Born with a hearing impairment, Garrison was told by an audiologist that he shouldn’t be able to read above the fourth-grade level.
“Yet here I am, a college professor teaching English,” the Amarillo native said.
After earning his bachelor’s degree at ASU in 2003, Garrison went on to complete master’s and doctoral degrees at Texas Tech University. In 2009, he returned to ASU as an assistant professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages.
His latest challenge: becoming a contestant on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” a reality show that pits contestants against insanely difficult obstacle courses.
Garrison was watching the show last summer with his friend, Tim Gaestel, a high school golf coach and teacher and “a passionate kind of guy.”
“He was saying, ‘We can do this,’ and I started saying it, too,” Garrison said. “Many years ago I thought about doing ‘Survivor.’ I followed Christoval native Colby Donaldson on the second season of that show.”
“I’ve always been a runner,” he added. “I ran track and cross country in high school, and I’ve run several marathons, triathlons, duathlons. I also played football, tennis, racquetball and baseball.”
“American Ninja Warrior,” however, calls for rock-climbing skills Garrison had never attempted. He started training last August on the indoor rock climbing wall in ASU’s Ben Kelly Center for Human Performance.
“Bouldering is where you get into the technique of it,” he said. “Top rope climbing is the vertical climb. Bouldering difficulty is rated from V0 to V18. ASU’s rock climbing gym is a V5. Locally, probably only four or five people climb at that level. I’m a V4.”
“I’m definitely a novice,” he added. “I’ve been doing rock climbing for nine months now, but I’m addicted to the point of designing my own rock climbing wall using 3-D modeling software, which I hope to build soon.”
Another challenge was to create the application video.
“I’m a rhetorician,” Garrison said. “I knew I had to come up with a good personal story. I saw it as an opportunity to define myself and to re-define myself.”
On the video below, he says: “I want to compete on your show because I want to show the ‘American Ninja Warrior’ audience that while you might have a disability, a health problem or some other issue, that it can define you, but it should never limit you.”
Watch Garrison’s submission video.
“I’ve never gone public with my hearing impairment. I tell my students, of course…But it’s hard to help people understand it. I didn’t want to talk about my hearing impairment as a disability but as a way of defining myself. Everybody’s suffering from something.”
“I’ve never gone public with my hearing impairment,” he continued. “I tell my students, of course, that I read lips and will have to get used to their voice patterns and will sometimes have to ask them to repeat themselves. But it’s hard to help people understand it. I didn’t want to talk about my hearing impairment as a disability but as a way of defining myself. Everybody’s suffering from something.”
“I thought the odds were astronomical against me, but the show called me in March,” Garrison said. “So here I was, somebody who had no aspirations for being on TV, and the next thing I know, I’m on the show.”
He was invited to the regional qualifying round in Houston, one of five cities where filming took place. Competitors who successfully complete the qualifying obstacle course compete in the regional finals. Successful competitors in the regional contests then compete in Las Vegas. The grand prize this year is $1 million.
“There’s no practicing on the course,” Garrison said. “One and done. No one so far has ever made it through all four rounds of the Las Vegas final.”
The show airs beginning 7 p.m. Monday, May 25. The Houston contests that will include footage of Garrison will likely air in June. Competitors are not allowed to discuss how they did at the regional level or if they went to Las Vegas for the finals.
As a fan of the show and a competitor, Garrison said the show features “regular people like me.”
“They could, in theory, bring in the best rock climbers in the world and they would just tear up the course,” he said. “But that’s not what the show is about. You get excited for the individuals.”
A large number of people at the regional contest are repeat competitors, he said, and no one is paid to compete.
“It’s much more of a community-building experience,” Garrison said, “than a lie-and-cheat my way through it experience, like ‘Survivor.’ It’s much more uplifting. It’s a good feeling just to be in that supportive community.”
“There are so many people out there with inspirational stories,” he added. “Surround yourself with people like that and it will be infectious, a contagion of inspiration and motivation.”
Whatever the result from “American Ninja Warrior,” Garrison is already preparing for his next challenge, fatherhood. His wife, Katherine, who works for ASU in facilities management, is expecting their first child on Oct. 12.
He will also be teaching a Signature Course for freshmen in the fall that will include rock climbing.
“It will help to have a pedigree from ‘American Ninja Warrior,’” Garrison said. “My message will be to stop doing the same thing. Try something new. You try, you fail and you try again, and that’s the point. When you succeed, you get that exhilaration. Set your own hurdles and overcome them.”