It began with a simple urging from her future husband.
Arianne Missimer had played basketball at St. Mark’s High, studied dietetics and fitness at the University of Delaware and earned a doctorate in physical therapy at Neumann University.
Along the way, she’d become an expert in physical conditioning, adept at helping others reach optimum levels of fitness through various forms of movement. She was 22 when she opened her own fitness center.
Missimer also never met an exercise she couldn’t conquer herself, which made her the ideal prospect for the TV show “American Ninja Warrior,” in which competitors race across difficult man-made obstacle courses.
“He just knew I was super dedicated and active and all those crazy things,’ ” Missimer said of John Shuma, whom she married June 19, 2015.
She was willing to put her 5-foot-6, 126-pound physique to the test.
“It’s not about being big and strong,” Shuma said of American Ninja Warrior. “It’s about determination.”
Never short on resolve, Missimer, 35, craves a physical challenge. She just never expected cancer to be bare its potentially deadly fangs, adding to the danger and demands.
But when it did, that was the perfect time to launch an American Ninja Warrior bid.
When the liposarcoma appeared in the form of a large tumor in Missimer’s right thigh, it was already at a dangerous Stage 3. Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery followed and on Dec. 3 of last year, after her last draining session of chemo, Missimer submitted the video and eight-page application to appear on American Ninja Warrior. The show is in its eighth season.
“I’m a very goal-oriented person, internally driven,” said Missimer, who is clinical director at Kinetic Physical Therapy & Human Performance Center in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “Once I made the decision, it was ‘I got this. I’m going to beat cancer and I’m going to be a Ninja.’ ’’
Missimer learned May 9 she’d been accepted for the Philadelphia regional. On May 26-27, she spent an entire night at Port Richmond on the Philadelphia riverfront, where 130 vied to advance to the finals in Las Vegas by running across slanted steps, swinging on monkey bars, climbing pegged poles and attempting to summit slanted walls.
The Philadelphia event airs Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on the Esquire Network.
Missimer is not permitted to reveal how she did – and she doesn’t know if she’ll even be seen in the telecast – but she’s already decided her Ninja days are not over.
“I definitely overcame cancer,” said Missimer, who now shows no sign of the disease but must get regular checkups, “but to be there was kind of a whole other level of personal satisfaction and perseverance like, ‘You know what? I can do anything.’ That’s kind of how I felt.’’
Beating the odds
Last July, Missimer walked into the iCore Fitness gym in West Chester, and informed personal trainer Mark Falcone that she was ready to become a Ninja. She was fresh off a dizzying round of cancer treatment.
“He said, ‘OK, I’ll see you Tuesday,’ ” said Missimer, who had operated her own facility, CORE Fitness, in Wilmington from 2003-15.
ICore Fitness is brimming with Ninja-type equipment – trampolines, rope swings, step courses, curved climbing walls. It’s ideal for athletes with unique training requirements, and has attracted more than two dozen Ninja candidates, Falcone said.
“I said to her ‘Let’s start right now,’ ” Falcone said. “Being a physical therapist, and I knew she’d done a lot of strength-related stuff in the past and had been in a physique competition, someone like that is dedicated and involved already.
“Even so, the Ninja training is a completely different type of workout, so she came in at the bottom but progressed very quickly. Traditional weight lifting and building muscle actually defeats this type of workout because the heavier you are the tougher it is to hang and swing from things. So it’s more of a core- and strength-related activated.”
To be a Ninja, Missimer needed to be nimble. But she also needed to be healthy.
Less than three months before, on March 28, she’d received the scary diagnosis of liposarcoma, which appears in fat cells in soft tissue and develops into large tumors. Missimer, who had discovered a large lump in her leg, has a five-inch scar on the back of her right thigh where her tumor was removed on Sept. 15. At the time, she was in the midst of her Ninja training, while also getting radiation and chemo.
Liposarcoma is rare and unpredictable, explained Dr. Kristy Weber, the chief of orthopaedic oncology at Penn Medicine who performed Missimer’s surgery. It’s not, Weber said, caused by known environmental reasons, personal habits or hereditary factors. During the surgery, Weber said, surrounding tissue and even muscle had to be removed because of the potential spread of cancer cells.
“It was terrible. I’m not going to [lie] and say it wasn’t,” Missimer said of hearing the diagnosis. “But I just said to myself, ‘I’m going to work.’
For chemo, Missimer had to be hospitalized a week at a time. For radiation sessions, her husband marveled at how Missimer left their home near Coatesville at 5 a.m. for work, then took the train to Philadelphia for her hospital visit, then went to gym and wasn’t home until 8 p.m.
“She just basically said ‘This is not going to limit me’ and she worked her way back remarkably,” Weber said, “which we always encourage but not everybody does it the way she does. She’s an inspiration . . . People get beat down by the chemo mentally and physically. Most people are not up to necessarily even walking down the driveway to get the mail, much less working out.”
An “incredible” experience
Cancer was not a new visitor to Missimer’s family. Brother David, a Dickinson High graduate five years older than Arianne, was just 29 when he died of lung cancer after suffering Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Learning of her daughter’s cancer diagnosis was “devastating,” said her mother Alice Missimer, of Pike Creek.
“It was very scary,” Alice said. “We thought ‘How could this happen again?’ even though it was a very different cancer than my son had. But she didn’t miss a beat, which kept everyone on a higher plane.”
That, Alice added, is in keeping with her daughter’s personality, which she described as perpetually upbeat and “magnetic.”
“I’m so happy she looks so healthy and strong and vibrant,” Alice Missimer said.
By the time the actual Ninja night rolled around in late May, Missimer felt like she was nearly in peak shape, though she wasn’t as strong as she’d hoped to be in her surgically invaded right leg.
Tenderness and swelling were common there, and required some adjustments in training, Falcone said. Missimer warded them off with an ‘I’ll-get-you-later’ smile.
She arrived for Ninja competition at 6 p.m. She did interviews and a lot of waiting, time spent meeting other competitors.
“It was amazing to be there and be a part of it, seeing everything first hand and being with all the other competitors,” she said. “Everyone there has overcome some type of obstacle – some much different than others. Everyone had a story.
“I didn’t compete until 2:30 a.m. But it was fun just hanging out and rooting each other on. We talked about how we trained. It was just really neat to make new relationships with people.’’
Later, she embarked on a competitive course that included the traditional tests, such as the quintuple steps, which slant sideways at 45-degree angles, rope swings and the warp wall, plus a few surprises she wouldn’t reveal.
It was both an “incredible” experience but also “pretty challenging,” she said. Considering how much she adores a good trial, Missimer expects to try again.
“I’m definitely stronger for it,” she said. “Just moving forward, it’s like I have this whole new hobby. I’m always excited to train, but I feel like it’s something new and different and now I really want to give it 110 percent and try harder for next year.’’