“American Ninja Warrior” Competitor Lisa Eicher Talks About Down Syndrome, Adoptions, And Facing Difficult Challenges

She's braved floodwaters, adopted two children with Down syndrome, and rescued a three-legged dog. Lisa Eicher might be American Ninja Warrior's best contestant ever.

Lisa Eicher doesn’t shy away from challenges. She’s competed twice on American Ninja Warrior, she’s a mother of four, and her family pets include a pig and and a three-legged dog (yes, really). Two of her children are adopted from Bulgaria, and they have Down syndrome.

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When Hurricane Harvey damaged the Eichers’ home in 2017, forcing an emergency evacuation, she greeted firefighters with a frank warning.

“I just told them, ‘We’ve got two kids with Down syndrome, a three-legged dog, and a pig, all of whom are going to be pretty freaked out,'” Eicher tells HealthyWay. “And they were just like, ‘You know, that sounds great. Bring them on.’ They made it so much less scary for everybody. It was crazy—but not too bad.”  

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As we learned, Eicher has a simple (but crucial) message: Instead of ignoring differences, celebrate them. Instead of shying away from challenges, face them head-on. She’s using her American Ninja Warrior appearances to spread that message to as many people as possible. And given what she’s accomplished, it’s hard not to feel inspired when she starts talking about her journey.

We caught up with Eicher to find how she stays motivated while training, why she decided to adopt, and what most people don’t understand about Down syndrome.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

HealthyWay: Are you guys back in Houston?

Lisa Eicher: Yes. We moved back into our house maybe a month ago. We’re still not totally done with repairs and other stuff, but we’re slowly getting there.

I’ve got some friends from the area. They ended up getting lucky—not much damage—but I take it that wasn’t the case for your house.

It was a lot of damage, yeah, but we’re back in there. All is well. Slowly but surely!

I wanted to speak to you about your children with Down syndrome. In pieces you’ve written online, I appreciated how you said that Down syndrome isn’t a negative, and that people aren’t necessarily being helpful by pretending that it doesn’t exist.

Yeah. With Ninja Warrior, our whole thing is: Ninjas don’t count chromosomes. For us, that really just means that being a ninja is more than competing on the show. It’s all about including everyone, no matter what.

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And that’s kind of our message, in general. It’s about inclusion and kindness, no matter what our differences are. I guess that with my adopted kids, who both have Down syndrome—I don’t think I would recognize the need for this type of advocacy if not for them. I’ve seen them … getting nasty looks, or kids—even adults—being mean to them. Stuff like that. The idea is to accept them as who they are.

They are different. I don’t need to pretend that Archie is the same as all the other 13-year-old boys in his school, because he’s not. He’s different, and that’s okay.

Sevy—our most recently adopted—she’s been with us for less than two years, and she’s very different. She’s non-verbal, and she has a lot of institution behaviors from being in orphanages and institutions for so long.

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Instead of trying to hide her differences or make her act like other kids, we just celebrate the fact that she’s different. I mean, she is. I’ll straight-out say she’s one of the strangest kids in the entire world. She’s a very strange child, but I love that. It’s something that we celebrate, her uniqueness.

Our message is not to say that they’re more alike than different or that they’re just like everyone else, because that’s not true. It’s okay to acknowledge those differences.

My mother was a special education teacher, and in my house there was never that taboo of talking about what the differences are. But then you get around people that aren’t used to Down syndrome or autism and they try to ignore the differences. I think, for them, it comes from a good place.

Totally. But it can be just so uncomfortable, because—well, for us, you can stare all you want. If you’re interested in my kids, that’s fine! Come up and ask questions and ask us all about them. It’s worse when people either run away or turn their heads.

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We’ve had lots of instances where we’re, say, at a playground, and Sevy will go over to the swings, and all the kids at the swingset leave. It’s very obvious. Or when the kids say, “Why is she talking like that?” or something, and the parents shush them.

I want to say, “No, it’s okay, I’d love to explain why she’s talking like that.” She is talking different, and we can acknowledge that. We’re not trying to hide it.

There’s no shame in those differences.

That’s kind of our whole thing. We had an incident recently where these teenaged girls were giving Sevy really nasty looks at a basketball game. They were older, about 15, so they should’ve known better.

We made this little video where Archie explains how to talk to him and his sister. He’s just like, “Say ‘Hi,’ ask ‘How are you doing?,’ Ask us our names.” That’s kind of our whole thing. It’s okay to engage with us.

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You have a different perspective on this, because you adopted these children knowing they have Down syndrome. Could you speak to that process?

Oh, yeah, for sure. I always knew from a really young age that I really wanted to adopt one day, ever since I was a kid. It was just in me. I knew that that would be part of my life.

My husband and I started dating when we were 15, and [when we were married] we’d already talked about stuff like that. We always said it would be a “one day” thing. We kinda pictured that we’d have a few kids biologically and sometime later we’d adopt.

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I also had a passion for working with people with special needs. When I was in elementary school, I was in a program where we left campus once a week to visit this school with severely disabled students. You had the option of going and volunteering in those classrooms, so I started doing that. That’s when my love for that whole world grew.

My husband and I babysat a boy with Down syndrome in high school, and then we coached this Special Olympics team. All of these things kept growing that passion, and then after Ace—our firstborn—turned 2, we started talking about adding one.

Had you made the decision to adopt a child with special needs by that point?

Well, we didn’t really know what adoption going to be like. Once we decided to adopt, I did some research, and I came [across] this organization called Reece’s Rainbow that is basically a Down syndrome adoption ministry.

So when I found that, I was like, “Oh my goodness, our two biggest passions are colliding.” I just knew that’s where we’d find our next child.

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My husband was, of course, on board, so we tried to find out which countries we’d qualify for and all of that. Bulgaria was the best fit for us, it seemed. At this point, we’re thinking about adopting a baby with DS, younger than Ace, who’s just 2 at the time. That was our only requirement—baby. We didn’t care whether it was a boy or girl, or whether they had heart defects or whatever, they just needed to be younger than Ace.

[Editorial note: Eicher mentions heart defects here because cardiovascular abnormalities are common among individuals with Down syndrome. According to the National Down Syndrome Society, about half of all infants with Down syndrome have some type of heart defect.]

Then, for some reason, the director of Reece’s Rainbow randomly sent me an email that said, “How about this little boy? He’s been waiting for a really long time.” I read his bio, and I saw that he was 7, and I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, that’s too old.” And then I clicked and saw his picture.

It was just an immediate reaction. 100 percent. That’s our son. My heart ached for each one of those children, but this feeling was very different. It was like an instant knowing.

How did people in your life react to your decision?

I think the hardest part was telling our families. Or mostly my family—I grew up in a very conservative and kinda cookie-cutter place. I had a great community, a great family, great friends, and all of that, but—well, it’s just that everybody does the same thing. This was pretty big, and I think it was outside of what anybody could understand. They couldn’t understand why we would do this.

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That was a huge challenge. And getting Archie home, that was a breeze, it was a very simple adoption. He had some typical behavior [issues] when he first came home, but otherwise, he fit seamlessly into the family. He and Ace were best friends right off the bat.

I read on your blog that Sevy was much more difficult.

Sevy—she had a more traumatic background. Archie does have a very traumatic past, but for one thing, we got him out [of the orphanage] when he was 7, and Sevy was close to 13 by the time she came home. She has a lot more behaviors that are indicative of a traumatic past and of being in an institution for so long.

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So, yeah, she has had more of a struggle with bonding, specifically to me, and she’s just a little bit more—she has to be on her own, in a sense. For 13 years, she kind of had to fight for everything, so we’re working really hard to reverse all of that damage. It’s been tough.

Yeah, I imagine so. I know that your daughter Ace was a big motivation for you on American Ninja Warrior. How did she compel you to get involved?

We’ve always watched American Ninja Warrior as a family, and—whoa, I guess it was a couple of seasons ago—I wasn’t in any kind of shape at all. I was probably more out of shape than I’d ever been in my life. I’d been an athlete previously, and Ace—I guess she knew that I had it in me. While we were watching, she just said, “Mom, you could do that.”

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And I mean, I literally laughed, but she kept being persistent about it. I just thought, “Why is she even keeping on about this? Obviously, I can’t do any of that stuff. I can’t even hang from a bar, let alone do a pull-up or any of the things that are necessary for that show.”

Then, I was watching Archie a couple of days later on the swings. He loves to swing, but he couldn’t pump. It took him a really long time to figure out how to pump his own legs, and he’d been working on it for years, literally. He finally got it this one day.

And it just hit me. Well, they have to work so hard for things that [are] simple, everyday things for us—pumping your legs on a swing, riding a scooter, or just pedaling a bike. I was like, “Maybe I can work for something that seems impossible. Even if I don’t get it, at least I can show them that I tried.”

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I started training about six months before the competition. I ended up being chosen for the show, and I competed in San Antonio last year, and then again in Dallas this year. It’s been a crazy, crazy experience, and right now, I’m still training. I’ll do it again next year.

Was there a challenge you weren’t expecting, either in the training or in the actual competition?

I think I underestimated the mental aspect of it. So much of it is mental strength. I was actually more prepared, mentally, for my first season than this most recent season. We were out of our house for six months, and I just wasn’t as focused.

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I actually did better last season than I did this season. I got off on an obstacle that I completed last season. I really think I just cracked under the pressure—I mean, it’s quite scary, standing up there under bright lights with the cameras right in your face. It’s a whole production.

I was going to ask you how you stayed motivated, both physically and mentally. American Ninja Warrior certainly isn’t easy.

It’s not. Again, my kids are my motivators, and I mean all four of them.

American Ninja Warrior has made my family so much stronger in all ways. My kids Sevy and Archie—you know, people with Down syndrome have low muscle tone in general—and they were both pretty physically weak before we started all of this.

That’s especially true for Archie, but he did his first pull-up the other day. He can hang from a bar forever, and the same with Sevy.

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They can hang from ropes or climb rock walls. It’s just become part of our life now. I think I’m kind of the glue for that. I mean, there are days where my friends are out at happy hour hanging out, and I’m training and I’m like, “I don’t want to do this.” But I just have to remember why I’m doing it. I have to remember the message that we’re trying to spread as a family. The bigger the platform, the more people that hear the message, so yeah—there’s a lot of motivation to keep going.

The “glue” thing kind of goes both ways. They’re inspiring to you, and you’re hoping to be that for them.

Right. Exactly. Exactly.

Do you have any advice for anyone who’s thinking about trying out for American Ninja Warrior?

My advice, for anyone who even feels like they have an interest in it, would be just to go for it. There are lots of ninja gyms and similar types of gyms popping up all over the place. It’s so much fun. It’s just such a fun way to train, and you see the progress so clearly.

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I couldn’t even hang from a bar when I started, and within a few weeks, I was doing five pull-ups in a row. You see the progress, and it feels really good to achieve these things.

So, yeah, just go and try it. Everybody who tries it out gets hooked.

What is something that a typical person could do differently when they’re interacting with people with Down syndrome?

I would say just to be aware of their differences. Many times speech is an issue, for instance. Be aware of the differences and their struggles. Don’t ignore those differences, but don’t let them be a deterrent from interacting.

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Don’t be afraid. There’s nothing scary about them. Yeah, they’re different—and we can all acknowledge that—but that’s a good thing.