(L-R) Dodge, Tony, Jack, Bridgette and Bennett Clarno | Photo by Jackie Pisano

While raising kids, parents become overly familiar with the busy schedules that come with youth sports. Gymnastics, baseball, swimming, soccer and the like all demand early morning and late-night practices and never-ending travel schedules that turn the fun of the sport into a rigid routine. 

Then there’s ninja training.

With an emphasis on body awareness, agility and activities to boost self-confidence, and combined with the fanfare driven by TV shows like “American Ninja Warrior” and “Wipeout,” ninja training has popped up in schools, recreation centers and gyms across the U.S.

For Brookfield resident Tony Clarno, ninja training has become his life’s calling — combining decades of competitive gymnastics, professional theater experience and a passion for teaching.

His Ninja Squad Gym — a part martial arts, part gymnastics, part obstacle course and one-of-a-kind storytelling along the way — is located at 7918 26th St. in North Riverside.

A Washington state native, Clarno’s story began at the age of 4, when he first began taking gymnastics classes.

“Gymnastics has always been a part of my life; it set me up for life,” he said.

Though Clarno was a junior elite gymnast, earning state and regional titles as a child, during his late teen years, several serious injuries prevented him from competing at the collegiate level.

1 / 6

After graduating from an arts high school — and squeezing a black belt in karate — Clarno headed to the Midwest to study theater at the University of Minnesota. 

Following 10 years of professional acting work and as a choreographer, Clarno began thinking of ways to combine storytelling elements, fight choreography and acrobatics into a unique venture. 

“I came back to gymnastics and martial arts, and once I found a voice inside of both, I found a really cool way to do something special with storytelling,” he said. “My theater background allowed me to open this business, because there’s a big storytelling element that we’re doing with our ‘Ninja Squad’, where each character represents something inside of the classes.”

Six years ago, while running a gymnastics facility in Los Angeles, Clarno and his wife, Bridgette, shared a desire to move back to Chicago. A college friend who was a realtor suggested checking out Brookfield for its proximity to the city and family friendly vibe.

“Brookfield wasn’t even on our radar but as soon as we got here, we were sold,” he said. “We’ve loved every minute of it.”

Once settled, Clarno became general manager of Gemini Gymnastics Academy in LaGrange, where he began developing his ninja program concept while training teachers.

“I liked to show teachers how to teach gymnastics, engage with kids and have a great experience,” he said. “What I found that I loved about ninja is that there’s so much more creativity. Gymnastics is very detail-oriented, whereas ninja is more explorative, where you can tell stories. When you tell stories to kids, they learn faster.”

While working in LaGrange, Clarno developed the Ninja Monkeys curriculum program, dedicated to exploring creativity through playground physicality.

“It’s probably the first activity that encourages kids to think with their bodies,” he said. “We say ninja is creatively conquering obstacles, so we’re asking kids to look at the world like a playground and just have fun and explore their bodies in a way like it’s a vehicle to go up and around.”

Through strength-based and obstacle course activities which provide kids the ability to explore determination, resilience and agility, Clarno coins his ninja program as “kind of like ‘The Floor is Lava’ but with a bit of body algebra.”

Over a three-year period, Clarno developed his Ninja Essentials program, which he teaches online as a video tutorial and licenses to more than 60 businesses in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

Through the program, he also developed the Achieve Sleeve, a rewards program which allows kids the chance to earn and wear badges for accomplishments. They also become part of a “Ninja Squad,” which features a monkey, panda, cheetah, owl and elephant embodying key athletic elements of patience, courage, determination, agility, grit, creativity and kindness.

As kids go through the ninja program, they are able to learn more about the ninja characters and discover the skills they like to do best.

In North Riverside, Clarno took over the space where Flipside Academy of Movement, operated by friend and fellow Brookfield resident Paul Canada had offered similar training since 2017.

“We were looking at a few properties and almost purchased one in Lyons, and then this opportunity became available,” Clarno said. 

Clarno and Canada entered into an agreement where Clarno runs his own program at the storefront location while Canada will continue to offer his competitive ninja program at the location on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Ninja Squad Gym opened last November, and Clarno says the new location has attracted families from across the area, specifically those with kids ages 3 to 7.

Unlike other sports, Clarno says, ninja training doesn’t have a specific season.

“Whenever you join, that’s when you begin to learn new skills,” he said. “We move up through the curriculum at a pace that’s right for the child.”

For more information about Ninja Squad Gym and to register for classes, visit ninjasquadgym.com or call 708-800-8409.