“It’s a showdown on stage four!” Matt Iseman proclaimed as Daniel Gil became the very last contestant to attempt the fourth stage of American Ninja Warrior’s final course in Las Vegas. Earlier, Drew Drechsel was the first to complete stage three, and then competitor after competitor fell down.
Drew and Daniel became only the third and fourth people to complete stage three in 11 seasons of the NBC reality competition—the other 19 contestants who’d made it through to the third stage all fell at some point—and then Drew went on to win the $1 million prize and became the show’s second winner in its 11-season history.
While NBC’s promotion of the finale revealed that there would definitely be a $1 million winner, the actual episode treated it as a mystery—a possibility, not a foregone conclusion. That is, of course, how it played out in real life, when the Las Vegas finals were filmed. But it was still a weird disconnect between the marketing and the episode itself.
The final two contestants competed for the $1 million by racing against each other and the clock, climbing a single, 75-foot, vertical rope. Only the person who completed the climb the fastest—and in fewer than 30 minutes—would win.
Drew “The Real Life Ninja” Drechsel, who has been competing on ANW since season three (when it served as the American qualifiers for the Japanese series Sasuke), went first and finished with 2.54 seconds to go. Daniel “The Kingdom Ninja” Gil, who first competed in season 7 in 2015, was unable to finish in 30 seconds, only getting to the 70-foot mark.
Drew’s long history of competing has made him one of American Ninja Warrior celebrity contestants. When I was on location in 2017 at the Daytona Beach course, host Matt Iseman told me, “Drew Drechsel’s a rock star out here.” He wasn’t kidding.
The popularity of Drew and other repeat contenders, including Jessie Graff, means that the production now distributes them across the cities that host the qualifying rounds, so that each set of episodes will have well-known contestants competing and/or cheering on others on the sidelines. (Read more from behind-the-scenes of American Ninja Warrior.)
When he’s not competing on the show, Drew owns The Real Life Ninja Academy, a collection of gyms with obstacles that’d be familiar to viewers of the NBC show, where people can learn how to tackle obstacles such as the salmon ladder and the warped wall.
Despite Drew’s years of preparation and practice, had it not been for this season’s new “Safety Pass” twist, he would have been eliminated in the very first stage of the finals, as he fell off an obstacle during that round.
In an interview with American Ninja Warrior Nation, he said having that potential immunity changed how he was thinking about the course.
I didn’t feel the same pressure, I didn’t feel it was real. It was kind of like, ‘If I fall, I fall, I have a pass.’ I didn’t want to rely on it because this snowball of success gets crushed the minute you get wet on a course. The minute you fall, you feel defeated.
And I did. I got about halfway through the course, and I went to laché, the handle I was throwing off of was still moving a lot more. I did not get as far as I wanted on the big tire, I had to go for a jump, and I ate it. I immediately just climbed out of the water. I was like, “All right. I have to do this again,” and I can’t do that again.
And when walking back, I felt more ready and prepared to run Stage One. Yes, I got to touch the obstacles once. Well, some of them, so I kind of had a familiar idea of what they were going to be like, so I felt better at least up to that point. But I’ll tell you what, getting back to that point, after just falling there, and 20 minutes later it’s like, ‘Don’t screw this up again.’ And that was a lot of pressure to just have a second chance and capitalize on it.
… So, the Safety Pass, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the rerun, even though it came in handy. I am going to say that I believe if I didn’t have the Safety Pass, I would’ve been a little more serious in my preparation, knowing what I wanted, I would’ve have been thrown off, and I think I would’ve just passed it the first time. But there’s no way of ever knowing, and I wouldn’t change it just because the outcome of me being the winner of this season. Why would I ever jeopardize that with changing anything else?”