A Conversation with: Roo Yori, American Ninja Warrior, Activist for Dog Adoption

***Quick note: I am very excited to be working on an intense project for year two of The Conversationalist! However, this project is temporarily inhibiting my ability to produce content on a regular basis. Hang with me for the next few weeks and months, and follow The Conversationalist on social media (links below) for updates and posts from the archives. I can’t wait to show you the finished product soon! Now on to the important stuff…***

Andrew (Roo) Yori is a visible force, whether propelling himself up the salmon ladder on the American Ninja warrior obstacle course, or working to raise awareness for dog adoption. Roo’s story starts long before competing in this nationally televised athletic event, but it was certainly the time where a lot of people discovered him and his work, so that’s where we will get started.

He competed in the 2016 and 2017 American Ninja warrior competition, even advancing to the national round in 2016. The competition is an enigma, changing obstacles every location and season, and he trained for the unexpected with a mixture of CrossFit Progression and his own personally constructed workouts. Although he has been involved in athletics for his entire life and has an uncanny love for obstacle courses, a large part of why he joined the competition was to raise awareness for dog adoption. Clad in an “Adopt a Dog” T-shirt, Roo barreled through the course, prompting remarks from the commentators such as, “The dog is learning new tricks” and “he really took a bite out of that one!”… I’ll do my best to avoid the dog puns in this article. I’m sure that get’s ruff for Roo. OK, that is all. That was really terrible, my apologies.

Part of Roo’s mission to promote dog adoption is specifically to challenge the notions surrounding Pit Bulls. These dogs can be a polarizing breed, with their widespread reputation for aggressive tendencies. Yet, many owners, such as Roo, have wonderful experiences with their Pit Bulls, and completely prove these stereotypes wrong. He adopted his first Pit Bull, Wallace, in 2005 from the shelter where his wife Clara worked. Wallace had some problems with the dogs at his shelter, but Roo discovered that he was treated quite unfairly simply because he was a Pit Bull:

“He wasn’t an angel. But I think there were other dogs who weren’t angels either. They didn’t look like he did, so they weren’t as concerned with their behavior. I didn’t like that inconsistency.”

Roo gave Wallace a chance when many didn’t, and he ended up becoming a permanent member of their family.  Like any high-energy dogs, Pit Bulls require a physical outlet to release excess energy. Roo looked into a popular activity for the breed, weight pulling, but Wallace wasn’t quite keen on it. One day, Roo found a posting for someone who wanted to start a disc club in Rochester, and decided to get in on the action. To his, and pretty much everyone’s surprise, Wallace flourished. In a sport not meant for Pit Bulls, he blew away the competition. Recognizing his aptitudes and passion, Roo decided to engage at a more advanced level. It certainly paid off! In 2006, he and Wallace were the 2006 Cynosport World Champions, and in 2007 Wallace was crowned the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge National Champion. 

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After creating an environment where Wallace could be successful in the midst of the odds stacked against him, Roo and Clara decided they were ready to create a positive environment for another Pit Bull (and the many other dogs that are a part of their family). They adopted Hector, a Pit Bull who was one of the victims of the Michael Vick dogfighting case, in 2008. Hector had scars down his chest, and every circumstance he emerged from seemed to indicate he would be an aggressive and problematic dog. However, he proved to be just the opposite. He worked well with other dogs, was hardworking and affectionate, and defied all of the stereotypes surrounding him and dogs in his situation.

The narratives surrounding how dogs are treated differently based on their appearance resonates with human experience and the judgment and preconceived notions we may have about certain groups of people. We are often too quick to predict someone’s behavior based on his or her background. Roo explains how to combat this tendency with open-mindedness:

“We all have our opinions. But a lot of times those opinions may not be knowledgeable ones. So, just keep an open mind as far as trying to prove yourself wrong.”

This is especially prevalent when considering the differences between Wallace and Hector, and how they behaved much differently than they were predicted to. Hector, who by all accounts should have been a problematic and aggressive dog, was the sweetest companion. Wallace, who had a much less troubled upbringing, proved to be more troubled at times.

In spite of their contrasting backgrounds and tendencies, both dogs have gained quite a following, with fans recognizing their resilience and defiant spirits in the face of adversity.  Wallace’s story even inspired a best-selling novel:

Wallace-3d-hardcover-shotAs many readers grew to know of Wallace the competitor, Roo hoped to show them the Wallace the companion, the one he had grown to know and love. He was excited to bring Wallace along for their book tour to familiarize fans with the dog behind the accolades. However, on their very first stop in his hometown, Wallace collapsed. Roo and Clara rushed him to a vet, and discovered that he had hemangiosarcoma. One of his tumors had burst, and he was bleeding out. Roo and Clara decided to have Wallace go through a risky surgery, and just as he had so many times before, he defied all odds and survived.

In spite of this victory, the nature of hemangiosarcoma is such that there is really no way to predict when the dog’s condition could dramatically worsen. It is an acute decline, typically set off by the bursting of a tumor. Instead of living in fear of this unpredictability, Roo and Clara dreamt up a bucket list for Wallace to make the most of the time he had. The list included things such as riding in the sidecar of a motorcycle, golfing a hole in one, and meeting Betty White. He, again, smashed all of the odds and survived with the cancer beyond his predicted expectancy, accomplishing everything on the initial list! Yes, that’s right…even meeting Betty White.

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Wallace lived a full life that came to an end when the cancer became too overpowering. As Roo told me about Wallace’s emotional last day, I was completely touched by the amount of care and energy he put into making this dog’s life as enjoyable and successful as possible, especially in the midst of his cancer. Wallace was troublesome and difficult at times, but Roo did not lose faith in him, enabling him to accomplish things he might have never been able to with a less compassionate or open-minded owner. Hear him talk more about the bucket list and Wallace’s journey with cancer here:

Since the passing of both of his Pit Bulls, and with the continual care of his other dogs, Roo has become an advocate for dog adoption and fought to change the perceptions surrounding Pit Bulls. Aside from the tremendous awareness he has raised on American Ninja Warrior, he has also written about the impact Wallace and Hector have had on his life. In his article “My Pit Bull Never Snapped,” he analyzes the influence of fear in his life and the lives of others.

Fear and overcoming it have been recurring motifs in Roo’s story, whether he is challenging the fears individuals have about Pit Bulls, or tackling obstacle courses that strike fear into competitors across the country. I wondered if there were ever periods where Roo let fear dictate his actions instead of taking the active role as driver of his own life. He explained how fear manifested itself in indecision for much of his life, and how he has overcome this in the past few years, largely because of the influence Wallace and Hector had on him.

“I’ve gotten a lot better at just weighing the options, making a choice, and if it doesn’t work out, it’s not this end of the world situation! That is also where we learn a lot. You find out who you are when things aren’t going your way.”

We dove into a discussion expanding beyond the tangible fears of an aggressive dog or treacherous obstacle course and began to talk about emotional and psychological fear:

“I think a lot of people use fear. If they’re fearful, they try to almost instill that on others, trying to protect them and keep them safe. There’s certain truths to that…I’m not saying don’t be afraid of anything. But, at the same time, I think a lot of those things are just because people aren’t knowledgeable about the situation. So it really imprisons you.”

The fear of being incorrect can be one of the most powerful prisons that restricts people from exploring other viewpoints. I have recognized this tendency in my own life, as well! It is natural to want to remain true to one’s convictions and emerge as the “correct” one. I don’t know many individuals who relish the feeling of being proven wrong. However, this creates a dangerous tendency to refuse considering the validity of opposing viewpoints, which debilitates civil discourse. This is why Roo emphasizes the importance of breaking down one’s fears in order to have  a productive conversation with another human being:

“Have a conversation with someone, a civil conversation, and I’m going to learn from them, hopefully they’ll learn from me. If we can continue to deal with things that way it’s a pretty cool experience in my mind. While there are really ignorant and hateful people out there, I don’t think most people are…Very few things are black and white. There’s a lot of gray in there. And I think we need to converse about the gray a lot more than argue about the black and white extremes.”

I don’t think we could end with a better quote. Roo inspired me to have more of those uncomfortable conversations when possible, and especially, to be open to the possibility of being wrong. There is incredible courage in admitting one’s fallibility and being open to new perspectives. Maybe almost as much courage as the Salmon ladder requires…

Watch my full video conversation with Roo Yori here:

Thank you for reading and listening. I will be posting the podcast component of this conversation on the Eavesdrop page soon.

Also, I understand that Pit Bulls can be quite a controversial topic. For those of you who want to discuss the issues presented in this article, I welcome you to email me directly at theconversationalistne@gmail.com, or start a conversation in the comment section. That is what this is all about.

Speak to you soon,

Nora

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