Nearly two years ago, Jason Bergstrom’s mother-in-law moved in with his family so his wife, Kathy, and their kids could help care for her.
“They’d watch TV with grandma and schedule her care around ‘Cupcake Wars,’ ‘Say Yes to the Dress,’” he said. “Then they got into ‘American Ninja Warrior.’”
Each episode of the NBC reality show features different competitors tackling a challenging obstacle course.
Kathy suggested that her husband train for the show and build a similar obstacle course over the pool in their Seminole backyard.
“At first, I thought she was crazy,” he said. “I’m not going to do that. No way.”
But he and his son, Caleb, now 18, decided it could be a fun project. They built the first piece in April 2016. Today, there are dozens of obstacles on the course, all built by hand.
Bergstrom began offering workout sessions for adults on Saturday mornings. Eventually, these adults began bringing their children with them, and he needed to come up with something to keep them busy. So he created a few obstacle course pieces especially for them.
“I built them a seesaw,” he said. “I took some old latticework and put a 2’ x 6’ board on the bottom of it, attached some PVC pipes and told them to avoid the lasers.”
But often the kids – mostly under 10 years old – did the burpees and pull-ups alongside their parents.
“They’d give these exercises a shot and they’d do ok,” Bergstrom said.
Last fall, he decided to organize a kids’ competition, thinking a handful of his regulars might want to compete. He created an event on Facebook and watched the RSVP list grow.
“It absolutely exploded,” he said. “That’s when we realized it’s bigger than our backyard.”
With the competition days away, he knew he needed a new location. Adoration Church in Seminole allowed him to use their property, and even set up bounce houses and other activities for the day. About 80 children signed up to compete that day, he said.
Since then, he’s focused his training workshops solely on children. They train Tuesday and Thursday afternoons using his backyard obstacle course. He also sets up obstacles in his side yard.
“They love it,” he said. “Kids are going to get exercise from play if you give them the right outlet. They’ll sit and play video games all day if you let them. But if you give them a thing to just climb and run and play on, they’re going to get plenty of exercise.”
American Ninja Warrior
While focusing on his burgeoning career as a trainer, Bergstrom never forgot his goal of competing on “American Ninja Warrior.”
He applied in November 2016. The show’s producers called him in March, and in April, he headed to Daytona to film his obstacle course run.
“It was fabulous,” he said. “The ninja community is so encouraging and so supportive of each other.”
He brought friends, family and students to cheer him on during his 4 a.m. run. But the majority of those watching from the stands were strangers.
“But every step you hit, they just go nuts,” he said.
Bergstrom found a groove early on during his run, but eventually fell while attempting to cross the broken bridge.
“I was halfway through and thought, ok, this isn’t so bad,” he said. “Then all of a sudden I hit the platform and hit the water and was like, what happened?”
A family man
The show also shared a segment on Bergstrom’s personal story.
He and his wife are parents to nine children, five of whom are adopted.
“About nine years ago, my wife told me, ‘I feel like God wants us to adopt kids,’” he said. “We had so much going on that I said no. I was just trying to keep the plates spinning.”
But he prayed about the possibility and had a change of heart.
“God told me, ‘You’re part of my family and I sent my son to die so you can be part of my family, so you can bring some kids into your family,’” he said.
He and his wife, living in Texas at the time, became licensed foster parents and quickly welcomed Liya, now 20, into their home.
Not long after this, their oldest son, David, now 25, showed up on their doorstep.
“He had a guitar and an amp and a sack of clothes, and said, ‘I didn’t know where else to go. I’m tired of getting beat up,’” Bergstrom said.
The couple didn’t know David well, but he and his two younger siblings, Danny, 23, and Suzie, 22, attended a weekly Wednesday Bible study for teenagers that they hosted in their home.
“I knew who he was, but I didn’t know him that well,” Bergstrom said. “I had no idea they were getting beat up or that anything was going on at home.”
They brought David to child protective services and adopted him. Seven months later, after being approached by their caseworkers, his siblings became part of their family as well.
But they weren’t done adopting at this point. Just weeks later, Danny told them that he had a friend from school who needed a place to live. This is how Kun, now, 25, joined the family.
This was in addition to their other children Caleb; Brittani, 27; Kiahley, 22; and Caitlyn, 20.
“We’re so blessed as a family,” Bergstrom said.
Bergstrom owned a handyman business for years. But with the success of his backyard ninja gym, he’s decided to open one in a commercial space.
The past few months, he and his family have been busy building out 12,000 square feet – that’s 10 times the space he works with now - at 8100 Park Blvd. in Pinellas Park to create Jungle Gym. He expects it to open by the end of the year.
One-third of the space will be designated for kids only. It will be jungle themed, with a volcano and a balance obstacle where they have to stay off the “lava” and rope swing “vines.”
“We’re going to close the kids off so they have their own noise, their own chaos, they’re own fun, so they don’t interfere with the adults and vice versa,” Bergstrom said. “Kids need to be kids.”
For adults, in addition to ninja training, there will be weight lifting, parkour and rock climbing.
Some of the elements from his backyard will make it into the gym. But most of it will be built new, from scratch.
“Some of it is not the quality we want for the gym,” he said.
His regular students are excited for Jungle Gym to open its doors.
Asa Reynolds, 9, of St. Petersburg said he prefers this type of exercise to team sports. He’s trained with Bergstrom since February.
“Ever since I was little, I’d climb on anything I could find,” he said. “The obstacles are exciting. It’s kind of like a quiz trying to figure it out. It’s helped me become stronger and learn new things.”
He introduced his friend Koen Williams, 12, of Clearwater to Bergstrom. Koen began training with him six weeks ago and is already planning his first competition in Palmetto this fall.
“For a while, I’ve loved the show ‘American Ninja Warrior,’” he said. “I listened to what Asa said about [training with Bergstrom] and that’s kind of how I feel whenever I see an obstacle I could potentially do, even a tree. There’s a tree in my backyard and I’m always trying new things on it.”
Bergstrom’s son, Caleb, though now a young adult, was the same way as a child, he said.
“As a kid I’d climb trees and jump on walls and stuff like that,” he said.
So he was intrigued when his father began building the obstacle course in their yard and immediately got involved.
Now he does ninja training twice a week, as well as rock climbing and interval, leg and chest training. He participates in ninja competitions around the country, and recently came in fifth in a national tournament. He’s also helping his father build the new gym.
The experience has given him a new outlook on life, he added.
“It gives you a new perspective,” he said. “You don’t look at a wall and think, oh, I can’t make it over that. Now it’s just a new thing I can play on. You feel like you can do anything.”