Venn Johns could be considered an adrenaline junkie.
He’s base-jumped from a cliff in Canada. Been a mixed martial-arts fighter. Ridden bulls, including one named “Tequila” that nearly tore up his face. Jumped out of planes. Performed stunts in planes. Competed twice on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.”
Johns feels “challenge junkie” is more fitting.
Whatever you want to call it, the athletically gifted Johns has an ability to attack goals with laser-like focus and determined effort.
He’s also never been afraid to change directions and let life take him on another path — like when he almost qualified for the Olympics but abruptly left the sport (more on that later). Usually, that path is an exciting and amazing adventure.
Which brings us to now.
Johns, a 44-year-old native of Bixby, has applied his amazing life experiences to his latest project as a gym owner. In early 2018, Johns opened the BA Ninja Warrior gym. It’s not your typical gym; it’s a unique place in the Tulsa area to work out.
“It’s my whole life, and it’s a culmination of my whole life,” Johns said.
You won’t be pumping weights, more like climbing, jumping and hurling yourself through the air.
It’s not just for elite athletes. It’s for any age — although popular with kids — and any skill level. Johns can tailor a class to anyone.
“(My goal) is overall awareness for health, not just physical but mental,” Johns said. “We are open to any physical limitation. I want kids to enjoy life. I want adults to enjoy life. … I enjoy seeing people happy. As selfish as I know I am in a lot of ways, I do like helping other people be happy. I like seeing them smile and overcome something that they weren’t able to do before.
“It absolutely can be something for everyone. The biggest challenge for someone to come in is for them to accept the fact that they are not going to be able to do everything. That’s OK.”
Johns’ eventful life got off to a rough start. He was 7 when his father, his hero, was killed when his tractor-trailer collided with an 18-wheeler.
After a lengthy custody battle, Johns ended up living with his grandparents. When he was about 10 years old, he turned to gymnastics.
“For whatever reason, that turned into like a super passion,” Johns said. His grandparents “just supported it the whole way.”
Johns, who had been a member of the Junior National team, earned a gymnastics scholarship to the University of Oklahoma in 1992 but left after two years to focus on making the Olympic gymnastics team. That was his dream since he started gymnastics, and he felt 1996 would be the year.
However, only a few months before the Olympic Trials, Johns quit the sport to focus on his new wife, Michelle.
“I just decided I was going to move on with life and get married,” he said. “It was a tough decision. I still wanted to be in the Olympics, but there was no way I could do that and have this girl.”
Just how close was he to making the Olympics?
“After he quit, I took my team to watch the Olympic Trials,” said his former coach Mike Thomas. “When the Olympic Trials were over, I had two of my best gymnasts at the time turn to me and say, ‘Wow, (Johns) could have made it.’
“There was no doubt in my mind that had he continued on the path, that he was there.”
Although Johns got divorced in 1997, he doesn’t have any regrets. He and Michelle had a son, Tyler, who is now a Marine and lives in Arizona.
“You could say I pissed away 11 years, but everything that I’ve gotten out of it, it was all worth it,” Johns said. “If I had gone to the Olympics in ’96, I wouldn’t be sitting here today owning a Ninja gym, probably. I could have been, but chances are I probably wouldn’t.”
Johns then went to work for kick-boxing legend Dale Apollo Cook and got into mixed martial arts for seven years. He retired with a 15-3 record.
It was during his MMA career that came something Johns can’t stop thinking about: riding bulls. He’s competed on the Professional Bull Riders Tour, and on “American Ninja Warrior,” he’s known as the bull-riding Ninja.
In 2014, Johns became the Honduran National Bull Riding Champion.
“It was the greatest time of my life and it still is,” he said. “I still ride bulls every day in my mind.”
Injuries and other obligations have precluded Johns from competing on the PBR Tour in 2018, but he hopes to in ’19.
He’s also not done with “American Ninja Warrior.” Having failed to reach the finals each time (Denver in 2017 and Dallas in 2018), Johns feels he has the experience to reach the finals if he is asked again to participate, which he expects will happen.
A late invite in 2017 didn’t allow much time to train for ANW, then a dislocated ankle, a torn bicep tendon, a torn rotator cuff and a torn scapular tendon kept Johns from performing at his best the second time around.
His disappointment in Denver led Johns to becoming a gym owner.
“I can pick up on things pretty quick. So for me to fail on the obstacle course in Denver so quickly after hitting a trampoline that you would think I would be good at, I quickly thought, ‘I need to build a gym because there’s not a gym in Tulsa,’ ” Johns said. “I need somewhere to train. I don’t have a house, so I can’t build stuff in the backyard.”
He put together a business plan and Mike Kochevar of First Pryority Bank in Pryor gave him around $450,000 to get his gym off the ground. Kochevar liked the unique concept of an “American Ninja Warrior” gym but invested in Johns as a person as much as his idea.
“Venn, from what I can tell just from talking to him, it didn’t matter what he did, he was going to make it work,” Kochevar said. “Whatever business he chooses to do, he does it to the fullest extent. … As long as there was a niche for it and we thought that this had potential, we were betting on Venn, not just the business.”
Since opening in February 2018, BA Ninja Warrior has moved into a facility that doubled its space.
Johns is able to offer more classes and also market more aggressively now that he has the space to accommodate more people. He likes to say that at his gym, you have so much fun that you sometimes forget you’re working out.
“I love being active, but sometimes I hate going to the gym,” said Andy Cheatham, a 32-year-old who goes to BA Ninja Warrior two or three times a week. “The normal pumping weights, running on a treadmill, just the monotony of that, I get tired and bored of it. What I was looking for was really a way to work out and really enjoy myself and have fun and have the camaraderie of people who want to do the same thing.”
It’s also a way for him to bring his family closer and teach his daughters (Addi, 8, and Libby, 5) life lessons.
“To see her overcome her fears and to see her accomplish something as a parent was amazing,” he said, “because those are the very things that I want to instill in her as a child. In life, you’re going to be faced with obstacles and challenges.”
Johns doesn’t have much family (his half-brother lives in Missouri and his son is married living in Yuma, Arizona). He’s single and lives in Broken Arrow.
For Johns, owning and running a successful gym is the latest challenge in his amazing life.“I do everything. I don’t have any business partners,” Johns said. “There’s a key 10 people that were very instrumental in helping me to make it happen, but all in all at the end of the day, it’s me.”
Added Thomas, “He’s just the nicest person in the world. He’s always liked those big challenges to see if he can do it.”
More often than not, Johns has been able to.