This story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of our print edition.
Until Ninja Warrior, Isaac Caldiero was a name known only among climbers. V14 first ascents. 5.14 free-solos. He notably made the third ascent of the legendary highball Ambrosia (V11) in Bishop, California (after Kevin Jorgeson and Alex Honnold, no less). On September 14, 2015 viewers watched him float through a series of punishing obstacles to become the first person to win American Ninja Warrior, launching him into the spotlight, and earning him a million dollars in the process. When we spoke to Isaac a few weeks later, he was climbing in Washington and still living out of a 1978 RV.
How did you get involved with American Ninja Warrior?
I’d seen the show, and I wanted to try it. I didn’t find out about the submission process until the last day. We grabbed the camera, but it was too late. I was like, “Man, that sucks.” I’d gotten all excited. We drove to Denver and waited in line for five days. That’s where I heard that it helped to make yourself stand out. I had a spare Jesus costume laying around, so I brought that with me. I already had my beard grown out. The producers loved it, and I got on. I had a good first season. I made it to finals, where I slipped because of a wardrobe malfunction.
Basically, my shoes. I was wearing rock climbing shoes, and rock climbing shoes don’t stick to glass very well. That was a huge lesson. The best is any road running shoe (not trail running) with a really soft rubber sole.
How did your approach change after the first year?
I decided I was going to train. I have a construction background, so I built a mock setup of phase three, which is all the hardest obstacles, in my parents’ backyard in Utah. I got in better shape than I’ve ever been in, even for climbing. I don’t really train for climbing. I just like to go climbing. It’s fun. But I was obsessed. I was watching Ninja Warrior nonstop and training seven days a week. I way, way overtrained for my second season.
What went wrong in your second year?
I got to stage two in Vegas. I got to the second obstacle, the Salmon Ladder—which I have in my backyard; I can do it blindfolded with one arm—and the sensation was off. They had something extra on the bar so it can’t fall and hit you in the face. The slight change totally threw me off, and I fell. It was a shock. It should not have happened.
What gave you the edge this time?
I spent a lot of time meditating and working on breathing exercises. There are so many good and talented competitors that are plenty strong physically, but they’re not mentally strong. This year I tried to go in with a stronger mind. There are so many little things: You don’t even start the competition until night, and it runs until 7 a.m. You have to be able to be awake at 4 in the morning and be able to do this intense obstacle course in 110° heat. It’s not something that anyone is prepared for. I attribute that to my mental strength, which comes from breathing. I use my breathing to control my heart rate, which slows down my level of fatigue.
Was winning the competition this year…easy?
Yeah. I was so mentally and physically prepared, it became easy. It was just another day of training.
Do climbers have a clear advantage on the show?
To a certain point. The rock climbing background is a huge part of why I did well, and why other climbers have done well, but you need to be an all-around athlete. You need so much agility and lower-body coordination to get to those upper-body obstacles. I would be shocked if anyone who had never trained for Ninja completed the course, even if they were the strongest rock climber in the world. The lower-body obstacles aren’t that hard, but without training, you just can’t do it. It’s so specific.
What went through your mind throughout that final challenge?
It was still 110° outside. I hadn’t trained that much rope climbing. I really needed to stay positive and focused. And as I was going up the rope they had a countdown buzzer. All of a sudden there were red lights flashing and this horrible alarm that means you have 10 seconds. That’s about the same time when I got that terminal pump in my forearms: I couldn’t go any farther. It was impossible. But something in me was like, “No! If you can get this far...” My body kicked into overdrive. I got this extra spurt of adrenaline, and it saved me. Even when I topped out on the tower, I still had no clue that I had won. I looked down, and it was like a zombie apocalypse of people attacking the base of the tower, screaming, and giving me thumbs-up. There was so much adrenaline and just good vibes and good energy. It couldn’t have been any better; it was just the most amazing, happiest moment of my life.
You definitely won’t see us driving around Lamborghinis and buying big houses. Me and Laura [Kisana, Isaac’s longtime girlfriend] have been living off less than $10,000 a year our entire lives. Now we have this giant pot of gold. I want to start a Ninja gym and train people, starting in Utah. And I want to write a book. First and most importantly, though—and it’s what I’m doing right now—I just want to go rock climbing. I want to go to all the amazing places I’ve never been. And just keep living this simple, frugal lifestyle that we’ve always lived. We have an old 1978 RV. We might put a new motor in it or something. But at the end of the day it’s still: I just want to go rock climbing.
It seems clear that climbing helps with Ninja Warrior. Does Ninja Warrior make you a better climber?
—Megan Ottesen, Indiana
Totally. I have dedicated so much time and energy to training for American Ninja Warrior in a way that I have never done for rock climbing. It’s made my upper body a lot stronger. It’s made me a lot more of a dynamic climber. It’s built all these other strengths that I didn’t have in the past, like one-arm pull-ups. In rock climbing, very rarely are you cutting your feet. Your feet are on the rock all the time. When I’m on real rock and my feet cut, I fall, because those handholds are way too small to hang on. With Ninja Warrior, all the upper-body stuff is 100% upper body; you don’t use your feet at all. It’s given me a whole new strength, and I feel it every time I go rock climbing.
Can you give the entire Ninja Warrior course a climbing grade?
—Robert Jachens, Maryland
There are four stages. Stage one is so much lower body and agility that it doesn’t relate to climbing grades. Stage two is probably the equivalent of 5.12c. It’s more like route climbing; you’re doing a lot of little boulder moves in between rests. It’s like a 5.12c that you can’t mess up on. If your foot pops off climbing, you can still hold on. But in Ninja, if your foot slips, you’re done. That’s what makes it so tricky. Stage three is around 5.13b/c. And then stage four is the rope climb. To do it in the time limit, that’s a whole horse of a different color. It’s so much about speed. Climbing a rope, each move is like V1, but it’s like doing V1 for 75 feet as fast as you possibly can. It’s hard to relate that to a climbing grade. In a speed climbing competition, those guys are climbing 40 to 50 feet in five seconds, but they’re able to dyno. You can’t jump up a rope. It’s like saying, “How fast can you do 40 pull-ups?” Your feet are barely doing anything. You can only go so fast.
What’s the hardest obstacle?
—Cyriaque Lefèvre, France
The hardest obstacle is maybe V6 or V7, if you relate it to bouldering. That would be the floating boards, on stage three. But once you get it dialed, it feels like V4. That’s something I tried to do with my training, learn how to do the obstacles so they’re as easy as possible.
Any advice for all the prospective Ninja Warriors out there?
—Michael Brown, Maine
Obviously rock climb as much as possible, and get your hands on some Ninja obstacles and start training. You need to get those sensations down for every different type of obstacle and be prepared. Practice meditation and focus, and learn breathing techniques. Your mental strength, at the end of the day, is really what’s going to carry you to the top.