After seven seasons and 3,500 contestants, somebody has finally won American Ninja Warrior.
Spoilers: On Monday night, NBC revealed that 33-year-old professional rock climber Isaac Caldiero became the first person to complete all four stages of “Mt. Midoriyama” at the Las Vegas finals and win the $1 million prize (video below).
Caldiero very narrowly edged out another contestant—Geoff Britten, who surprised fans by also finishing the just-shy-of-impossible obstacle course. A familiar competitor on the show, Caldiero is one of the many obsessive ANW athletes who build replicas of the course at home. Ninja Warrior is based on the Japanese game show Sasuke and has baffled contestants since debuting stateside in 2009.
“Winning this event always seemed impossible,” said Caldiero, who beat the finals course of four stages and 23 obstacles. “As the first American Ninja Warrior I want to use this opportunity to inspire the world to find your impossible and conquer it.”
Below executive producer Kent Weed takes some of our burning questions:
Entertainment Weekly: How is this going to impact the show?
Kent Weed: I think it only helps the show and it’s only going to bring more viewers. They’ve done something nobody’s done before, but can they do it again? You’ve seen it before with athletes, where people who have risen and gotten very far, and then disappeared. Will we have a repeat next season? And we’re always adjusting the courses and making them more difficult. And part of the uniqueness of American Ninja Warrior is the minute [contestants] see the courses they start building them in their backyard. I think that’s why we had success this year — we didn’t make a lot of changes to Stage 3. And Isaac basically built Stage 3 in his backyard from last season and worked out on it every single day. So he said, “If I could just get to Stage 3, I can do it.” He almost didn’t make it a couple a times, but he did. And because of that he was prepared in his head more than anything. And up until last year, nobody had completed Stage 3, and that was during USA vs. the World. And once Brian Arnold did that, it broke the barrier showing that it could be done. Because half of this is really mental.
Going into the finals, who was your private pick for who was most likely to finish?
I just wanted somebody to finish it. Every person had a shot at it. If I had to say a fan favorite it would be Joe Moravsky. I’ve followed his life, and he was a sentimental favorite.
What can you tell us about the USA vs. the World special this year?
It’s a similar format with a Japan and European team. We also did an All-Stars special. So it’s the favorite All-Star Ninjas — females and males both — and there’s a head-to-head challenge and there’s a skills challenge. We have a Warped Wall that goes up to 22 feet. How far can they jump? How far can they get up the wall? There’s a giant peg board and we see how fast they can get around it. It’s very exciting.
The whole course is so much more upper body intensive than lower body — obviously you have the warped wall. but is there a way to add strength and endurance leg obstacles which would help balance out the gender disparity a bit?
We’re always working on that and trying to close that gap, whether it’s gender or height. Actually, the upper body strength I think the women have cracked now, the problem is they can’t get through Stage 1 because of the clock, they’re a little bit slower than the guys. [Many of the female competitors] have upper body strength that’s insane, and you’ll see that in All Stars when some compete in Second and Third Stage obstacles how well they do.
Did Geoff get anything for coming in second?
He got to be one of the first American Ninja Warriors. According to the rules there’s only one winner. We talked to NBC about it, we might make adjustments next season, but we didn’t plan for a second finisher.
You see these stories where the contestants are working in movie theaters and living out of their car, and I wonder if they should they get paid for their participation once they make it past a certain point in the season? I realize you comp their travel if they make it to Vegas. But it feels like they fall between the gap being a professional athlete — who would get paid — and a reality show participant—who would also get paid.
That’s the way the show is constructed. Maybe at some point it will become more of a professional sport, but it’s not there yet. There’s a modest prize for the fastest finisher in the city qualifier and finals in each city, and there’s a per diem and we take care of their travel to Vegas. I don’t think that time has come yet, but I could see it happening one day. There’s enough that they get in their real lives, there’s a lot of popularity that they share, and there’s sometimes areas of revenues they can come up with. The sport is also bigger than the athletes, too. There’s no shortage of Ninjas out there. We average 60 percent new Ninjas every year. And they do it for reasons that are not monetary.
What changes can we expect next season?
We always come up with new obstacles. We’re going to have between 24 and 26 new obstacles. I think it’s just tweaking the course. We have a couple surprises planned.
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