In his senior year at Moose Lake-Willow River High School, David Moonen was part of the Rebels’ ninth consecutive Minnesota Class AA state football tournament berth. While they ultimately fell to a highly physical Holdingford High School in the quarterfinals in 2014 — “they really controlled the game,” coach Dave Louzek said at the time — it was the Rebels’ running back who scored the team’s two touchdowns.
But once he moved on to Winona State University, Moonen’s athletic focus shifted.
“I’ve always been a gym rat,” he said. But the football style of weightlifting he had previously favored no longer suited him. “In college, there was no reason to hang on to that.”
His new direction: ninja warrior-style training.
Moonen, 22, will likely get at least a blip of screen time on Monday’s episode of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” a show that pits athletes in a tournament-style showdown on an obstacle course. The episode, with footage of a regional event in Tacoma, Wash., airs at 7 p.m. on KBJR-TV. There is a viewing party at Doc’s Bar and Grill in Sturgeon Lake.
Moonen isn't allowed to say how he fared or how much of his run will be featured on the show. Episodes typically show athletes with unique backstories or style, or noteworthy trips through the course. Some simply advance to the next round with a brief mention or shot of the leaderboard and crop up again later in the season.
Megan Rowe, a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota Duluth, is also expected to be featured on the episode, according to a Facebook event listing in her hometown of Rochester, Minn.
Part of Moonen’s interest in the sport came from his father, Mike Moonen, who he described as capable of athletic feats like a human flagpole.
“I was doing bench press,” David Moonen said, “I’d come home and he would show me a superman pushup.”
When Mike Moonen was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma about two years ago, David Moonen adapted his father’s style of athleticism as a form of connection. He’s 5-feet, 7-inches tall and weighs about 150 pounds, he said. The ninja warrior style clicked within a month.
“In football I was always trying to be bulky and to be an athlete I wasn’t built to be,” he said.
This was how Mike Moonen grew up in Elk River, Minn., he said. His sports were wrestling and cross-country skiing, but there wasn’t a lot of equipment for training. He was more likely to do a 2-minute pull up than 100 of them, he said and added: “I’ve never lifted weights in my life.”
David Moonen is the youngest of four children and they’re all athletic, his dad said. When Mike Moonen told people that his son was going to be on the show, he was reminded of the time young David spent in high in trees and climbing things while his older sisters were playing softball.
“Here’s my perspective: As long as they’re having fun and safe, I don’t interfere,” Mike Moonen said. “Whatever they enjoyed. And he’s very focused when he does something.”
Moonen's high school football coach said this athletic turn is no surprise. He and the other coaches had long predicted "American Ninja Warrior" for Moonen.
Even as a freshman, he was a goal-post climber — not just to the crossbar, but to the tip of the uprights where he would put helmets, according to Louzek.
"David Moonen was the only person who could put them up there and the only person who could bring it down," Louzek said.
Moonen isn’t as hardcore about the sport as some of the other competitors from this region. Dalton Knapp, a UMD alum, whose brother Drew Knapp also competes, has been on the scene since 2017 and coached Rowe, according to a write-up on the university’s website. While Moonen was in Winona, Minn., he was able to connect with Roo Yori, a competitor from nearby Rochester.
“I pretty much just wing it,” he said.
Members of Moonen’s family traveled to Washington for the competition.
Moonen is in the thick of a lot right now. He just graduated from Winona State. He missed walking because of the ninja warrior event and he also had to reschedule his U.S. Army commissioning event. He also has a new business: Merrimack Canoes.
For this application, he opted for whimsy. He adopted a thick Minnesota accent for his audition video and instead of regular ninja warrior obstacles, he did handstands on canoes.
“I’m the Minnesota Ninja now,” he said. “I don’t know how much more Minnesotan you can get.”
- What: "American Ninja Warrior"
- When: 7 p.m. Monday
- Where: NBC-TV; KBJR-TV
- Who to look for: David Moonen, former Moose Lake-Willow River football player; Megan Rowe, UMD grad