8:00pm PT by Lesley Goldberg
'American Ninja Warrior' Crowns First Winner — With a Twist
What a difference three seconds makes.
After seven seasons, NBC's summer reality competition series American Ninja Warrior crowned its first-ever winner during Monday's three-hour season finale. But that wasn't the only excitement.
Geoff "Popeye" Britten, a 36-year-old full-time sports cameraman, became the first American to complete ANW's grueling Stage 4 in the Las Vegas finals (with an end time of 29.65 seconds). However, his victory would be short-lived. Rock climber (and busboy) Isaac Caldiero — who dedicates his life to training for ANW — in a stunning display not only completed the massive 75-foot rope climb but bested Britten's time by three seconds (finishing in 26.14 seconds). That crowned Caldiero — who had the best time in Stage 3 and elected to go second in the final stage — the first winner of the show's American version, as ANW rules dictate that whoever finishes the course and has the best time wins the prize money.
The season featured a record eight people completing the nearly impossible Stage 2 of the finals and saw many veteran ninjas eliminated. Only Britten, a second year ninja, and Caldiero, in his third year, made it to Mount Midoriyama.
"Winning this event always seemed impossible," Caldiero said. "As the first American Ninja Warrior, I want to use this opportunity to inspire the world to find your impossible and conquer it."
ANW executive producer Kent Weed talks with The Hollywood Reporter about the record-breaking season and crowning the show's first winner(s).
Two people beat Mount Midoriyama for the first time ever on the U.S. series. What was it about this season that the previous seven didn't have?
It had growth. It had momentum. It had a certain feel like this was the year it was going to happen. Every year the accomplishments have gotten greater and people have gotten farther and farther. Last year, on the USA vs. World episode, Brian Arnold completed Stage 3, and that sent a message to all other ninjas that it can be done. Once the ceiling was broken through and someone sees someone do it, it opens the gates for other people and invites them to do it. That set the tone for the season, and everybody saw that achievement and said, "If he could do it, I could do it too," which is the same reason why we have new ninjas every season — because someone's watching on the couch one year and they say the same thing, which is why the show is so special.
Every year, the course has gradually gotten more difficult. Were you surprised to see not one but two people complete it?
I was. It's funny — every year I'm asked if someone will finish and think it'll be the year. When Geoff finished Stage 3, it was remarkable because there was a moment where everybody has fallen in the past — on the last bar jump. He does the jump, and you see his grip give away and think he's going down. I don't know what happened or where he got the strength, but all of a sudden, it stopped giving away, and he was hanging by his fingertips. Then he leaps to the finish. It was superhuman. It's surprising. Those two guys happened to be in the right place at the right time. Everything clicked for them; everything has to work for you. You never make a mistake, and you have to be mentally tough.
As far as Stage 4, Geoff was a perfect candidate because of his crazy upper-body strength — we call him Popeye because of his forearms. He's one of the most world-class rock climbers. He can hang from one hand and hold a rock 60 feet off the ground without blinking an eye for minutes. They're both amazing candidates to do Stage 4 to begin with. I'm not surprised they got up there in time. I was a little surprised how fast Isaac was. Geoff barely makes it in time — which was surprising enough — but Isaac is a superhero. He was in a total Zen stage, like the thing someone prepares for their whole life, and this is it for him. This is his crowning achievement. Everything he's done has prepared him for this moment. We were so ready for it. It was such an amazing moment. It was so emotional for all the ninjas watching, all the people there watching and myself in the control room. We had tears in our eyes because it's been so long in coming. It's a great feeling, great crowning achievement for the sport, for Isaac and for us as a show and as a family. You're basically climbing a 75-foot rope in under 30 seconds, which is just crazy. There are people who can't walk 75 feet in 30 seconds, and that's how fast they went up the rope.
So Geoff doesn't get any prize money even though technically he was the very first to beat the entire course?
By the rules, the money goes to the fastest person. If there's more than one finisher, the one with the fastest time gets it. As much as the money is a wonderful prize and life-changing, he does get the great gratification. I don't think he harbors any ill will about it. He's just so happy to have done what he's done. He's received tons of accolades from fans. He's such a great guy and a family man. He's a hero to his kids and his wife. Geoff said to me, "If I was going to be beat by someone, I'm glad it's Isaac." And I think Isaac would have felt the same way if the roles were reversed.
What is it about Isaac and Geoff that you think gave them the skills to beat the course?
It's a combination of skills — upper-body strength, rock climbing and grip strength is key. Geoff's forearms are huge, and Isaac has a very little body fat, and he climbs and trains for a living. He trained specifically this year for Stage 3 every day. He built Stage 3 in his backyard, and he would do it every day.
As a longtime Ninja fan, I'm surprised it wasn't a veteran like Brent Steffensen or Paul Kasemir.
I share your feelings. There were probably a few others I have thought would have had a chance at it. I've done this for seven seasons, and it's like Any Given Sunday — and on any given day, you can fall. It doesn't matter how good you are. I was excited to see a lot of our former really big heroes from the past — like Brent, Paul or Travis Rosen — emerge and make these big comebacks, and there are all these new ninjas. I play all these scenarios in my head all the time, so you never know.
Isaac is in his third year, and Geoff is only in his second. Do you think the course is more appealing to those who still see it with fresh eyes and haven't already been through that taxing mental game?
Yes, it's interesting. What you don't know can't hurt you. In that respect, it's true. It does lend itself to being an advantage for the rookies in that regard. Ultimately, it pays to have a bit of experience. And Geoff, I know it's what he did with the experience from last year. Then Brian Arnold takes a year off and trains and has one slipup. They look back and go over it and go, "I just had a mental lapse." We take great care in the obstacles we create and how we design them, not just about physical but mental skills too. You can psych yourself out because everything looks different on TV than it does when you're standing up there. All of a sudden, you go through something and say, "Whoa, wait a minute. That's too far. I can't do it. I can't get up there." And then you're wiggling around, and then you're stuck there. We design for that purpose to get people who may second-guess themselves. But they have the physical ability to do it any day of the week.
Isaac is part of the show's famed "Wolf Pack" of top competitors, and Geoff has support from fellow ninjas as well. How much do you think that training and support system helps?
The Wolf Pack is a great role model and a great inspiration for a lot of people, and they're great mentors. They support each other, they support the community and they support new ninjas every day. There are groups forming all over the country like the Wolf Pack to train, learn techniques and help each other. There's nothing that's held secret. Everything is shared. It's a better way to do it when they share it with someone else or someone shares with you.
The show has taken off in the past two seasons to become a big performer for NBC during the summer. How do you plan to up the stakes for season eight?
That's the challenge we face. We have a few surprises up our sleeve for next season that I don't want to share just yet. We'll make new obstacles, and the course is going to be different. There's always some new twist that we apply to the course and to the obstacles that keeps the ninjas on their toes and challenges them. But we've got a few little tricks and little surprises that will be exciting for the ninjas and the fans as well.
Kacy Catanzaro was knocked out early and struggled at the finals last season because of her height. How do you address the show's struggles with female competitors?
Kacy could get through these obstacles. In Vegas, she missed the trampoline. She could make that jump nine times out of 10. The Spider Wall she did in practice, so I know she could do it. It's less about male and female; it's more about height, and we paid attention to that through the seasons, especially this season. We had different adjustments for height. There's no reason why Kacy couldn't have finished Stage 1 this year. I believe in her. She'll be back, she just had an off year.
We're always cognizant of the female factor and making the courses as even as possible. I want more women to finish. I know they're better than a lot of the guys out there. It's part of the strategy with how we design the course. It's a fine line we play between making it too easy so we have too many finishers or too hard so we don't have enough finishers. Women are getting better. The first couple seasons, we couldn't get anyone over the Warped Wall. It just takes time, like any sport. We will have a woman finisher next year. We'll have more women in Vegas. We'll have the first woman to finish Stage 1 next year. And if they finish Stage 1, they've got a much better chance to do well. Upper body gets them through Stages 2 and 3. [Stage] 1 is an anomaly. It's a combination of skills and time. You've got to be fast and have agility.
ANW has featured so many firsts these past two seasons. What are your expectations for season eight? What would you like to see?
I'd like to see more new faces come out. I love stories of comeback kids. I'd like to see Kacy come back and take over again. This is like the Olympics, but you don't have to wait four years. I'd love to see some of our past heroes come back and emerge — and I want to see more women finish with more female runners overall. We've seen some really great female athletes that are very good and very strong.
What did you think of the American Ninja Warrior finale? Sound off in the comments below.