Lufe Torres can’t believe it. Falling in love swept him off his feet, carried him around the world, launched his fitness career, and landed him on the hit NBC television show American Ninja Warrior. 

Six years ago, Torres was a university student in Chile. In February, he became a U.S. citizen. One month later, beneath the bright lights of network cameras, Torres was soaring through an obstacle course on a downtown set between the Bexar County Courthouse and Main Plaza.

More than 70,000 people applied for the reality competition series. Torres initially showed little  interest. When a casting director sent a query to his Alamo Heights gym seeking applicants in December, Torres was too busy to respond. He was coaching a CrossFit team, training for the CrossFit Open Games, playing for a club soccer team, studying for his citizenship exam, and planning a trip to Chile after Christmas with his wife, Holly Torres.

“So many things were happening that I was a bit scared to embrace another adventure,” Lufe said. “I am glad I did, though!”

Considerable credit goes to Holly, 27, whom he married in 2012. She persuaded him to apply, and American Ninja Warrior found his story irresistible. “When they called, telling me I was going to be on the show, I was really excited,” Lufe said.

HIs journey from Chile to the United States begins in Valparaíso, 4,600 miles away. A retired officer in the Chilean Navy, Lufe was working on his thesis in physical education and exercise science at Pontifical Catholic University. Holly, an exchange student from Trinity, had gone to the same school to become fluent in Spanish in the fall of 2010. They met in a Salsa class.

“He was my dance partner the first day,” Holly said.

For Lufe, the attraction was instant. For Holly, not so much. And so it began: a short, muscled Chilean soccer player with a quick smile and thick accent (he sounds a bit like Manu Ginobili) pursuing an American student interested only in learning Spanish. Three months after that first Salsa class, Holly agreed to a date.

Lufe introduced Holly to running and lifting weights. Holly introduced Lufe to American culture. They danced and worked out and played at the beach. Heads often turned. Strangers recognized Lufe from a reality TV show in Chile. Titled Juego del miedo (“game of fear”) and filmed in 2009, Lufe lived in an abandoned hospital for three months. He competed with a team in a variety of events. His team lost and the show flopped. But when he and Holly went dancing, people often approached him and said, “Hey, you’re the guy from that show.”

One day, Lufe invited Holly to a yoga class. When she walked in, her heart skipped. There in an adult day care facility was a room full of students with Down syndrome. Lufe was teaching and using the class to complete his thesis on the benefits of yoga for adults with the chromosomal condition. He would write that a combination of yoga and basic gymnastics could increase body tone and emotional confidence and help those with Down syndrome better integrate into society.

“That was the day I fell in love with him,” Holly said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. I want to spend the rest of my life with this person.’”  

When Holly completed her exchange program in 2011, she and Lufe went to the airport and cried. “We skyped every day for six months,” she said.

Lufe completed his thesis and came to the U.S. in February 2012. He proposed in March and they married in June – one month after Holly earned her bachelor’s in Spanish and sociology from Trinity.

Five years after arriving in the U.S., Lufe became a citizen, and the next month, he was on the set of American Ninja Warrior. Most participants train for years to be on the show. Not Lufe. Once show producers told him, “You made it,” Lufe had a little more than one month to train.

Lufe did not know what he would do when he came to the U.S. But it wasn’t long before he took a deep dive into fitness. He became the captain of a club soccer team, took up CrossFit, and introduced Holly to a sport she knew little about. Lufe not only worked out with Holly, he turned her into a CrossFit athlete.

“I was terrified of CrossFit at first,” said Holly, who graduates today with a master’s in school psychology from Trinity. “I thought people worked out to lose weight. I didn’t know they trained to look awesome. It took me a while to get into it. Now I love it. I feel in a lot of ways Lufe changed my life. When I met him, I was having back pain from scoliosis. Some days, when I was in Chile, I couldn’t walk. But after I started training with him, the pain’s been gone.”

In the Spring Branch gym where he trains, Lufe looks like an American ninja. He swings from pulleys, scales curved walls and leaps through obstacles. How did he do on American Ninja Warrior? All he can say is tune in and watch when his episode airs sometime in June.

Lufe understands the appeal of his story to the popular TV show. He arrived in the U.S. with an engagement ring and not much of a plan. He would marry Holly, perhaps stay for a while, and move back to Chile. Now here he is, living a life that was too big for him to dream.

“I have changed so much,” he said. “When I came to America, I was in a Latino state of mind. But now I feel connected to the community, to San Antonio. I have trained more than 1,000 people in the last five years and when I got here the only person I knew was my wife.”

Sometimes it is difficult for Lufe to put his journey into words. But this much he knows: To go from the life he had in Chile to the one he has in the U.S., all he had to do was to fall in love.

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native and award-winning journalist.