CLEMSON, S.C. (WCBD) – A Tiger is about to become a Ninja, and you can watch it happen at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 6, on NBC as Clemson University graduate and Army veteran Verdale Benson, 38, competes to be the next American Ninja Warrior.
American Ninja Warrior is a reality TV show in which competitors tackle a series of seemingly impossible physical challenges, each more difficult than the last, for a grand prize of $1 million. In nine seasons, only two people have completed the course and won. Benson aims to be the third.
Benson, who grew up in Pendleton, graduated from Clemson University in 2003 with a degree in microbiology and, as an Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet, was commissioned into the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant.
Benson served as a medical service officer, earning the coveted combat medic badge. He served in the 25th Infantry Division as a medical platoon leader, medical company executive officer and battalion staff assistant operations officer.
He deployed to Afghanistan in 2004-05 and Iraq in 2006-07, earning a Bronze Star for his service, and left the Army as a captain. He went on to earn a master’s degree in medical science from Emory University and now works as a physician assistant in Concord, California. He met his wife of five years, Mariel Heller-Benson, while he was in medical device sales and she was attending physician assistant school. They have two children, Ayden, 11, from Benson’s first marriage, and 4-month-old Sebastian.
Benson said his experiences at Clemson greatly contributed to his character foundation and leadership style.
A uniformed soldier stands in front of a truck that lies on its side in the middle of a dirt road.
“I would say the diversity of the activities Clemson offered was instrumental in giving me the keys to leading a successful life,” he said. “I had the opportunity to serve in many leadership capacities, and that helped develop my sense of self and how to effectively interact with my peers. These and other activities gave me such a wealth of experience and many fond memories that have contributed to who I am today.”
At Clemson, Benson was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Omicron Delta Kappa, Blue Key, Tiger Marching Band, Basketball Pep Band and the Student Advisory Board for the vice president of Student Affairs.
He said fitness always has been a way of life for him, but even more so after the loss of his father.
“I was always athletic while growing up and joining the military definitely helped reinforce that as an early adult,” he said. “My dedication towards fitness later in life was reinforced by the death of my father. He was afflicted by the common metabolic diseases of diabetes and hypertension, which eventually led to kidney failure.
“I grew up seeing my father as a very physically strong individual and seeing him in that weakened state lit a spark in me to do whatever possible not to go down that path,” he said. “I have two young sons and simply want to be in their lives as long and productive as possible.”
He applied for American Ninja Warrior in December, mostly to challenge himself, and was shocked when he received a call from the producers in early February telling him he’d made the cut.
Benson wants people to know that anyone can be a ninja warrior if they really want it.
“I want people to emotionally own that they too can attain a goal like participating on ANW or simply meeting a personal goal like getting healthy or finishing your education,” he said. “My journey took a lot of time to develop and it was completed with a lot of small steps that eventually compounded into a reality where I became a strong competitor on one of the toughest obstacle course competitions in the world. We all are faced with obstacles in life that we have to navigate over or around. Navigating a ninja course is simply a metaphor for the daily struggle and challenges we are all faced with.”
Benson trains at least five days a week at a gym that caters specifically to people who want to be American Ninja Warrior contestants, alternating between heavy weightlifting for strength, calisthenics for body control, rock climbing for grip endurance, cardio and obstacle training.
“Having the dedication to prepare yourself or train mentally and physically for whatever obstacles you might encounter is the key to success to whatever aspect of life you want to focus on,” Benson said. “The principle is the same for conquering life and the ANW stage: Do something every day to make yourself better and eventually you will be. It’s guaranteed.”