'American Ninja Warrior' Competitor Breaks Ground On New 'Fitness Garden'

'American Ninja Warrior' Competitor Breaks Ground On New 'Fitness Garden'

EAST GARFIELD PARK — Marcelino Riley credits calisthenics with turning around his life, and he's hoping a set of new pull-up bars in the backyard of a treatment center will do the same for the East Garfield Park community.

Riley, who has competed on two seasons of “American Ninja Warrior,” is a fitness coach at the Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center, where he’s begun work on building a “fitness garden."

Riley's strength and coordination led him earlier this summer to qualify for the show's Indianapolis City Finals. But Riley was not always in "Ninja" shape. Years ago, Riley was overweight, depressed and suffered from cluster headaches. While researching YouTube for exercises he could do at home, he came across videos of athletes executing bodyweight workouts in New York City playgrounds. He was hooked.

Through lifestyle changes and calisthenics, Riley said he eventually lost 85 pounds and cured himself of his headaches. It’s his mission now to transform the lives of others through pull-up bars.

“We pull ourselves up first,” he says. “Once we do that, it’s our job to pull up our neighbor.”

Riley’s goal is not just to offer patients a new set of tools to improve their wellness, but for the entire neighborhood. The placement of the bars along the sidewalks is also an invitation to anyone walking by to participate.

Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center executive director Dan Hostetler says an outdoor fitness playground is a natural extension to the center's backyard garden.

“I’ve always wanted the garden for people to experience nature in a good way,” said Hostetler. “Homeless people experience nature in a bad way. They’re trying to hide from it. They’re trying to get inside. They’re trying to cool down when it’s too hot, trying to warm up when it’s too cold. When it rains, they have to find a way to cover their heads. At night, it’s dark. Their experience of nature is a bad thing.”

To raise money for supplies, Riley is organizing a calisthenics event on Saturday, Aug. 18 to celebrate the opening of the pull-up bars. Tickets are $15 for general admission and free for Garfield Park residents.

Riley hopes this will be the first of many calisthenic playgrounds to fill vacant lots on the west and south sides of Chicago.

“Having these playgrounds — in addition to showing people what's possible with the human body,” Riley says. “It’s gonna take people who’d be on the streets and getting into trouble and give them something they can pursue that’s going to help them physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.”