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American Ninja Warrior got its winner, but this record-setting season really timed out

American Ninja Warrior got its winner, but this record-setting season really timed out
Time's run out on someone—and season 15—of the American Ninja Warrior season 15 stage 4 of the Las Vegas Finals (Photo by Elizabeth Morris/NBC)

Before Sept. 11, 2023, American Ninja Warrior had just two $1 million winners: in 2015, Isaac Caldiero, and in 2019, Drew Drechsel, who’s now in prison awaiting sentencing having pled guilty to two felonies.

So you can see why the show 1) didn’t mention the name of their most-recent winner, and 2) might have really, really wanted a winner this year.

They got one—not that it was a surprise, as an NBC’s preview spoiled the existence of a winner long ago.

A record eight contestants made it to AWN’s stage four in Las Vegas, and attempted to climb Mount Midoriyama—an 75-foot rope straight up—in 30 seconds.

Not one but two of those contestants finished in under 30 seconds, so the fastest won the $1 million.

A person holding on to a thick red rope and standing on a box; scaffolding behind him holds two placards that say "10'"
ANW 15 finalist Nacssa Garemore gets ready to attempt stage four of the Las Vegas course (Photo by Elizabeth Morris/NBC)

The episode opened with a montage of clips of some of this season’s teenage finalists talking about American Ninja Warrior they were even younger. Would it be one of the teenage contestants to win it all?

We found out after plenty of American Ninja Warrior’s trademark filler, bio packages full of the same details that have been repeated all season, and were repeated again as they ran the actual course. “This is where his cerebral palsy may have an effect,” co-host Matt Iseman said as Vance Walker traversed part of stage three without any discernible struggle.

(The audio for the feed I watched was odd: at one point, descriptive audio turned on, and during Hans Hertz’s stage three run, Matt and Akbar’s commentary was not audible, so it was just audience sounds and music, which was surreal. My local affiliate, WESH, kept trying to cut in with severe weather updates and having technical difficulties—perhaps due to the severe weather!—so I’m not sure if this happened just in Central Florida or elsewhere, too.)

Half of ANW 15’s eight finalists were 18 or under, including the youngest-ever to compete on stage four, Nacssa Garemore, who was “barely out of middle school,” as co-host Akbar Gbajabiamila said.

Here are those who made it to stage four and their finishing times:

  1. Ethan Bartnicki (18), 46.40 seconds
  2. Caleb Bergstrom (23), 37.51 seconds
  3. Nacssa Garemore (15). 40.18 seconds
  4. Daniel Gil (30), 27.99 seconds
  5. Hans Hertz (16), 42.32 seconds
  6. Noah Meunier (17), 33.5 seconds
  7. R.J. Roman (26), timed out
  8. Vance Walker (19), 26.75 seconds

So Vance Walker—who already won American Ninja Warrior Junior twice—won American Ninja Warrior season 15 and $1 million after beating Daniel Gil’s time by more than one second.

A pre-written NBC blog post said, “Fans are pumped to celebrate the history-making Champion of Season 15 in one of the toughest competitions yet.” Was it really? Or does the win come with an asterisk?

ANW 15 made its Las Vegas finals easier

A person wearing a white cowboy hat lifts a trophy made of two tiers of scaffolding to his shoulder; a sign behind him says 'ANW National Finals'
Vance Walker celebrates his $1 million American Ninja Warrior season 15 win with his family (Photo by Elizabeth Morris/NBC)

I ask that question because of all the changes American Ninja Warrior made this season.

First, it changed its semifinal rounds to add ninja versus ninja races, and then made even more changes to its format for the Las Vegas finals.

The final four stages are unforgiving: tough obstacles and no second chances—well, unless a contestant has a safety pass, which allows them a second chance. This season, R.J. Roman benefitted from that, falling on stage one but getting a second chance to complete it thanks to the safety pass he won earlier.

This year, the finals course was easier to move through, as falling or not completing the course in time was not necessarily disqualifying.

All of this was because the Las Vegas finals’ stage two was changed to a head-to-head, ninja vs. ninja race format. In order to seed those races, the producers guaranteed 24 contestants would make it to stage two.

Two people leaping through the air to small platforms; large neon letters A and N are behind them
Flip Rodriguez and Hans Hertz race each other through stage two of the American Ninja Warrior 15 Las Vegas finals (Photo by Elizabeth Morris/NBC)

Six contestants who fell on stage one—and would have been eliminated in any other season—made it to stage two, including Flip Rodriguez and Elijah Browning.

The second chances continued in stage two, where four people who fell were able to face off for a second chance to make stage three. That’s how both Kyle Soderman and eventual winner Vance Walker made it to stage three.

Although I dislike the format change and advancing contestants who fall, I will give American Ninja Warrior this: the races themselves were incredibly dramatic.

Exchanging speed for precision led to some shocking falls and stunning moves, and stunning moves that led to shocking falls.

There was also controversy over one obstacle: Epic Air Surfer, which Saskuepedia notes “was the most brutal obstacle on Stage Two that season, as a total of 7 competitors failed to complete it.”

A person swinging through the air holding on to an apparatus that's resting on two beams
Daniel Gil during stage two of the American Ninja Warrior season 15 Las Vegas finals (Photo by Elizabeth Morris/NBC)

The controversy was because the red side of the track appeared more slippery. But Lucas Reale, who tested the obstacle, wrote on Reddit,

“I’ll provide a little insight… as someone who tested both sides, I felt NO difference during testing. Now during taping (and especially watching the runs back this week) it did look like there was at least a slight difference with being on the red side, BUT I can also look at each person who failed it and find at least something that they did wrong which caused them to fail.”

Ultimately, 14 people, all men, made it to stage three—which was, to be fair, quite difficult.

Again, the stage four rope climb itself is no small feat, judging by the failure of six of the eight to complete it in under 30 seconds.

Alas, this new format will be part of American Ninja Warrior season 16, because that season already filmed. Will it, too, have a winner?

The producers and/or network decided to prioritize drama with the races, and then make it easier to win $1 million than ever before by altering the path to that final obstacle.

Vance Walker deserves the $1 million for doing that climb as incredibly fast as he did.

Yet it’s impossible to shake that American Ninja Warrior has turned a sharp corner, no longer the show where a single mistake means a contestant has to wait one year to try again.

That’s no longer the case, never mind that some of ANW 15’s contestants just turned around and tried again a few days later for season 16.

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Happy discussing!

Alline Kendall

Wednesday 13th of September 2023

I did not like the young kids competing against the older people fill like age limit should be 18.

Mike b.

Thursday 14th of September 2023

@Alline Kendall, me too. They have they have their own competition that is shown on the biography segments.

chase chandler

Tuesday 12th of September 2023

Whoever wrote this disgraceful article forgets that the obstacles caused some of the best athletes to go out earlier than normal and also demeans the accomplishment of this incredible athlete who refused to be defined by what we so commonly refer to as a disability and instead believed in his abilities.


Tuesday 12th of September 2023

ANW was different this year because of all the changes. Originally it was not about being faster than your fellow ANWs, it was about personal strength and skill. For Season 16, I won't be watching the qualifying or semi-final rounds but will watch the finals. I have watched ANW from the very beginning and was disappointed by the changes made.

Timothy voorheis

Sunday 24th of September 2023

@Syd, I’ve been watching anw since the beginning and I also complete skipped the tryouts this season, I like the idea of a big cash prize for the contestants and if someone got it every season I think it would bring more contestants, I do believe it’s a bit unfair for the women and they should remove the timer for them in finals stage 1 or let the top two proceed.