AHA Advocate Molly Hemphill trains for American Ninja Warrior

Surviving a heart defect to become an 'American Ninja Warrior'

Climbing was once Molly Hemphill Burdick’s great adversary. 

Her staircase represented a vast hurdle before her. Her body was weak and debilitated from the effects of a congenital heart defect. She was dealing with a pulmonary valve defect, an enlarged heart, elevated heart rate, and a cancerous thyroid.

But while the stairs were physically daunting, Molly wouldn’t allow them to dampen her mental resolve.

She climbed up and down them for two years, building her strength. From there she moved to the school track, which then morphed into boulders and mountains. 

She found that climbing, which once sapped her strength, was sustaining her ambition – to take on the rugged obstacle course of NBC’s television show, American Ninja Warrior.

“If I can accomplish this improbable dream, then anything is possible,” said Molly, 33, of Portland, Oregon.

Molly first became inspired to attempt American Ninja Warrior after her son Gerrick, now 10, told her that she needed to try. Inspired, she upped her workouts and got into the best shape of her life. In 2017, she prepared an audition tape and sent it to the network. 

She got no response.

“If I can accomplish this improbable dream, then anything is possible."
Molly Hemphill climbing
Molly Hemphill climbing

Molly Hemphill said climbing saved her life and helped her find peace with herself. (Photo by Dave Burdick)

“This meant my audition tape just wasn’t good enough. It really put a fire in me to become stronger and prove to the casting team that a heart patient is just as strong and capable as someone with a ‘normal’ heart,” she said.

She started working harder and longer and pushed herself to go further in her training. She made another audition tape of her progress and sent that in 2018.

And this time, she got the call. She was told she was going to be an American Ninja Warrior.

She intensified her training. Then, earlier this year at her local gym, she injured her shoulder and bicep. It was a slight tear to the labrum in her shoulder and her biceps tendon. 

Soon after, she tore all the way through both while rock climbing indoors.

“I chased my dream so hard that I needed shoulder surgery the same week that I was supposed to be in the Los Angeles qualifier for American Ninja Warrior,” Molly said. “I worked so hard over the last two years to see this dream come to fruition and it fell through my fingers.”

She tried to take comfort in the fact that her shoulder injury made her feel like a “real athlete.” 

“I joked around many times that it’s great news when heart patients have surgery for something other than our hearts,” she said.

But American Ninja Warrior’s rugged obstacle course, which few can conquer, remains a dream unfulfilled for Molly. 

“After this injury, and months of physical therapy, I almost decided to not audition again. I tried telling myself that I fulfilled my promise to myself and the heart community by just getting the call. That was enough, right?” she asked.

It wasn’t enough for Molly.

She gave herself some weeks to heal, then she started climbing again with one arm. She’s now working out seven days a week, one to two hours at a time. She has been doing twice-a-week physical therapy before climbing simpler routes to warm up her body. 

“I pretty much just attack every climbing route I can find at my local gym. I fall over and over and over again from varying heights,” said Molly, who regularly works out until the calluses rip off her hands and the blood drips down her forearms.

She’s started appearing in competitions again and plans to submit another audition tape in 2019. She’s prepared for the qualifying round in Los Angeles in March.

“I really put 100 percent of my heart into this sport because if I give up in the gym and walk away, then my message dies,” she said. “I am constantly pushing the boundaries of what was expected by my medical team to find out what my limits truly are.”

Her example has inspired fans of all ages. 

“I am constantly pushing the boundaries of what was expected by my medical team to find out what my limits truly are.”

Spencer Butte in Eugene, Oregon

Nine-year-old Aaron Silva, who was born with pulmonary vein stenosis and has had four heart surgeries, also goes to the gym in his hometown of Harlingen, Texas, to follow Molly’s example.

“Seeing someone with a special heart perform incredible acts and overcoming obstacles has helped with his confidence and has been a great example. His size doesn’t matter and having a special heart cannot stop him,” said Aaron’s mother Heather Silva, who said she wanted to thank Molly for all she does “for kids affected by congenital heart disease.”

While Molly hasn’t been defeated by boundaries, she has encountered hurdles. 

For instance, she’s found that if she runs in the heat, her heart rate will increase to more than 196 beats per minute and is extremely difficult to slow down.

“I also get dehydrated easily and my blood sugar will plummet if I’m not fueling my body the right way,” she said. “There are days when breathing is hard, or my heart rate is higher than usual, and I get scared.”

When it happens, she heads to the climbing gym. 

“I close my eyes, touch those plastic rocks with my hands, and remember that this sport saved my life by making me as strong as I can be. Somehow, I relax and just let go,” she said.

She hopes that her climbing will show heart patients that there are ways to live a life without limits. 

“My goal in this movement, and sharing my story, is to see a world full of heart warriors climbing their mountains,” she said. “You get to determine your boundaries. Dream beyond anything imaginable and chase it.”

Congenital Heart Disease, Exercise, Heart failure, Womens Health, Survivor Stories, Heart Disease

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Molly Hemphill Burdick, a congenital heart disease survivor and upcoming contestant on the television show “American Ninja Warrior,” inspires everyone to live life without limits. Reach past your own limits -- whatever they may be -- in this soft and moisture-wicking athletic tank that was created especially for her.

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