Vance Walker finally claimed victory as the next “American Ninja Warrior” during Monday’s Season 15 finale, but the journey to winning certainly caused him a fair amount of grief.
After hitting a buzzer during Stage 3 of the NBC competition show’s Las Vegas finals, Walker, along with eight other remaining contestants, went head-to-head to climb the infamous Mt. Midoriyama 75-foot rope climb. While Walker finished his climb with the best performance so far with 3.25 seconds to spare in the 30-second challenge, the 18-year-old finalist had to wait to claim victory until seeing if Caleb Bergstrom and RJ Roman beat his time.
“Waiting to see if I’d won the million dollars was the most terrifying experience in my life,” Walker told TheWrap during a Tuesday morning interview. “I’m already nervous when I’m on the course, but when you’ve done what you needed to do, and it’s just if somebody else can do it better than you did, it’s terrifying because that’s out of your control. I can’t work harder to have a better time after I’ve already run.”
Walker, who has won three seasons in the franchise across “American Ninja Warrior Junior” and now “American Ninja Warrior” after he was crowned victor for the first and second seasons of “Junior,” noted that competing alongside his best friends in the final round, including Ethan Bartnicki, amped up the intensity in the final moments of the season.
“I’ve grown so close to them over the last year — I moved down here to train with Caleb and RJ, and we’ve trained for these courses together [and] we trained for the rope together,” Walker said. “Knowing their abilities, knowing that they could have done it and knowing that I could have gone even faster and just seeing some of my best friends on that rope with a chance at knocking me out of that first play spot was cool — but terrifying at the same time.”
After being diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was 18 months old, Walker stands as the first competitor with cerebral palsy to compete on both “American Ninja Warrior Junior” and “American Ninja Warrior.”
“I’ve had this dream for eight years, and every time I would be in pain, every time I would not want to keep going, I would picture myself at the bottom of that rope climb, just getting ready to climb that tower for the million dollars,” Walker said. “Finally being able to live it out — it’s unreal after how real it was to me in those moments when I didn’t want to keep going.”
Keep reading to find out what Walker identified as the most difficult part of the finals, why he’ll return to “Ninja Warrior” and how he plans to use his $1 million prize.
What was the hardest part of the finals? Was there ever a moment you weren’t sure you would make it?
I think the hardest part of the finals was racing one of my best friend’s Ethan Bartnicki on Stage 2, because there was a chance that one of us didn’t move on. And luckily, we ran late enough to know what we had to do. We both made it to the last obstacle, and when we got there, we realized that we were already secured in that runoff spot and we both tried to wait for the last obstacle to get ahead of one another. We both ended up falling — he got there slightly before I did, but I was able to make it to the runoff race and still make it through that way.
As you made your way through your final course in Stage 3, what were you thinking?
I went out on Stage 3 in my first season on the show, and coming back to that course was a lot of fear of not getting that redemption. But I knew that I had what it took, and I was able to hit that buzzer, and a lot of the emotions of the two years of hard work that I put in since the last time I was on that course just came together.
As you went through the Stage 3 obstacle course, the commentators noted your mental strength as you planned out your strategy for the obstacles. How did you develop that mental strength?
That mental strength is definitely the hardest part of something to improve on in “Ninja Warrior.” Having such a good season in my first year, and then coming so far away last season where I didn’t hit a single buzzer was definitely a lot of motivation. And also learning from that experience of almost getting it right and then not getting anything right. I got to learn what I did correctly and what I did wrong and come back with with the knowledge of both sides, and I was able to change my mindset [and] my way of training and it was able to work out.
In training, I switched back to a lot of the basics of “Ninja” and my efficiency and my technique. Right before Vegas is when I finally started doing that strength training again and trying to get as strong as I possibly could.
In Stage 3 of the finals you gave your family a nods and a thumbs up. What did you want to tell them in that moment?
When I got to that last obstacle, my family was screaming at me, “Come on, you got this!” And I knew how worried they were. But I knew my abilities, and I knew that I had what it took to finish that course. So I looked over at them and I gave that thumbs up with a smile, and I was like, “You don’t need to worry. It’s going down. I got this.”
They were very relieved to see that I was OK on that course. They knew how much I worked for it and how much I wanted that redemption after two years ago, falling on that course.
“American Ninja Warrior” has been your life for so long. So what’s next for you?
I’ve done what I needed to do. I came in, I won the show, I won the million dollars, but I’m not done. I love this sport, and this is what I’ve made my life for the last eight years and I’m coming back as long as I possibly can.
Any idea how you might use your $1 million prize?
That is the million dollar question. I have no clue what I’m going to do with the money yet. I know a lot of things I want to do — I want to buy a house at some point. I want to get a nice car — I’m very into cars. But I think for right now I’m just gonna save up, invest in my money and try to turn it into as much as I can.