Tampa Bay boy is ‘American Ninja Warrior Junior’

Max Salebra also wants to be the first ninja warrior president of the United States. He is halfway there.
Max Salebra, 10 and from Madeira Beach, won his age group for "American Ninja Warrior Junior."
Max Salebra, 10 and from Madeira Beach, won his age group for "American Ninja Warrior Junior." [ Courtesy of Kelly Paxton Photography ]
Published Jan. 19, 2022|Updated Jan. 19, 2022

MADEIRA BEACH — Like many 10-year-olds, Max Salebra has an interesting double career goal.

“I want to be the first ninja warrior president” of the United States, he said.

Max is halfway there.

The Madeira Beach resident competed on American Ninja Warrior Junior.

Streaming on Peacock, the children’s version of the American Ninja Warrior show has contestants pitted against one another in obstacle course races that test speed, strength, agility and endurance.

His father, Mark Salebra, said thousands applied to compete in Max’s 10-11-year-old age group, and nearly 100 were chosen.

Max won it all last month.

And his first act as champion showed leadership and compassion. He donated the $15,000 grand prize to Ronald McDonald House Charities, the nonprofit that supports families with sick children.

Max then asked friends and family to give to the cause, too. In all, he helped raise more than $70,000.

“I just thought it would be nice to give to people who need it,” said Max, whose father owns six McDonald’s franchises throughout Pinellas County.

Max’s father was not shocked by his son’s generosity.

“We’ve been volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House with Max for years,” Salebra said. “Max dresses like an elf in the holiday season and hands out presents to kids there.”

Nor is he surprised that his son excels at this unique sport.

“When he was 3, we got him a pull-up bar for his bedroom door and he just loved hanging on that,” Salebra said. “So, he’s always kind of been a little bit of a monkey in that way.”

Max Salebra, 10 and from Madeira Beach, won his age group for "American Ninja Warrior Junior."
Max Salebra, 10 and from Madeira Beach, won his age group for "American Ninja Warrior Junior." [ Courtesy of Kelly Paxton Photography ]

At 6, Max attended a ninja warrior-themed birthday party that included an obstacle course in the backyard.

“Max was really good at it and had a lot of upper body strength for his age,” Salebra said. “So, that year, when he turned 7, we had Max’s birthday party at the Jungle Gym in Seminole and he never left.”

He began training up to five days a week at the Jungle Gym, a 14,600-square-foot facility that prepares adults and children for ninja warrior competitions by offering a variety of obstacles plus trainers to help master the needed skills.

Gym founder Jason Bergstrom and three of his children, including Max’s trainer Caleb Bergstrom, have competed on American Ninja Warrior.

Six months after joining the gym, Max was entering ninja warrior tournaments throughout the nation.

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“The number one thing is he doesn’t give up,” Caleb Bergstrom said. “He has a lot of dedication to what he’s doing. And, even when he’s tired, he’s going to continue because he knows that if you work hard today, you can do better tomorrow.”

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Still, it takes more than skill to make it on the television show. Contestants also need to display personality on their audition tape.

Max said he was chosen because of his dream to become president and because he called himself “Cadet Ninja” due to formerly being a student at St. Petersburg’s Admiral Farragut Academy.

He was referred to as Cadet Ninja and a future president throughout his televised races and the announcers celebrated his championship by screaming, “President, we salute you” and then chanting, “Max for president.”

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He had to win 11 races to make the finals and take on Texas’ Brandon Avila, whose father, Jody Avila, has competed six times on American Ninja Warrior.

“Going in, Brandon and Max were two of the best, if not the, best, 10-year-olds in the country,” Salebra said.

They shimmied across pipes, swung over a moat and leapt from platform to platform with Brandon in the lead until the final obstacle — the 13-foot “warped wall,” which is a steeply curving wall competitors run up. Max then took the lead and won by six-tenths of a second, according to the show’s website.

The course is 75 yards long and 30 feet above pools of water, Salebra said. “And then you have the lights and the cameras and the crowd. It was the most stressful thing I ever did, and all I did was stand there.”

American Ninja Warrior Junior age groups run up to 15 years old. Max will then have to wait to compete against adults. American Ninja Warrior has an age minimum of 19. The minimum age run for president of the United States is 35.

It’s a ways off, but Max said he knows what he must do to prepare.

“I just have to keep working hard.”