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At 61, with a new hip, Army veteran seeks a return to TV’s ‘American Ninja Warrior’

American Ninja Warrior city finals course Indianapolis 2016 (Dustin Batt/WikiCommons)

Brian Magerkurth does handstands on playground equipment. He hangs off the sides of outdoor stairways, hoisting himself up the steps hand by hand.

Once, when passing by a hotel with an awning over the entrance, he could not help noticing its sturdy crossbars. Time for a quick upper-body workout!

“He no more could stop running, jumping, hopping than he could stop breathing,” said his wife, Valarie.

All this gives the retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, at age 61, a body that would fill out a superhero costume.

[Here’s Magerkurth’s American Ninja Warrior audition video from 2017]

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But earlier this year, the Villanova resident discovered one thing that could stop him: an arthritic right hip. At masters track and field events, he no longer could sprint down the runway in his beloved pole vault, a demanding event in which he had been among the world’s best for his age. And he knew the pain would jeopardize his quest to requalify for NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, the extreme test of strength and agility in which he competed once before, in 2015.

He first tried stretching, to no avail. Then cortisone shots. With X-rays showing that the cartilage in the joint had worn away to leave bone on agonizing bone, he finally decided on surgery.

On Sept. 23, Magerkurth got a hip replacement at Rothman Orthopaedic Institute in Bensalem. He was a bit worried that he might never get back to peak form.

His wife, on the other hand, worried he would try to do it too quickly.

The second-floor gym in the Magerkurths’ house has a treadmill and a fancy, zero-impact contraption that resembles an elliptical trainer, but is said to allow the user to run with a fuller range of motion.

Yet for the most part, the exercise space is low-tech. Ropes and rings hang from the ceiling beams. A few free weights, an exercise ball, and stretchy resistance bands are arrayed neatly on one side.

Magerkurth has always hit them hard, six days a week, with maybe a vigorous bike ride on day seven. It’s not the equipment, he said, but how you use it — a principle he espoused when he was a professor of exercise physiology at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Now a senior executive in the life sciences industry, he maintains his passion for low-tech, hardcore exercise, rising at 4:45 a.m. every day.

“Give me a chair, a broomstick, and a road, and I’ll give you a workout,” he says.

Upon returning home from the surgery, Magerkurth was eager to get back to it.

Like most patients, he started walking with a walker hours after surgery, and soon graduated to a cane. Unlike most patients, who use a walker or cane for at least a month, he was done after eight days.

Next he started resistance training, pleased to find he had a good range of motion in the repaired hip. And there was plenty of his usual punishing upper-body exercises — pullups, pushups, rope climbs, and rings.

Then at four weeks post-surgery came the no-no: a bit of light running. At a follow-up visit to Rothman, Magerkurth proudly played a video of himself in motion for Matt Austin, the surgeon who had implanted the new hip.

“Stop that!” Austin ordered.

He said Magerkurth’s bones had not yet had a chance to grow into the metal implant, so even the slightest bit of jogging could be disastrous. The implant’s pointy, titanium stem, in particular, was a trouble spot, Austin warned. So early in his healing, it could act “like a log-splitter,” cracking the thigh bone.

Chastened, Magerkurth dialed it back. But he plowed on.

Balance exercises. Flexibility drills. Simulated running on the zero-impact trainer.

At 12 weeks after surgery, in mid-December, Magerkurth said he felt close to normal. After a follow-up X-ray, Austin gave him the green light to start running again.

The surgeon, who performs more than 300 hip-replacement surgeries a year, said Magerkurth’s superb conditioning had helped him recover in half the time of the typical patient. He walked without a limp four weeks after surgery instead of the typical eight. His sturdy bones had accepted the titanium joint without issue, and his lean muscles readily regained their power and flexibility.

“The average person can’t expect to get a hip replacement and have a recovery like Brian, because Brian’s not an average person,” Austin said. “Brian needed a little counseling to slow him down. I don’t have to have that conversation with most patients.”

Valarie Magerkurth said she was not surprised to see her husband bounce back.

“I knew he would,” she said. “This is the guy who ran on a broken ankle for six months.”

“It was a slight fracture,” her husband protested, in mild exasperation. (It happened with a hard slide into third base during a softball game at West Point, a few years back.)

Now comes more training, and the wait to see if he is accepted for Ninja Warrior in the spring.

The show accepts just a few hundred contestants out of many thousands of applicants, inviting them to one of five regional contests for the chance to advance to the finals in Las Vegas. The organizers are looking for people who can do the stunts on the obstacle course, such as dangling from outlandish overhangs, scampering up curved walls, and hurtling themselves across watery voids. And because the contest is made for television, the show runners also are looking for people with a good story.

Magerkurth thinks he meets both requirements. There have been a few contestants older than he is, but they generally have not made it through many of the obstacles. Magerkurth is a triple threat, with his age, his skill, and his new bionic part.

“I’m the old guy,” he said. “I’m over 60, and I can still do all this stuff. Plus I have a story this year, which is my hip replacement.”

Austin said the hip should be good to go. With older models of hip implants, physicians used to caution patients against heavy-duty running, as the device could wear out faster. But the newest plastics seem to last for decades with no issues, the surgeon said.

“With a hip replacement, you can pretty much do anything your body will let you do,” Austin said. “If your body lets you do it, then I’m fine with that.”

But what about the rest of Magerkurth’s well conditioned, though indisputably aging, frame? Is it smart for a 61-year-old to do one-armed handstands, as Magerkurth does, or to launch himself skyward in the pole vault?

“The important thing for Brian is that this is what brings him joy,” Austin said. “He’s willing to risk injury to do the things that bring him pleasure in life. I couldn’t take that away from someone.”

So in March, Magerkurth plans to enter the pole vault at the national indoor masters track and field competition, in Baton Rouge, La., where he thinks a jump in the mid-11-foot range will give him a good shot at the podium.

And later in the spring, if all goes well, he could be back on TV as a “ninja” — a package of pure Pennsylvania muscle, except for a bit of ceramic and titanium on his right side.

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© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer