Our staff, our stories: Andrew “Roo” Yori

It was 2012 and Andrew “Roo” Yori was training at his gym in Rochester, swinging from bars,  pumping iron, trying to get himself in top shape, so he could try out for "American Ninja Warrior" (ANW) — the popular NBC series that measures strength and agility via brutal obstacle courses. Back then, he was improvising his routine as he went along and, on that fateful day, he got too ambitious, fell off a bar, and landed on his head.

“I knocked myself out and suffered a really bad concussion,” says Roo, supervisor of the Clinical Genome Sequencing Laboratory (CGSL) in DLMP. The accident curtailed his ninja dreams for a few years. “I started working out, lightly, about six months after that, but I’d get dizzy and have some post-concussive symptoms,” he says.

This was before specialized “ninja gyms” sprang up all over the country as the sport became more mainstream, thanks to the TV show. Such gyms have various obstacles and crash pads to protect athletes when they fall. “This gym did not have crash pads because it’s not really built for ninja training," Roo says. "But I was trying to figure out a way to train, and I didn’t know what I was doing, and that was all she wrote.”

Frustrated that his condition wasn’t improving much, Roo eventually went to Mayo Clinic’s Brain Rehabilitation Clinic for a consult. “They told me I’d get better but couldn’t say when," he says. "They also recommended light aerobic activity, which has been shown to help recovery from this kind of injury. So I went back to the gym and started using the Concept 2 rowing machine. That helped me quite a bit and let me gradually get into harder workouts.”

Whereas many people would have quit after such a traumatic fall, Roo’s persistence and athletic gifts allowed him to achieve his dream of becoming an ANW in 2016. “I try to be smarter about things these days, like making sure there are crash pads underneath me,” says Roo, who has since found a ninja gym north of Rochester.

Andrew "Roo" Yori, picture courtesy of NBC

Roo has appeared on every season of the TV series since 2016, enough times to have gained an ardent fan following. Known as “The K9 Ninja,” Roo uses his celebrity to raise funds for his dog rescue foundation, which helps support other programs and organizations that are making an impact for homeless dogs in their community. To understand his animal activism, you have to go back to the day Roo rescued one particular dog from almost certain death.

Wallace the pit bull

Roo and Wallace

Roo is no stranger to competitive sports. While growing up in Illinois, he was into wrestling, volleyball, and track. And he had a special talent for soccer — so much so that a summer camp soccer coach from high school recruited him to play soccer at St. Mary’s University in Winona, where he started on the team for four years, until he graduated with a degree in biology. Roo came to Mayo Clinic in 2001. Then in 2005, life took a turn when Roo and his wife, Clara, adopted a pit bull. Enter Wallace, whose own athletic prowess led Roo in another unexpected direction.

“I got into dog sports after college when we adopted Wallace and some other dogs,” he says. “Wallace and I won national and world championships as a Frisbee dog team. Frisbee was a way I could be athletic as well. Because in freestyle Frisbee, you’re trying to figure out different kinds of tricks and throws to do with the dog.”

Andrew "Roo" Yori with Wallace

Wallace, who passed away due to cancer in 2013, lived a true Cinderella story. “Because he was a pit bull and not the most well-behaved all the time, he was considered a liability by the shelter,” Roo says. “No one wanted him, so he was likely to be euthanized. We ended up becoming very well-known and respected in the dog world and the Frisbee world and the pit bull world. Wallace changed a lot of people’s perceptions about pit bulls, and we had a pretty big impact on getting homes for other shelter dogs.”

The pit bull gained such celebrity that a book, Wallace, was written about him by Sports Illustrated editor-author Jim Gorant. Roo and Wallace have been featured on Animal Planet, ESPN2, and ABC. There also are many videos on YouTube that highlight Wallace’s story and his wonder-dog abilities with a disc.

Breed bans and canine discrimination 

Hector and the family

During part of his lifetime, Wallace had an adopted brother, Hector, another traumatized pit bull Roo and his wife rescued. Hector was one of the notorious fighting dogs owned by NFL quarterback Michael Vick, whose underground dogfighting ring was uncovered in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bust resulted in 51 pit bulls going to various shelters and foster homes.

You may think, 'Why would anyone want a supposedly vicious dog like that?' But most of these dogs can be loving if given some TLC. Case in point, there’s a heartwarming video of Roo singing (for a time he was lead singer in a band made up of Mayo staffers) a lullaby as he cradles Hector in his arms.

Hector went on to become a certified therapy dog who made rounds at nursing homes and hospitals. He even met actress and longtime animal activist Betty White once.

Hector and Roo

“Both Wallace and Hector were really well known,” Roo says. “I videotaped everything, and we did a lot of outreach with them back when YouTube and Facebook were new.”

Sadly, Hector passed away in 2014, about a year after Wallace. During their lifetimes, the dogs won the hearts of thousands of humans. “They helped people understand that dogs are individuals just like we are,” Roo says. “We shouldn’t necessarily judge them by what they look like or where they came from.”

Owning pit bulls hasn’t always been easy or pretty for Roo. “Mayo has diversity here, but as a white male who has always lived in a predominantly white community, I’ve never really experienced discrimination,” he says. "I got a taste of it when I adopted a dog that looked a certain way. I had to change our homeowner’s insurance because the company we had wouldn’t cover us after we got Wallace. I had to be careful where I traveled because there are breed bans in certain cities where, if I took Wallace out of the car, they could’ve technically seized him and killed him. We were targeted by people who never knew us before, just because we had pit bulls.”

Such experiences gave Roo more empathy for discrimination on a human scale. He continues: “What we experienced wasn’t nearly the level that other people experience, but I got enough of a taste where I thought, ‘This isn’t right.’ It helped me try to better understand and listen to other people affected by these issues — just like I appreciated the people who would listen to me when I spoke about breed bans. So I think it’s important to be open to these conversations and to help people who suffer from racism and discrimination.”

Birth of “The K9 Ninja”

Andrew "Roo" Yori, with his furry friends

After Roo lost Wallace and Hector, the two celebrity ambassadors of his cause, he struggled to figure out how he could continue to have the same impact for dogs in need of homes. Then it clicked. Because he had almost fully recovered from his head injury and was training at full intensity by then, he applied to ANW. He made sure to include his backstory about Wallace and Hector, knowing that the producers like competitors with interesting life stories. His strategy worked.

“Out of tens of thousands of people, I was fortunate enough to be chosen, and I got to run the course,” he says. “So that was pretty exciting.”

The K9 Ninja was born, making his first TV appearance on the Indianapolis Qualifier in season 8 of 2016 with his parents, wife, and their rescue dog, Angus, on the sidelines rooting him on. Roo's most recent appearance was on the September 14 airing (Season 12) of ANW in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was one of the top 12 to qualify. He now moves on to the semi-finals.

Adapting to the pandemic

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, this latest season of ANW was modified. Instead of having qualifying rounds in different cities, all episodes were filmed in St. Louis to keep travel at a minimum. Athletes had to be tested for the virus before traveling to St. Louis, then tested again once they arrived.

“They only invited a limited amount of contestants this year, so it was pretty cool to be included in that small number,” says Roo, who is a team captain this year. “There were no audience members for this episode. My wife and parents were watching through a live feed at home, cheering for me from this big screen in the studio.”

The pandemic doesn’t stop The K9 Ninja from fundraising for his cause. For example, before he appears on a show, fans can pledge money per each obstacle he completes, via his website rooyori.com. In 2018, he raised $8,000. Plus, Roo got a huge surprise after he qualified in Atlanta last year. He was presented with a $20,000 donation from the creators of the animated film "Secret Lives of Pets 2" for his foundation.

“That was totally unexpected and has never happened before on the show,” he says.

Andrew "Roo" Yori, picture courtesy of NBC

Although Roo is 43 now, which makes him one of the more senior ninjas, he has no plans to retire from competing. In fact, seeing how the pandemic could be with us a while longer, he plans to build a ninja gym in his backyard, so he can train at home. Meanwhile, Roo and Clara continue to rescue dogs, their current pair being Johnny, a pit bull, and Juju, a mix.

“The thing that keeps me going the most is the dogs,” Roo says. “I’m trying to be a voice for them and help them find good homes. I’m not getting any younger. My body’s hurting. But I’m still enjoying myself, and dogs still need help.”

Chris Bahnsen

Chris J. Bahnsen covers emerging research and discovery for Mayo Clinic Laboratories. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Smithsonian Air & Space. He divides his time between Southern California and Northwest Ohio.