LOGAN – The obstacles Chris Fairbanks will soon be facing require exceptional strength and agility. The 34-year-old from Logan will soon be competing on this season of “American Ninja Warrior” – a nationally-televised show where hundreds of contestants try to complete a series of extreme obstacle courses.
The obstacles are reputably difficult, but so are the life obstacles Fairbanks has overcome.
Fairbanks said he has been through drug addiction, legal problems, the death of his sister and a long battle with mental illness, but now he said he wants to use his story to show others with mental illness that they can accomplish whatever they set their minds to.
Even though he has long experienced symptoms of mental illness, it wasn’t until about a year ago he admitted there was something wrong, and got help. That’s when he learned he had a bipolar disorder. He said he had periods in high school that would last months at a time where he couldn’t focus on school or even get out of bed.
“Nobody could motivate me to do anything,” he said. “They thought it was just depression. They misdiagnosed that. On the other side we had these days where I would go to school. For a month straight I’d be catching up on two months of work in like a week and accomplishing insane things.”
The bipolar disorder led to drug addiction. He said he would steal in order to get and pay for drugs. That led to legal trouble, but one of the few things that kept him going was his sister Leisa Fairbanks Griggs.
“She sheltered me from a lot of my depressive lows,” he said. “She would always say, yeah there is something wrong, you’ll pull out of it.”
The two often spent time together watching “American Ninja Warrior”. Fairbanks said his sister always told him he could get on the show, that he had the gymnastics background to do it, but said he never took the suggestion seriously. Then his sister was diagnosed with cancer.
“The cancer got so bad they told her she had a couple of months to live,” he said. “We were in the hospital and it became really real for me. I said, ‘If I were to get on American Ninja Warrior and conquer it, would that be a way to honor you?’ She just broke down crying.”
The idea to get on the show was discussed again, on Griggs’ last day, after she requested to be taken off medical support.
“She was emotional and crying a lot,” Fairbanks recalled. “One of the last things she said to me was kind of half joking, but serious. She was like, ‘I’ll be on the other side trying to help you get on American Ninja Warrior.’ She said, in her own words, ‘That is your destiny.’”
Another request Griggs made was that Fairbanks always make sure his young son Landon remembers her.
“It was a couple months after she passed away that I connected the dots and I said, ‘I’m going to go on American Ninja Warrior, one to honor her, and two, because I’ll train this little guy and he’ll watch me training for it. He’ll never forget Leisa because she is the one that inspired me to do it. I can fulfil that promise that he’ll never forget her.”
The training wasn’t easy. It took hours of workouts and miles of running almost every day. The application process wasn’t easy either. Fairbanks said about 100,000 applicants applied. After a long list of interviews, videos, applications and questionnaires, about 500 were selected to be on the show.
It took longer than he thought to get the phone call he was waiting for. Then it got to a point where he gave up hope, thinking all his training and hard work was for nothing.
“I conquered all these mental walls to get to that point and then the mental wall just hit,” Fairbanks said. “Out of the blue I got a call… that said, ‘Hey, you did it.’ It just confirmed to me that, ‘Look I went through this entire process and I’m successful. There are other people out there that have mental illness, and they can be successful.”
Fairbanks said he used to be ashamed at the thought of having a mental illness, but now believes there is nothing to be ashamed of. He said he recognizes that in the same way his sister didn’t choose cancer, he didn’t choose a bipolar disorder. He now encourages those who think they may have a mental illness to seek help, and emphasized it is available. Denying a problem, he said, may just prolong it.
“I want people to know that if you have a mental condition you can still succeed, you just need to learn how to take care of it and control it and harness it,” he said. “You can be so successful.”
After “American Ninja Warrior” Fairbanks hopes to open a performing arts school that includes gymnastics and cheer classes for people with mental illness. He said he found healing and help through that type of expression and believes others can too.