SALT LAKE CITY — What’s the special ingredient to make a nearly impossible obstacle course even trickier?
The Water Walls — the first-ever underwater obstacle on “American Ninja Warrior” — debuted Monday night on the season 10 finale. The sixth and final obstacle on the competition’s Stage 2 course required ninjas to hold their breath underwater while opening a series of increasingly challenging doors in order to swim their way through to the buzzer.
But that obstacle wasn’t even the hardest part of Stage 2, as only three of the 30 ninjas left in the competition got to experience the Water Walls. To get to that point, ninjas had to make it through five other physically demanding obstacles. Of those five obstacles, two proved especially formidable — a new obstacle, Deja Vu, and the high-flying Wingnut Alley that took out 23 competitors last year.
Wingnut Alley showed early on it would once again be a threat, taking out Josh Salinas, the first competitor of the night. West Haven, Weber County, gym owner Karson Voiles was another one of Wingnut Alley’s 11 victims Monday night. Although the show didn’t air Voiles’ full run, a brief clip showed history repeating itself for the Utah competitor.
“The exact same spot three years in a row,” said Voiles, shaking his head following his Stage 2 attempt.
Voiles’ fellow Utahn Eric Middleton, who is currently a Ph.D. student studying entomology at the University of Minnesota, found trouble on the second-most difficult obstacle of the night: Deja Vu. This third obstacle of the Stage 2 course required ninjas to swing out on one bar and lock it in place before reaching back to grab and unlock a second bar and swing to the dismount. Middleton was one of 10 ninjas who splashed down during the obstacle — but his landing appeared to be harder than the others' as he rose to the water’s surface with a bloody nose.
Only two competitors made it through the tricky Stage 2 course within the four minute and 30 second time limit — but one came heartbreakingly close.
“American Ninja Warrior” veteran Najee Richardson, who completed Stage 2 last year while battling asthma, was especially nervous for the underwater obstacle on this year’s course. Utahn Isaac Caldiero — the only ninja to walk away from the show with the $1 million prize — cheered Richardson on from the sidelines. Monitoring his pulse in-between the obstacles and taking deep breaths, Richardson was the first competitor of the night to try the final Stage 2 obstacle. Unfortunately, his time ran out right as he made it through the third underwater door and hit the buzzer.
For a while, it seemed no one would complete the course and that Richardson would be the ninja to go the farthest. In the past, that meant the season was over with no winner. The show’s near-impossible standards is the reason only one person — Orem native Caldiero — has ever walked away with the grand prize in 10 seasons.
But “American Ninja Warrior” issued another big change beyond an underwater obstacle this season — a change that meant Caldiero would no longer be the only one in the show’s history walking away with money. The show is doing something it should’ve done long before: Honoring the last ninja standing. For the first time in show history, the competitor who went the farthest the fastest would take home a $100,000 prize.
Monday night, the $100,000 prize would end up going to either ninja Sean Bryan, a Catholic Church worker known as the Papal Ninja, or “American Ninja Warrior” veteran Drew Drechsel — the two competitors to complete the Stage 2 course.
It all came down to Stage 3 — only two people have ever completed the course. Last night marked Bryan’s second Stage 3 attempt and he fell on the fourth of eight obstacles — the Ultimate Cliffhanger — that test upper body strength. It was the same obstacle that tripped Bryan up last year, but the ninja cited progress as he made it slightly farther than last time.
While Drechsel still had his sights set on becoming the second person in show history to earn the $1 million prize, his main goal entering Stage 3 was to beat Bryan’s time. The Connecticut gym owner made it through the first three obstacles and beat his competitor’s time by more than 20 seconds. Soon after, Drechsel fell on the Ultimate Cliffhanger, but his fast time on the earlier obstacles made him the season 10 winner.
He didn’t reach Stage 4 and climb to the top of Mount Midoriyama, but he was the last ninja standing, and finally, “American Ninja Warrior” honored that accomplishment.
“I feel fantastic!” Drechsel yelled.