USA TODAY US Edition
‘Ninja’ (finally) crowns a champion
After 7 seasons, someone finishes, takes home the $1M
“To see their dream realized was big. ‘Is this thing for real? Can anybody ever really do this?’ That is going to get a lot of attention. We found our first, now who can be the next?” Co-host and former NFL player Akbar Gbajabiamila
Finally, a winner.
After seven seasons, NBC’s American Ninja Warrior has crowned its first champion as Isaac Caldiero, a 33-year-old rock climber and busboy, became the first U.S. contestant to complete all four “stages” of its grueling Las Vegas obstacle course in Monday’s season finale.
Actually, he was the second: Geoff Britten, a Maryland cameraman who was the only other athlete to compete in the final stage — a 75-foot rope climb that had to be scaled within 30 seconds — finished first. But he took 3.6 seconds longer to do it, which cost him the $1 million prize.
Caldiero says he was convinced that eventually, among 3,500 athletes who’ve competed on Ninja
Warrior, “someone was going to win, I just didn’t know when.” The course has been “dubbed impossible for so many years, and I said, ‘I want to be the guy who does the impossible,’ and I did.”
He says this season’s competition was “by far the hardest,” thanks to tougher, unfamiliar obstacles and veteran contestants who’ve had another year of training. But it all comes down to “who didn’t make mistakes and who stayed focused. You can fall on the most basic obstacle you’ve done a million times.”
The final three stages were filmed over about 10 hours in late June, with Caldiero emerging the victor shortly before sunrise after an unusually hot day. Ninja War
rior, shared by NBC-owned Esquire Network, is based on Japan’s Sasuke, which has aired since 1997. Only four contestants have achieved “total victory” in 31 seasons of that competition, each taped in a single day. Early seasons of the American series sent top finishers to Japan’s “Mt. Midoriyama,” as the course, constructed in a Yokohama parking lot, is called; it has since been re-created in Las Vegas.
With up-close-and-personal profiles and returning favorites, the competition has moved from a male-driven niche cable series to NBC’s No. 2 summer show among younger viewers, and 52% of its audience is women, says executive producer Kent Weed.
This year, a record 28 contestants completed Stage 1, eight finished Stage 2, and for the first time ever, two Warriors made it past the third stage, while others stumbled on Roulette Row, two suspended spinning wheels.
Excitable co-host and former NFL player Akbar Gbajabiamila says he was “completely shocked” by the first win and believes it will make the show — averaging 7.2 million viewers, up 22% from last year in its most-watched season yet — even more popular.
“To see their dream realized was big,” he says, especially after some skeptics wondered “‘Is this thing for real? Can anybody ever really do this?’ That is going to get a lot of attention. We found our first, now who can be the next?”
Weed says shaggy-haired Caldiero was “very centered, very focused,” qualities that proved key to his win.
“It’s as much a mental game as a physical one,” Weed. says. “You can psych yourself out very easily. When you look down you’re basically spotting your landing point and you’re going to fall” into one of the course’s splash pools. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone look down and make it.”
What will Utah native Caldiero, who now lives in Vegas with his girlfriend and fellow contestant Laura Kisana, do with his million-dollar prize? “I’ve never been to Disneyland.”