Rancho Cucamonga teacher returns to ‘American Ninja Warrior’ after recovery from bicycle accident
It was a pre-dawn morning in October 2018 when Keita Kashiwagi was scraped off the pavement not far from his home in Rancho Cucamonga after being hit by a car while riding his bicycle to work.
After sustaining a severe brain trauma and pulling off a recovery that stunned his doctors, the 46-year-old husband, father and science teacher had re-learned how to think, talk, walk and feed himself, retuning to the classroom at Jehue Middle School in the Rialto Unified School District in less than five months.
As amazing as all that sounds, just wait — there’s more.
Vying for top ninja
He found his motivational muse after glancing in the mirror, seeing a gut, drooping muscles and out-of-shape body. He began walking, then running, and got into a daily exercise regimen with the goal of returning to the NBC reality TV show “America Ninja Warrior,” on which he had appeared in May 2014.
Nearly six years after his first appearance, Kashiwagi qualified not once, but twice, to return to the show.
He qualified in March 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic canceled his run through the obstacle course and the show shut down. So, he got even stronger, taped another application video showing off his back flips, six-pack abs and prowess on the hanging ropes and quad-step obstacles, with his doctor and physical therapists talking about one of the fastest recoveries ever witnessed from such a serious injury.
The result? Kashiwagi said he cannot reveal too much, but his December 2020 audition tape got him another invite, this time to participate in the show’s upcoming 13th season. He recently performed the course in Tacoma, Washington, he said, and will find out if his story makes the first episode at 8 p.m. May 31.
Though each course varies, the demanding obstacles challenge in-shape athletes who are younger than Kashiwagi. Courses require moving across suspended, horizonal bars or grabbing onto a series of high ropes to advance to the other side without plunging into the water. Usually there’s a 14-foot, 6-inch “Warped Wall” that can only be conquered in a single bound.
Based on the Japanese TV show “Sasuke,” producers began an American version in December 2009, with a series of regional competitions held throughout the United States culminating in a finale in Las Vegas. The winner gets $1 million.
Kashiwagi, at 5-foot-4, sporting a compact, muscular body and a pony tail, got down to 140 pounds by doing pull-ups at Day Creek Park in Rancho Cucamonga, lifting weights in his garage and going on runs and yes, bike rides, six days a week.
He reached 90% recovery following his 2018 injury, with minor memory glitches still an issue.
“When I was on deck, I had this surreal feeling,” he recalled in a recent interview. “I couldn’t believe that 2 ½ years ago I almost died. And now I’m going to crush this thing.”
His performance on the ANW course signaled the beginning of his post-accident life, he said. One that is dedicated to his family, namely his wife, Kristine Kernc, his son, Kaisei, 8, and daughter, Kaya, 7. His kids often play on the monkey bars with him at the park and go surfing with him.
“He takes a lot of pleasure in family activities,” said Kernc. “Like being with the kids, taking them to the park. And they really enjoy it. They are climbing trees and doing the hardest things at the playground.”
Road to recovery
Kashiwagi called himself “arrogant” for riding his bicycle to work without wearing a helmet. He had done it for 11 years without incident but after the accident, he now always wears a helmet to protect his head.
“My doctor told me if you had been wearing a helmet you might have walked away from that accident,” he said. “Instead, I ended up almost dying.”
On Oct. 9, 2018, while traveling 22 mph on his bicycle, a car he did not see hit him at the corner of Victoria Park Lane and Kenyon Way. Luckily, the driver stopped and called an ambulance. He spent three days at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton and six days at Kaiser Hospital’s ICU in Fontana. When the bleeding in his brain stopped, he was sent to Casa Colina Hospital and Centers for Healthcare in Pomona for a three-week rehabilitation stint, he said.
“That’s how I got out of the trauma center; they said you’re OK. You’re not going to die,” he said.
His first memory of what happened came nine days after the accident when he saw his wife while he was being transferred to Casa Colina. He remembers a nurse feeding him food with a spoon. “She would put a spoon in my mouth. She would then say ‘You use it.’ I stared at her and that was it.”
The first time he fully realized something had happened to him was when he was in the restroom and noticed an attendant watching to make sure he didn’t fall. “I said to him: ‘Why are you here?’ He said: ‘I watch everything you do.’ ” Kashiwagi asked him to move behind the shower curtain.
As he slowly recovered, his memory was still shaky. “My mother asked me how do I make curry? I couldn’t remember the words for carrots. I said it was those long, orange things you cut up,” he said. Playing card games with his two children boosted his memory skills. He even memorized 200 digits of pi.
After only three weeks in rehab he was able to walk and function independently, he said. Kernc said her husband’s recovery was a combination of the “good care” he received, his dogged determination to get well, plus timely support from both sets of parents who would take him to doctors’ appointments while she was at work.
“Really the biggest blessing is that he is still here with us,” she said.
‘The Science Ninja’
Kashiwagi went back to work after 4 ½ months, despite doctors saying it would take six to nine months. He said the students in his science classes and on the wrestling team he coached played a role in his recovery. They’d often see him sneak away between classes to do pushups or pullups.
“I love teaching,” he said. “I love seeing the students’ faces and hearing their expressions when I teach something new or show them something cool.”
He admits it has not been the same teaching via computer hookup during the pandemic. But even with distance learning amid the pandemic, his students will be rooting for Mr. Kashiwagi, who goes by the alter ego, “The Science Ninja.”
“Yeah, my students love it,” he said. “They love that I am a ninja warrior and that I am trying again.”