'American Ninja Warrior' winner Vance Walker has always had to do "whatever it takes" his whole life: "I'm not afraid of hard work" (2024)

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American Ninja Warrior

  • 'American Ninja Warrior' winner Vance Walker has always had to do "whatever it takes" his whole life: "I'm not afraid of hard work" (1)
  • 'American Ninja Warrior' winner Vance Walker has always had to do "whatever it takes" his whole life: "I'm not afraid of hard work" (2)

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Vance Walker has always been one of American Ninja Warrior‘s brightest stars. After winning back-to-back seasons on American Ninja Warrior Junior, he graduated to the main show as a 16-year-old rookie for Season 13 and promptly proved that his dominance on the junior circuit was well-earned. After becoming the youngest and shortest ninja (at 5’5″) to scale the Mega Wall in his qualifying round, he was one of four competitors to make it to Stage Three in the National Finals in Las Vegas. While he didn’t complete Stage Three, it was still a very promising start to his adult ninja career. “My rookie year was my first time really getting to test my abilities against some of those competitors,” said Walker, looking back at his beginnings.

Going into his sophom*ore season in the big show, Walker experienced some set-backs in his training. The gym that he’d been working out in his whole life shut down, and Walker moved from Atlanta to Houston to continue his training. It was “a different gym in a different environment,” remembered Walker. “I was still struggling with losing the gym, losing those friends that I had been training with my entire career.” Though he once again made it to the National Finals in Season 14, Walker failed at the Jumping Spider in Stage One, his early departure shocking fans everywhere.

While preparing for his third season on the adult circuit, Walker got some much needed tough love from his mother, Stacey. “After it didn’t work out in Season 14, my mom was like, ‘Okay, you’re going to move out,'” Walker said with a laugh. Walker’s mom knew her son would be “uncomfortable” at first, but she knew he needed to “train at a gym that [he was] already comfortable at,” specifically at the Jungle Gym Ninja, run by the legendary Bergstrom family in Pinellas Park, Florida. “She pushed me to move down to Florida,” said Walker, “She’s the reason that I was able to do what I did in Season 15.”

In Season 15, Walker became only the fifth competitor in the history of American Ninja Warrior to achieve Total Victory, completing all obstacles in all three Stages at the National Finals and then besting Mt. Midoriyama. By finishing 1.24 seconds ahead of fellow Texan Daniel Gil, Walker took home the $1 million dollar prize. “Even today, I can’t really put it into words,” said Walker when asked to describe what it felt like to win. “I’m 19 years old. I started when I was 10,” explained Walker. “It’s the one thing that I’ve always wanted to do.”

Walker stopped by the Page Six studio to speak with DECIDER just ahead of the Season 16 premiere where he talked in depth about his remarkable career, his fellow ninjas, and whether a ninja-style competition should become an Olympic sport in 2028.

DECIDER: I have never seen a more dominant performance on the ninja circuit than your time competing on American Ninja Warrior Junior as a kid. What was it like moving to the main stage with that reputation?

VANCE WALKER: It was pretty smooth. Going from perfection to actually being on the big show, my first run felt scary. Once I hit my first buzzer, once I got up the Mega Wall, I knew I could make the transition from the junior course to the adult course.

I have to imagine you felt a lot of pressure.

Yes, definitely, but I’ve always done pretty well with that.

What was it like competing against your heroes as a rookie and in the following seasons?

I really enjoyed it. I’ve always looked up to those guys and I’ve always wished that I could compete against them. I’ve always dominated my group, but I had never been able to actually compete with the adults before. My rookie year was my first time really getting to test my abilities against some of those competitors.

'American Ninja Warrior' winner Vance Walker has always had to do "whatever it takes" his whole life: "I'm not afraid of hard work" (3)

You performed well on your first season on American Ninja Warrior, but you stumbled a bit in your second season—despite making it to the finals in Vegas. What changes did you make going into Year 3, which ultimately became your winning season?

Yeah, my first season on American Ninja Warrior, I was training at my gym over in Atlanta and everything was going smoothly. I almost won the whole thing that season. Going into the next year, that gym had shut down and I actually moved to Houston. I was training at a different gym in a different environment. I was still just struggling with losing the gym that I had been training at my entire career and losing those friends that I had been training with my entire career.

It was just a lot coming together that made that season not really work out. Going into Season 15, I changed my environment again and went to Florida. I moved to a gym where I already had a lot of friends and I just really focused on having fun. I wanted to really just enjoy competing again. Because of having that mindset of enjoying it more and not really being there to win, I was able to really get back in my grove because I was having such a good time.

You wrote on Instagram that it was your mom Stacy who encouraged you to move to Florida to train. What has it meant to you to have the support of your family?

It means the world to me. Since I was a little kid, my mom’s carried me on her back everywhere that we went when I wasn’t able to walk for myself. My dad drove me to the gym every single day when I was growing up. Having my parents behind me, supporting me and just pushing me to make tough decisions has been so important.

When I initially moved to Houston, I moved in with my grandparents because that was really the only option to train. After that season when it didn’t work out, my mom was like, “okay, you’re going to move out. You’re going to be uncomfortable, but you’re going to train at a gym that you already know you’re already comfortable at.” She really pushed me to move down to Florida, and she’s the reason that I was able to do what I did in Season 15.

You’ve mention training in Atlanta, Houston and Florida. There are so much different regions in the United States that have produced successful ninjas like yourself. On the course, can you tell where ninjas are from by how they tackle the obstacles?

VW: Yeah, I can definitely where people train based on how they run the courses and what obstacles they’re going to excel at. In St. Louis, there are the “Barn Boys”—Sam [Folsom], Phil [Folsom], and Tyler [Smith]— and they definitely have a different style than anyone else. They’re always going balls to the wall. They’re going as fast as they can. They’re very good at the technical obstacles and bar tech placement precision. Over in Colorado, ninjas tend to do a lot of conditioning. Kaden [Lebsack] is probably the best at the strength-based obstacles. In Houston, they do a lot of speed courses with a focus on balance. Daniel [Gil] is very good with agility.

To quote Isiah Thomas, it was like you were “built different” in your third season. You didn’t ever look rattled, even after you fell on in Stage 2. Did you prioritize your mental game over your physical game at times?

In Season 14, I definitely prioritized my physical strength and I did not prioritize my mental strength at all that year. You could definitely tell that was probably the strongest that I’ve been in competition, but it did not show at all because my mental game was just not there. Going into Season 15, my physical strength was still a priority, but I wasn’t the strongest I’ve ever been.

My main focus in Season 15 was just having fun and enjoying myself again. Rather than focusing on being there to win, I was focusing on why am I here? It’s because I love this sport. The reason I started this wasn’t because I was like, “Oh, I’m going to win it one day.” I didn’t do that when I started. I started because I walked in and loved the sport. I loved flying on the obstacles, I loved competing. That’s what got me to where I am.

'American Ninja Warrior' winner Vance Walker has always had to do "whatever it takes" his whole life: "I'm not afraid of hard work" (4)

After 8 years of training and perseverance, you reached the top of Mt. Midoriyama and won that million dollars. Can you put that feeling into words, now that some time has passed?

It’s a very hard thing to do. Even today, I can’t really put it into words. That was my dream for almost half of my life now. I’m 19 years old. I started when I was 10. It’s the one thing that I’ve wanted to do. Everything just came together. After winning American Ninja Warrior Junior in back-to-back seasons, then competing on the main show and almost winning Season 13, then falling on Stage 1 in Season 14, and then getting back to basics for Season 15. I knew I was going to get there and absolutely destroy that course. The combination of all that plus the combination of wanting it for so long, I think that it made it all come together. I don’t even know if it’s possible to describe how special it was.

You were not the only ninja who achieved Total Victory in Season 15. Your fellow Texan Daniel Gil was just a second and half slower than you to the top of the mountain. What makes him such a fierce competitor?

What makes Daniel such a good competitor is his faith. Honestly, I think that’s also why I did so well in Season 15. It wasn’t a question of “is this going to happen?” for me. That’s the same thing with Daniel. He is always believed that whatever’s best will come through, even if it’s not this season, he’s going to do it eventually. I had that same mindset in Season 15 where I was coming in. It doesn’t necessarily have to be this season. If this is destiny, it will eventually happen. If I do it for long enough, I’ll be victorious one day.

Daniel is always coming in every season like, “Okay, I don’t need to have my best run on this course. I’m here to do what God is here to bring me to do.” That attitude plus his training is what makes him so good on the course. He always put in the hard work. He is definitely one of my favorite competitors. I’ve always looked up to how he looks at the course and the obstacles. He doesn’t overthink. He looks at what he’s given and says, “I’m just going to do my best on it.” I really admire that.

One thing I’m noticing ninjas doing at the end of a successful run is thanking their training teams and their gyms. Who do you consider to be essential members of your team?

My parents. They’re number one on that list. They’ve been supporting me from day one, taking me to the gym, paying for my flights to all these competitions I wouldn’t have competed in otherwise. Second would probably have to be Caleb Bergstrom and his wife Ashley [Bergstrom]. When I first moved down to Tampa, they let me live at their house for about a month when I was trying to figure out if I wanted to stay there. I lived there for almost a month. They let me train at their gym, which their family runs. They accepted me into their community. I don’t think I could’ve won Season 15 without their support and their generosity.

Let’s talk about Season 16. What was your head space like after winning Season 15?

Going into Season 16, I had just won the show. I had just achieved my dream. That took a lot of the pressure off. I was just having fun. That was the goal. Nobody’s ever come back and won it all twice. I wasn’t really expecting anything. I was weighing my options if I wanted to come back so soon and try to achieve total success again. I’m not ready to give this up, though. I want to do this as long as I can. I love the show. I love competing. I love being a part of all this stuff. I’m going to stay as long as I can.

'American Ninja Warrior' winner Vance Walker has always had to do "whatever it takes" his whole life: "I'm not afraid of hard work" (5)

You’re 19. You’ve got plenty of time left in the sport. People are hitting the buzzer at 47 years old now!

I hope I’ve got another 10 years in me.

If I may ask, what does your typical daily training schedule like?

It’s always different. During the season—right before Vegas—my schedule is very hectic. This doesn’t register with a lot of people, but the finals film overnight. We start filming at 9:00 PM and we’re not done until the sun rises at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. I have to flip my sleep schedule. I live in Tampa, so it’s a three-hour time difference on top of everything, so I usually go to bed around 6:00 in the morning and wake up around 2:00 in the afternoon.

I spend the first 30 minutes to an hour of my day getting ready, stretching my legs to be able to walk in the morning and be able to get my day started. Then I’ll usually do cardio in the morning and eat right after that. I’ll spend a couple hours studying and watching tape to plan out my training plan for the day. What are some certain obstacles that I need to practice? How does this particular obstacle work? What do I need to work on today? At the end of the day, I’ll spend two, three hours at the ninja gym. It’s a full-time job.

It’s amazing what you’ve be able to accomplish as a ninja, but especially as a ninja with cerebral palsy. How have the struggles that have come along with the diagnosis made you a better athlete?

Having cerebral palsy has its ups and downs. It means I have to work a lot harder, even to get at a level playing field, than everybody else. It’s also given me the mindset of I have to do whatever it takes. When I first got the braces on my legs as a kid, the braces would stretch me 24 hours a day. My mom would tighten the braces as much as she could safely to make me and my body work even harder. Whatever it takes. When I was in the first grade, I had the opportunity to take the accountability into my own hands and do the stretching on my own.

There was risk that, even after all this work, I might have still had to wear braces on my legs for the rest of my life. I still kept going. I’ve always had to go the extra mile. I’ve never been afraid of hard work, so when it comes to Ninja and being the best, I’m going to do whatever it takes. It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.

Last question. With the Olympics coming up, I have to ask: why should Ninja become an Olympic sport?

Ninja should definitely become an Olympic sport. I don’t know exactly what format they would use. If it was an American Ninja Warrior Junior format where it was the two people racing each other with a bracket system, that could be really good. Maybe individual obstacles like the Super Salmon Ladder could be good. It was be perfect challenge for the Olympics, to see how high and fast competitors could go. I would love to get a gold medal someday.


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'American Ninja Warrior' winner Vance Walker has always had to do "whatever it takes" his whole life: "I'm not afraid of hard work" (2024)
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