Seven seasons. Eleven cities. Six rounds of competition – City Qualifying, City Finals, and the four-staged Mt. Midoriyama. For years, it seemed more and more unlikely that any American would ever be crowned the first American Ninja Warrior – the level of talent was getting higher each year, yet nobody had been able to actually finish. In 2013’s Season 5, Brian Arnold became the closest, having failed on the last obstacle of Mt. Midoriyama’s Stage 3. In 2014’s Season 6, only two athletes were able to make it to Stage 3, neither one getting as close as Arnold had the year before. The athletes were getting better and better each year, some having competed in every season of American Ninja Warrior, but the course grew more and more ruthless each year. To incentivize competitors in an attempt to show that the course truly could be done, the initial $250,000 prize was raised to $500,000 for Season 3; for the just-closed Season 7, the prize was raised again to $1,000,000. Whether or not because a million dollars was on the line, the American Ninja Warriors stepped their game up tremendously… and for the first time, a winner was crowned.
This season, a new obstacle was announced to be greeting the contestants at the end of their City Finals course. Instead of the Spider Climb – where contestants would lock themselves in place using their arms and legs before ascending thirty feet to the buzzer – there was the Invisible Ladder, a grueling upper-body obstacle that involved grabbing two rings and pumping arms up the thirty feet climb instead. The City Finals course was so grueling that out of 188 City Finalists, only 19 reached the Invisible Ladder; of those, only 11 were able to scale it. If the City Finals were proving to be this difficult to finish, how would someone be able to finish all four stages of Mt. Midoriyama, where you needed to complete each stage in order to move on? America held its breath as Stage One commenced and exploded with enthusiasm as, despite a lackluster City Finals outing, a record 38 competitors cleared the stage and moved on to Stage Two. Stage One is when you finally begin to take stock of who could win the entire thing; Joe Moravsky, one of the only two men to reach Stage 3 in 2014, had pegged Geoff Britten to be able to take it all. Watching Stage One myself, I looked at rock climber Isaac Caldiero and said, “He could take it all.” Neither man disappointed as the competition moved on.
With the amazingly talented athletes keeping up their trailblazing, a record 8 competitors were able to clear Stage Two, moving on to the deadly Stage Three. One man, Brian Arnold, had gone further than anyone else. Only Joe Moravsky and Elet Hall had visited the stage during 2014. Looking at the eight competitors assembled – including legendary Drew Dreschel, credited as one of the sport’s pioneers, and Kevin Bull, the revolutionary rookie of 2014 who invented his own ways to handle the course’s obstacles – inspired a feeling that greatness was bound to happen. And greatness did happen – the fourth runner of the night, Isaac Caldiero, became the first American to clear Stage Three and reach Stage 4. Before the night was over, an inspiring performance by Geoff Britten – where the visibly drained man took part of an obstacle off the course with him as part of his final, emotional dismount – continued to break history. For the first time in seven seasons, Stage Three had been beaten by not just one, but two men. Stage Four was the final stop in crowning an American Ninja Warrior.
Both men were timed with thirty seconds to ascend a 75-foot rope up Mt. Midoriyama. Despite his exhaustion, Britten was able to complete the stage with under a second left. Right there, someone had just become a millionaire – the only thing standing between Britten and his prize was Caldiero, and the only thing standing between Caldiero and the million dollars was a 75-foot rope climb. In a span of thirty seconds, one of these men was going to be a millionaire. Even more importantly, one of these men was about to become the first winner of American Ninja Warrior. As I watched Caldiero begin his ascent, I remembered how back in Stage One I knew he could win the entire thing. Watching Caldiero hit the buzzer more than three seconds faster than Britten, I was proud to see someone I believed in take the prize of a lifetime.
For many serious American Ninja Warrior competitors, they’ve either given up their old ways of life (as James McGrath, a five-time Mt. Midoriyama veteran, continues to do, quitting whatever job he has when it interferes with his training schedule) or adapted their ways of life for their passion (as Isaac Caldiero does, using his job as a busboy to work in his intensive training regimens). This year, the competition ended historically, with Britten having had a perfect season (completing every course) and Caldiero becoming the first winner. For countless other athletes, the goal this year was to do the impossible: beat Mt. Midoriyama and become the first American Ninja Warrior. Now that someone has finally accomplished that dream, with Season 8 coming next year, I think we can expect all of the competitors to train even harder with a new goal in mind – now that they know it can be done, it’s time to do it better than ever. Isaac Caldiero, watch out – you’re going to have a lot of competition for the title next year.