Creating Math Problems for Ninjas

Mark Hemphill ’10 draws on his skills in math, physics, design and athletics to conjure apparatuses for training and challenging would-be ninjas for competitions like the TV show American Ninja Warrior. (Courtesy of Mark Hemphill ’10)

Mark Hemphill ’10 proved his calculating ability at Carolina, with majors in math and physics, as well as his athletic skills by winning Outstanding Male Intramural Athlete his senior year. Add a master’s in industrial design from the Savannah College of Art and Design and his career choice seems only natural — devising courses to knock ninjas off balance.

Mark Hemphill '10

Mark Hemphill ’10

Thanks to the popularity of the American Ninja Warrior TV series, it’s a booming field. Hemphill designs courses for training facilities where would-be ninjas of all levels, from beginners to experts trying to break onto the TV show, hone their skills by navigating obstacles that Hemphill throws at them.

His approach is hands-on (as well as involving just about every other body part). Hemphill, whose main job these days is at Eldorado Walls in Boulder, Colo., tests his prototypes himself. Jay Thornton, who also employs Hemphill as a consultant for his company’s Ninja product line, calls Hemphill’s combination of education and athleticism highly unusual.

“Mark is a brilliant guy, very particular and meticulous about designing obstacles and thinking about them from all aspects,” said Thornton, owner and CEO of American Gymnast and Interactive Sports. “He considers the production side of costs but also the athlete’s side of functionality, safety, the muscle groups used. … It’s rare to find someone with his type of educational background who can actually put what he’s doing to the test physically.”

While growing up in Cary, Hemphill, an Eagle Scout (a “bike rodeo” program on bicycle safety was his Eagle project), from a young age swam, surfed, snowboarded, played tennis and just generally got into things.

“My mom says, ‘We’d see you trying to build squirrel traps, and that’s when we knew,’ ” Hemphill said. “She’s always worried about me doing the activities, but she’s happy I’m more on the design side of it.”

Hemphill’s master’s thesis at Savannah College of Art and Design delved into what he called “Wiggle Theory.” To that end, he designed something dubbed “The Wiggle,” an enormous floating zip line the size of a roller coaster, powered by the motion of bodies wiggling through it.

Once he decided on adventure-equipment design and fitness as a career pursuit, Hemphill went all-in. At SCAD, he did his thesis project on “Wiggle Theory,” research into how the human body creates forward momentum by wiggling. To that end, he designed something dubbed “The Wiggle,” an enormous floating zip line the size of a roller coaster, powered by the motion of bodies wiggling through it. He turned his thesis review into a participatory event.

“Most thesis projects, there’s a final review in a room with a few professors,” said Professor Ben Hopson, who chaired Hemphill’s thesis committee. “Instead, Mark threw a party in his backyard where he invited his thesis committee along with his parents and some friends. He had all these cool interactive prototypes for everyone to play with, so people were up on these wooden things he built, teetering there with beers in hand. It was just … cool. He’s an unusual spirit.”

Building a real-life version of “The Wiggle” would take tens of millions of dollars, so for now it remains an abstract design. But another design in that realm is very real: “Liquid Logs,” swinging tubes filled with sloshing fluid that makes for hard-to-navigate aerial balance beams. (Watch a video of liquid logs in action.)

“I crave that sensation of exerting some degree of control over your fate where it takes creativity, because you’re in a situation where it actually matters,” Hemphill said. He shares videos of himself going splat in the testing phase because, as he puts it: “Falling, whether injurious or not, is one of the central themes of an active life. Plus, it’s hilarious.”

To Hemphill, his work taps into human nature.

“It’s definitely a feeling of wanting to do something with your body physically,” he said, “to take an idea and go down a path to avoid smashing into a rock or a tree or whatever.”

— David Menconi


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