Natalie Duran had pulled herself up a rope to a horizontal bar 30 feet above the sands of the Santa Monica beach when she heard voices below.
“You’re the lady on ‘American Ninja Warrior!’” two little girls were calling up to her. “Can you come down? Can we take a picture?”
Descending the rope to greet her admirers — sisters, just 2 and 4 years old — Duran told them, “OK, we can take a picture, but you have to show off your goods.” In this case their biceps, which they proudly flexed alongside their heroine’s for the camera.
Duran is accustomed to running into fans. Sometimes even in Westwood, where she works at UCLA Health as a clinical research assistant, contributing to the development of new treatments for inflammatory bowel disease. A UC Riverside alumna with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, Duran joked, “I was born a doctor in the eyes of my parents,” who moved to California from the Philippines. Her mother, a registered nurse, recently retired after working for 45 years in the procedure treatment unit at UCLA.
“I worked really hard in college,” Duran said. “I know career-wise I would enjoy working in health care for years.”
But right now there’s also the other Natalie Duran. The 5 feet, 3 inches of chiseled muscle competing on NBC’s popular “American Ninja Warrior.” In the show’s Los Angeles qualifiers, which millions watched on June 6, she pitted herself against the show’s punishing, race-against-the-clock course of crazy-hard obstacles.
Obstacles like the ring hang, where Duran jumped and grabbed a metal ring resting against a peg on the top surface of an inclined beam. Then she swung side-to-side to build momentum and leapt to advance up the incline by catching her ring in front of the next peg. Repeat for 10 pegs, the last five of which are on a decline. She made it to one of the toughest American Ninja obstacles: the warped wall. To clear this obstacle, competitors have to sprint toward what very quickly becomes a 14-and-a-half-foot vertical surface and pull themselves onto a ledge at the top. Duran was able to reach the ledge with her fingers, but she couldn’t grab hold. However, she conquered enough obstacles to advance to the Los Angeles finals, which air tonight at 8.
Duran’s combo of scientist and superhero has its roots in middle school, when she was teased for, essentially, being herself. “I was really loud and laughing all the time, and people would shoot that down.” In high school, she embraced her loud and laughing ways to create a popular YouTube persona, “NDTitanLady,” which she continued through college.
At UC Riverside, serendipity intervened and Duran learned to rock climb. The summer before she started college, friends warned her about the “freshman 15” weight gain.
“I was like, ‘I’m not about to do that,’” she recalled. “Unfortunately, I was never athletic. I didn’t like the gym. I didn’t like running. It hurt.”
But then she got a free pass to a climbing gym one block from campus. “It’s funny, when I think about the first day, all I can think about is pain,” Duran said. “The day after, I couldn’t eat hot food or brush my teeth because I couldn’t open the microwave and couldn’t squeeze the toothpaste tube.”
Despite the pain, she went back, and “it became more than a sport for me. It became a lifestyle,” making new friends who climbed at the gym and did homework together.
Three years into it, during her junior year at UCR, Duran became so skilled that she earned commercial sponsorship and went professional, competing in regional and state competitions and becoming a collegiate champion of California. She also became a model for climbing magazines and guidebooks. At UCR, she started a climbing club. “I wanted to bring more people into the sport, especially women, because it’s a male-dominated sport,” she said. She teamed up with other students to successfully lobby to add a rock climbing facility to the university’s recreation center.
But did she ever see herself as an American Ninja Warrior?
“No!” she said. “Actually, I didn’t even know about the show. In 2013, for the show’s fifth season, the producers contacted me.”
Duran was hesitant because most competitors looked like experts in parkour, which is treating real-world walls, benches, ledges and really anything, as an obstacle course. The producers, though, assured her that it would be fun.
“It seemed like an interesting show,” she recalled, “and there weren’t a lot of females on the show at that time, so I thought, ‘Let’s try this out and see how it goes.’”
In her debut with about 100 other competitors, she made it through only one obstacle before dropping into a pool of water in the next.
“I got psyched on the failure,” said Duran, who committed herself to a training regimen inspired by the TV show. For the past three years, she’s been honing skills like the lache (la-shay) — hanging onto a stationary bar, swinging your torso back and then forward, then letting go in a free-flight to another bar at a distance of several feet. “The lache still terrifies me,” Duran admitted. “I’m not scared of climbing 30 feet into the air, but jumping 5 feet parallel terrifies me — and I’ve got to get to an 8-foot gap at least.”
To further build strength and endurance, she works out on a pair of uneven parallel bars, swinging from one bar to the other for as long as 30 minutes at a stretch. She also does box jumps, jumping from a standing position directly to the top of a box 5 feet high.
Duran made her comeback earlier this year when she was invited to compete in the Esquire Network’s “Team Ninja Warrior.” She did so well that she was asked back to take part in this American Ninja season.
Sometimes Duran revisits her YouTube NDTitanLady videos, which she hasn't had time to keep current in the past couple of years. “It really shows the progression of my youth and my young adulthood,” she said.
And sometimes she runs into young women who watched her as NDTitanLady when they were in middle school or younger and who continue to follow her today as an American Ninja Warrior — young women who tell her how proud they are of her and how far she has come.
Best of all, Duran said, is when a longtime follower tells her something like this: “You made me confident in being the weird, unique person that I am and not letting anyone mold me into what they think I should be.”