Craig Cornish spent the better part of his teenage years as a warrior battling cancer. Now, the world will see him as an American Ninja Warrior when the NBC show airs this summer.
As the Program Director for Follow Our Lead, Cornish is still a new face on the Weatherford College campus. After his bout with the ninja course, that will change and the world will have the chance to see his ninja skills and hear of the long road he journeyed to reach this milestone.
Going into his freshman year of high school in 2003, Cornish had been plagued with random fevers for a year with no concrete explanation. After one particular attack, his doctors ordered a CT scan to check for pneumonia. The results were so much worse. After a multitude of tests and biopsies, Cornish, age 14, was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkins Lymphoma.
His first thought: “Why?”
“Cancer is an old person’s disease, and I have never smoked or done anything of the sort,” Cornish pondered. “Utter confusion swept my family and myself.”
During his cancer battle, Cornish underwent 14 different types of chemotherapy, three months of radiation and two bone marrow transplants. The softball size tumor in the middle of his chest went away, but came back inside his lungs, and he had a stem cell transplant using his own bone marrow. That worked, but only for one short year.
“Later that year I was experiencing an agonizing pain inside my hips, and the cancer had come back,” he said, “inside my bone marrow this time.”
His only treatment option left was to find a bone marrow transplant donor. A ray of hope shown down on Cornish when a near perfect DNA donor match was found in only a few short weeks.
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Cornish went back in for the strongest chemo drug available to prepare for the transplant, but he was allergic to the chemotherapy and it and almost killed him. Luckily the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society was in the process of developing a new drug specifically for his type of cancer that allowed him to go ahead with the transplant. From that time it’s been an uphill battle for Cornish’s body to heal and regain strength.
“While this is without a doubt the true test of endurance in my life, it was only the beginning for me,” he said. “I have always been an active person and, now after all this, I was not about to give up on being active and exercising.”
Cornish returned for a fifth year of high school and was ready to start his life again. That included athletics.
Even though he couldn’t be on the soccer team, he trained with them. At first the other team members were running laps around the field, while Cornish couldn’t make it around once without wanting to pass out.
“I hated that,” he said. “I hated that everything I was doing seemed so insignificant to everyone because some people had no idea what I been through. They could see that I looked just as healthy as everyone else, but I was far from it.
“… I also knew this was the rest of my life. I would never be at the same caliber everyone else was, but I didn’t care. As long as I tried, I now had a new mission in life: to push the survivor’s limits.”
And push, he did.
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Cornish attended Tyler Junior College where his drive to become a stronger athlete landed him a scholarship to manage the soccer team. He also trained with the team along the way.
He continued to push his limits running half marathons, triathlons and a 12-mile obstacle course race, all in the name of cancer survivors and all while working three times as hard as the person next to him.
“To this day, I only have 72 to 74 percent lung capacity,” he said. “During my treatment days it was down in the 60s because of the cancer and scar tissue. All the exercise I have done has led some tissue to regenerate, but I will never be at full capacity like someone else.”
Cornish submitted his story to the American Ninja Warrior producers and waited. After several months, he was invited to participate in a Houston taping of the show. While there he met WC student Brock Riebe who was also selected to try out the ninja course.
Riebe, a 2013 graduate of Weatherford High School, caught the producers’ attention with his one-man band routine of playing the guitar, bass drum and singing at the same time.
“I saw the Japanese version back in the day on G4, when I was 10 years old,” Riebe said. “I thought, ‘I can do that.’ Then they started American Ninja Warrior and I was able to try out.”
He said it was “absolutely” more difficult in real life than it appears on TV.
“Going in, I was injured so I couldn’t train much, but I did build some obstacles in my garage so I could familiarize myself with some of the things they do on the show,” Riebe said.
Once on set, he met Cornish and the two became big supporters of one another.
“With Ninja Warrior there is no head-to-head,” Reibe said. “Everyone is driving each other on. We’re all a team and our enemy is the course.”
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During the taping they met Kacy Catanzaro, an American gymnast who was the first woman to qualify for the American Ninja Warrior finals. At only 4-feet 11-inches, Catanzaro’s height was often an added challenge when facing the Ninja Warrior course. Both Cornish and Riebe were excited to speak with her.
“She is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Cornish said.
“She is also one of the smallest people I’ve ever seen,” Riebe added.
When Cornish shared his story with people they were all taken by surprise, especially since he was doing all of the same things they were.
“The highlight was when I told Kacy and she said, ‘Craig, you’re my hero now.’ I just thought, ‘Man, Kacy said I’m her hero.’ She’s one of the people I’ve looked up to in Ninja Warrior and for her to say that was neat. It was a blast to meet everyone else and hear their stories. That was the best experience for me.”
The Houston show is expected to air on Monday, June 1, and is subject to change. While neither Cornish nor Riebe are guaranteed their attempt at the course will be aired, they encourage all of their supporters to tune in.
And no matter how much they were asked, per their agreement with NBC, neither would reveal how well they did during the Houston taping.
“They call me a cancer warrior and I am happy and honored to live up to that name and continue the fight,” Cornish said. “Now I am going to represent all other cancer survivors and warriors at American Ninja Warrior and show the world exactly what survivors can do. My life wasn’t over when I was diagnosed; my life had only just begun.”
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