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'Everyone should be a ninja of their life'

Helping make obstacles for TV ninjas, a mom shows girls how to defy life’s tests

Tami Jeffay uses her athletic skills to test out courses for a popular TV show, and her life’s experiences to teach her small charges how to vault any challenge thrown their way

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Acro Ninja athlete Tami Jeffay and her team of Mighty Girls, in August 2020. (Courtesy Tami Jeffay)
Acro Ninja athlete Tami Jeffay and her team of Mighty Girls, in August 2020. (Courtesy Tami Jeffay)

Tami Jeffay has flipped somersaults inside empty pools, performed the infamously difficult core exercise called an L-sit upon the tines of a tractor’s rake, and routinely vaults herself off the sides of ramps at local skate parks.

It’s all in a day’s work for the 39-year-old Acro Ninja trainer, a British-born high school English teacher and married mother of four who also happens to be an official tester for the “Ninja Israel” reality show. (Her husband, Nathan Jeffay, is the Times of Israel health and science correspondent.)

The program, wrapping up its third season with a final episode screening on Saturday night, tests locals on feats of strength and agility as they race their way across seemingly impassible obstacle courses, suspended high above a pool that almost all contestants eventually fall into.

But before the first contestant can run down the ramp onto the first jump, some 45 testers go over the six to seven courses featured over the season, including Jeffay, one of the few women in the group. The testers figure out whether a jump should be done with two hands or one, where to place a trampoline on a course, how far a jump should be made in order to allow for a certain percentage of success, and the like.

The Israeli version, produced by Keshet at the Haifa port, is spun off of the wildly popular US reality show “American Ninja Warrior,” which itself is based on the Japanese program “Sasuke.”

A “ninja” course for kids at a hotel, in August 2020. (Courtesy Brown Hotels)

The Ninja programming has introduced kids and adults worldwide to the Japanese-created sport of ninja, which was inspired by the show’s obstacle courses and combines gymnastics and acrobatics.

In Israel, the sport has given birth to its own mutation, Acro Ninja, developed by Aviv Reichman, who runs multiple Acro Ninja centers around northern Israel, and has trained many of the Ninja Israel contestants.

Acro Ninja (not to be confused with Acro Yoga, developed by a former US Ninja contestant and thus sometimes also called Acro Ninja) combines ninja and parkour, a French sport involving traversing urban obstacles with acrobatics at high speeds which is seen as the forerunner of ninja.

“It’s a bit like a spinoff of regular ninja,” said Jeffay, who practices Acro Ninja and is coached by Reichman. “It’s parkour and acrobatics fused together.”

Competing in the wildly popular TV show isn’t a goal for Jeffay. But she reveled in being part of the team of athletic testers over the summer, working behind the scenes and testing her own strength and agility.

Her dream, however, is the Mighty Pack, a summer camp she created over the last two summers for little girls, teaching them empowerment through female role models, team sports and learning what’s under the hood of a car.

“I don’t need to justify doing crazy tricks, but when it empowers other people, then it feels like you’re also giving and helping other people achieve their goals as well,” said Jeffay. “Especially little girls who I feel need a boost.”

Acro Ninja and Parkour enthusiast Tami Jeffay (Courtesy Tami Jeffay)

It’s an important distinction for Jeffay; she doesn’t necessarily want her young campers to become ninja athletes, rather, she wants them to feel powerful and capable.

Those goals work for Jeffay, a compact, energetic woman wearing silvery gym shorts and glittery eye makeup for a training session on a recent afternoon.

Jeffay catapulted off of walls, suspended herself from bars before somersaulting over them and worked on flips multiple times, celebrating when she finally mastered it.

When Jeffay was asked to join the “Ninja Israel” testing team, it was her then-10-year-old daughter, a competitive gymnast, who offered the best advice, telling her that it wasn’t the prizes that made it worth it, but the sense of accomplishment in successfully completing the training and tricks.

“People want to pay me to go and play and be a ninja athlete?” said Jeffay. “Sure!”

Jeffay’s lithe, muscular body has become mostly inured to the challenges of her sport. When she recently dislocated her elbow and was told it would be another six months before she could train again, Jeffay dove into professional and home physiotherapies, and was back on the bars five weeks later.

She appreciates having the tight abdominal muscles that come from the high-energy, intensive workout, but she does it for the internal strength and discipline that it offers in her own life.

“I don’t think everyone should be a ninja athlete, but I believe everyone should be a ninja of their life,” said Jeffay. “Hold yourself up high and say, ‘Yes, I can, throw those doors open, be present.'”

Tami Jeffay and her oldest daughter, a competitive gymnast (Courtesy Tami Jeffay)

For Jeffay, the path to parkour and Acro Ninja came after 12 years of grueling fertility and IVF treatments as well as miscarriages. She and her husband have three biological children and are fostering their 4-year-old, who has been part of their family since she was 3 weeks old.

About five years ago, Jeffay decided she wanted her body back. Always an athlete, she launched herself into running and getting back into shape, which happened quickly.

Looking for more of a challenge, Jeffay soon discovered Acro Ninja at the gym, and found that her small, muscular body easily adjusted to the jumping and bouncing that’s a big part of these obstacle course-based sports.

“The more jumps and the more things I managed to do, the more feminine I felt, I felt I was taking my body back,” said Jeffay. “You feel that you can do things. If you feel empowered, there’s a femininity in that.”

Even better, though, were the reactions from friends near and far. As Jeffay posted her antics on social media, she found that her friends were more empowered in their own escapades, whether baking outrageous cakes or pursuing other professional dreams.

Tami Jeffay. (Courtesy Danielle Mehler)

People began asking Jeffay what she could teach their daughters from the Acro Ninja discipline, and she formulated her Mighty Pack program, to help little girls realize the extent of their powers and abilities.

For Jeffay, it was a way to combine her worlds.

She has developed the summer day camp program for younger girls, ages 4 to 7. Next year she hopes to run a sleep-away version for older girls.

Try to spot the Mighty Girls in your child’s kindergarten or classroom. They are mini superheroes, who stand out because they are fearless, resourceful and kind. They have learnt to fight and stand up for what they believe in. I can only hope your child is lucky enough to have one for a friend. Every girl can be mighty… come and join the revolution next summer #themightypack

Posted by Tami Jeffay on Monday, August 31, 2020

As for her practice of Acro Ninja and parkour, Jeffay trains around the demands of work and her kids, ages 13, 11, 6 and nearly 4, whose needs have been even more intense during the last 10 months of the pandemic. She values that one hour a day of training when she’s not accountable to anyone else, even if sticking to the schedule is yet another obstacle to overcome.

“This discipline makes me feel invincible,” she said. “Not everything is always all right. But you make it work for you.”

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