streets of shame

A Trainer's Journey from Homelessness to “American Ninja Warrior” Contestant

NBCUniversal, Inc.

Before he was a fitness trainer or appeared on NBC’s hit show "America Ninja Warrior," Eric Small lived in a van, parking in different places across the San Fernando Valley.

"It was one of the craziest times of my life, not knowing where I'm going to sleep, [trying] to find a safe neighborhood to sleep on the side," he said.

Small chronicled his time, recording videos of himself in his car.

"It’s my first night in the van," he said in one of the early videos. "Gotta do it."

The experience was daunting, but Small always believed something greater was coming.

"I think if I wasn't strong-minded, I would've been homeless a longer than I was," he said. "Because you're around negativity and your mind, your energy is so low, you can’t really think positively because all you see is your struggle."

Even before he was homeless, the South Los Angeles native dreamed of becoming a celebrity trainer. And, though his resources were limited, he tried to make it happen, starting off with $250 and a bicycle. He put the money toward living in the attic of a North Hollywood gym, where he remained until he met a friend who rented an apartment with him.


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But when they struggled to pay rent, Small went from living in an apartment to calling a van home.

"We got an eviction notice. I didn’t know what was happening or going on. We had exactly a week to move out," he said.

Looking back, Small said his motivation was his two sons. He received full custody of his 14-year-old last year and sees his 5-year-old every other weekend.

"Just staying focused and being positive and after the outcome you’re going to be blessed," he said. “If you keep working hard, something good will come out of it.”

Small’s outcome shone bright after leaving the streets and landing an opportunity on "American Ninja Warrior," where he has appeared twice, once each in 2018 and 2019. He says the strength to get off the streets was within himself.

"You got to really be willing to help yourself," he said.

Small may get another shot to be a ninja – callbacks for the next season start soon.

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