By: Steve Sampsell - Director of College Relations, College of Communications
Sometimes one Penn Stater helps another other without even knowing, and sometimes that leads to an exciting opportunity.
It certainly did for Jen Burdis.
A former varsity women's volleyball player who teaches fourth grade in Carlsbad, Calif., Burdis was home in Orwigsburg, Pa., last November, completing a workout in a local gym, when someone asked her about the focus of her training regime.
"It got me thinking I should work out with a goal in mind," Burdis said. "I didn't know it at the time but that guy was Matt Stankiewitch. With very similar backgrounds -- growing up in the same town, attending the same high school, being student-athletes at Penn State -- we became friends. The next day he took me through a workout, and the day after that I took him through a workout."
Stankiewitch was the center for the Penn State football team from 2008 to 2012. He's now in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Burdis played at Penn State from 1994 to 1998. The two of them even started a book club when Stankiewitch gave Burdis a copy of "The Alchemist."
"I read the book and thought a little bit about my personal journey," Burdis said. "He mentioned the show `American Ninja Warrior' but I didn't think much about."
Still, after Stankiewitch's nudge, watching the show with her boyfriend in California and some encouragement from her former women's volleyball teammates during a trip to campus, Burdis decided to submit an audition tape for the obstacle course competition show that airs Monday nights on NBC.
"A few things happened. I watched a few episodes with my boyfriend and I liked the show," Burdis said. "Then I came back for the women's volleyball reunion. It was there that Teri Wroblewski Schall said, `Bird, you play volleyball like a ninja. I think you should be a ninja warrior. My boys love that show.' I went back to California and then applied."
Burdis had never before auditioned for a television show (although she did once write a letter to Dr. Dre that Ed Lover of "Yo MTV Raps" read on the air), but she put together an audition tape about herself that noted her athletic experiences and even her teaching, with help of a few of her students.
She remains active with activities like beach volleyball, boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, biking, rock climbing and yoga. From that background she began a slightly more rigorous training regime, while trying not to over-train. "I pulled a hip flexor playing volleyball in a charity event for Huntington's Disease a couple of weeks before filming the show," she said. "That was the first challenge."
Burdis competed in the Venice Beach qualifier for the show that airs from May 26 to Sept. 15. This season marks its sixth on the air.
Competitors include men and women from all walks of life, including current and former members of the military, doctors, firemen, school teachers and even a few Olympic gold medalists. They're all competing for an eventual $500,000 grand prize.
When Burdis was selected for "American Ninja Warrior," her students were some of the first to know. She told them after she received the call from Hollywood confirming her spot on the show.
They've been part of a support system that also includes many Penn Staters.
"Former men's basketball player Brian Allen told me `those obstacles are no joke,' and he's right," Burdis said. "The obstacles were some of the most physically demanding things I've done. I was sore from running the course and I train daily. You need a strategy for attacking the course and a smorgasbord of skills -- speed, power, agility, balance, flexibility and mental toughness."
She credits her Penn State experience for providing those skills, which she believes translate well to athletic competitions as well as her fourth-grade classroom. She earned Academic All-Big Ten honors every semester while completing her bachelor's degree in elementary education. On the court, she was a defensive specialist whose job it was to get digs and provide a spark of energy to the team.
"I am so grateful to coach Russ Rose for instilling the core values of what it takes to be successful in whatever you choose to do. There is no easy way to achieve success. It takes continued effort, never letting-up, and always being open to learning new things," Burdis said. "I can easily relate to the fourth graders. I'm a life-long learner, who strives to be a role model, and inspire greatness on a bigger level."
And, completing a wide Penn State circle of influence, Burdis, who returns to campus every year for things such as the Central Pa. Festival of the Arts or team reunions, was the fifth-grade teacher for Lacey Fuller, a senior defensive specialist for the women's volleyball team.
With the show having ignited her competitive fire, Burdis has already discovered a way to get her adrenaline and competitive rush. She found a training center in Southern California that provides a myriad of athletic challenges.
"It's pretty much an adult playground," Burdis said. "And it's great!"