Dan Yager didn’t expect to meet his biological family — until “American Ninja Warrior” connected them
This week, Dan competed in a qualifying round of “America Ninja Warrior,” the NBC show where contestants try to complete a series of obstacle courses of increasing difficulty, that was held at Civic Center Park in Denver.
A little before midnight on Wednesday, Dan Yager stood at the mouth of the giant obstacle course assembled in Civic Center Park.
Inside the enormous metal frame were foam pads Dan would have to navigate in order to avoid falling in a pool — almost as if they were lily pads and he was a frog. After that, two large red trapeze rings to be traversed over water. Those were just the first two legs.
Dan looked intently at what he’d try to conquer while he shook his arms and legs out. This was one of the six qualifying rounds of “American Ninja Warrior,” the NBC show where contestants try to complete a series of obstacle courses of increasing difficulty.
Dan has competed on “American Ninja Warrior” since 2015 as a way to scratch his adrenaline itch. There’s also been a less predictable consequence: His role on the show has connected him with family in Korea he thought he’d never see again — and some he never even knew existed.
“We didn’t hear about that until years later.”
Ray and Cherie Yager realized pretty early in their son’s life that he had a nose for outdoor adventure. Dan, who was adopted from South Korea and came over to Colorado at 5 years old, skied his first slope and hiked his first 14er around the same time he started grade school.
The Yagers took precautions at first, tethering Dan to themselves when they went hiking and allowing him to glide down the mountain between Ray’s legs as they skied. But before they knew it, Dan had traded in the skis for a snowboard and was tearing up the terrain park at Winter Park.
As a teenager, Dan began strapping on a pair of roller blades and using a friend’s roof as a ramp to pick up speed to jump onto the driveway.
“We didn’t hear about that until years later,” Cherie said.
As Dan got older, he got into rock climbing. One of the people he befriended through the sport was an E.R. doctor named Noah Kaufman. They’d meet up at the crag with both their sons in tow.
“To get selected, you need to have a good story.”
Kaufman was a regular on “American Ninja Warrior” when he and Dan started hanging out. Dan started to ask questions about the show. Kaufman, knowing that Dan was a capable climber, suggested to him that he try out.
So, he filled out a questionnaire and created a submission video. Kaufman told him that the show’s producers combed through the masses not just for athletic ability but also for personal stories— so he didn’t shy away from sharing his own.
Dan told the camera what it was like coming over the U.S. from Korea as a boy and learning a different way of life. He disclosed that he was a survivor of the Columbine shooting in 1999. He talked about the life he’d built with his wife, Sherri and their young son, Conrad, and he described Namaste Salon, the business they still run together in their hometown of Fort Collins.
“This is a television show,” Dan said. “To get selected, you need to have a good story. A feel-good story.”
The folks in charge of selecting contestants liked what they saw. Dan had a compelling backstory. His climbing skill would translate well to the Ninja Warrior obstacle courses. And he had Kaufman’s blessing.
Dan debuted in a seventh-season qualifying round held in Kansas City. He performed well enough to make the finals in Las Vegas, where he advanced to the second stage before bowing out.
Dan knew right away that he wanted to compete on the show again. His second submission video focused on the birth of his daughter, Harlow. He talked about the success he had on the show as a first-time contestant while he changed a diaper. There was EDM music and also fake poop.
“The baby didn’t really poop on me,” Dan clarified. “My buddy had a plastic spoon of yogurt and flicked it onto me.”
Once again, Dan made the cut. He was all set for the qualifying round in Indianapolis. About a week before he was scheduled to compete, Ray and Cherie shared with him some unexpected news: They’d received a letter from the adoption agency.
The agency wanted to gauge Dan’s interest in meeting his biological father, whose name was Young Il Kwon. Around the same time, Dan realized he’d received a Facebook friend request from a woman named Jihye Kwon. The last name stuck out out to him, but he wasn’t quite sure who she was.
“I just kind of let something go, and here it comes to find you.”
Dan began messaging with Jihye. She said she was his half-sister. Dan was taken aback. He didn’t know his biological father had other children.
Communicating was a struggle because of the language barrier. They relied heavily on Google for translation. Jihye told him that their father, Young Il, had been searching for Dan for close to 13 years. Once Dan verified through the adoption agency that this was accurate, he began video chatting with Young Il and Jihye.
“It was so heavy,” Dan said. “It was all these feelings all at once. Like, ‘Really, is this actually happening?’ I couldn’t believe it. It’s one of those things where I know I’m adopted. As a kid, I wanted to find my biological dad. But I always wanted to wait until I was older, maybe in my later 20s. Old enough to handle and be at a maturity level to handle it. As I aged, I kind of lost interest. I just kind of let something go, and here it comes to find you.”
Dan believes that appearing on “American Ninja Warrior” helped his family track him down online. They had searched for him before with no luck. After he advanced to the finals in Las Vegas, however, he became much easier to find — even from halfway across the world.
“It’s not like he (Young Il) was watching the show and was like, ‘Hey, that’s my son,'” Dan said. “He had been looking prior. Since I had been doing the show and became more of a public figure … it kind of projected me into a space that I could be more easily searched.”
In October, Young Il and Jihye made the trip from South Korea to Colorado. They flew into Denver International Airport. Dan picked them up. For the the first time in about three decades, he saw his biological father in person. For the first time in his life, he saw his half-sister in person.
“He doesn’t understand like any English, so we had to use our phones for our entire trip, typing in stuff on Google Translate and showing the translated Korean on my phone,” Dan said.
“And they would do vice versa for English. The questions were very simple. … You don’t want to use a bunch of fillers like ‘and,’ or ‘of.’ You want to use nouns and verbs.”
One night, Dan took them out to dinner with his Colorado family. Ray and Cherie, Sherri, Conrad and Harlow, and Young Il and Jihye all went to Olive Garden.
“We were really happy for Daniel,” Cherie said. “That was the early part of his life, and he needed to have that.”
Together, they ate and laughed — Dan’s Colorado family and his Korean one.
“It was the whole family,” Dan said. “It was a cool moment because my parents got to meet my (biological) dad. It was reassuring for him because they were good people, and I had a good life here.”
Season nine of “American Ninja Warrior” begins June 12 on NBC. Watch to find out if Dan advanced to the finals in Las Vegas.
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