he said. “Being a fireman, we deal with high stress all the time.”
Kofron’s hobbies have also come in handy on the “American Ninja Warrior” obstacle course. He credits rock climbing with building his upper body strength and grip strength, two qualities that paid off during that daring Doorknob Drop challenge.
Climbing “requires a lot of strength and coordination,” he explained. “It definitely helps with your balance and moving your body through space. ...”
When he’s not exploring his favorite climbing spots at Bishop Peak or Yosemite National Park, Kofron works out at The Pad Climbing gym, which has locations in San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria, or runs through the Ninja Fitness course at San Luis Obispo’s Legacy Training Center.
An avid outdoorsman, he enjoys hiking, backpacking, spear fishing and scuba diving.
“I’m always outdoors doing something,” said Kofron, who doesn’t have a permanent address, preferring the freedom of his Dodge Sprinter van. “I’ve been living in a van for almost two years now. It’s been great. ... It just gets better and better.”
Sosa, who attended February’s taping with a crowd of supporters that included Kofron’s parents and brother, said he’s made a considerable stir in the tight-knit community of “American Ninja Warrior” athletes and fans.
“He went on ‘Ninja Warrior’ and everybody went, ‘Who is this new guy who destroyed all the pros?’” she said with a chuckle.
Still, Sosa wasn’t surprised how well her boyfriend fared on the show. “He is really good at adapting under pressure and showing up when he needs to. It’s what he does for his job,” she said.
According to Sosa, Kofron’s biggest advantage is his personality.
“He’s so high-energy. He just can’t sit still,” she said, describing him as “incredibly athletic.” “Even at the (fire) station, when he’s on the phone, he’s on the treadmill or he’s lifting (weights).”
If Kofron has a disadvantage, she added, it’s his extreme modesty. Although he’s watched “American Ninja Warrior” for years, it took considerable coaxing from family, friends and coworkers before he actually applied for the show, now in its 10th season.
“We believed in him probably more than he believed in himself,” Sosa said.
She, Kofron and their friends are planning a viewing party to watch Monday’s episode — if he doesn’t have to work. “It’s been a fun experience,” she said.
Watch “American Ninja Warrior” at 9 p.m. Monday on KSBY. For more information, visit www.nbc.com/american-ninja-warrior.