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Isaac Caldiero tells us what we can expect from his return to Ninja Warrior

The very first American Ninja Warrior champion will run the course again in Indianapolis.

David Becker/NBC

As previously confirmed: Isaac Caldiero returned to the American Ninja Warrior course for the Indianapolis Qualifiers on June 18.

American Ninja Warrior entered a new era with the finale of season seven. After years of Ninjas succumbing to the obstacles, fans finally got what they’d been waiting for: Total victory.

Isaac Caldiero was deemed the first American Ninja Warrior champion after he completed the final rope climb of the National Finals with 0:3.86 left on the clock. This was about three seconds faster than Geoff Britten, who finished his climb with 0:00.35 seconds remaining.

Isaac’s accomplishment has yet to be matched. Mt. Midoiyama has gone un-summited since that night. And Isaac hasn’t stepped on an American Ninja Warrior course since. (In regular season competition.) After the hoopla from his $1 million win died down, Isaac walked away from the show and things went fairly quiet. Just an occasional Instagram post of his rock climbing adventures.

We began getting curious towards the end of last year when a familiar face started popping up at a few local competitions. It couldn’t be confirmed, but it seemed to us that Isaac might have a new interest Ninja Warrior.

Which is why, when we spotted Isaac visiting the American Ninja Warrior set in Miami, we had a pretty good idea why he was there. He confirmed to us there that he was scoping out the show to prepare for his own run coming up in Indianapolis.

Over the course of two nights of filming in Florida, we had the chance to speak with Isaac a few times. He gave us a candid reflection on his win, how his life has been since, and why, after years away, it’s his time to return to the course.

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Fernando Leon/NBC

Going back to season seven, can you walk us through that night? It was a long night where you had to complete Stages Two, Three and then the Final Climb.

IC: It’s a long night. Like you said, we have to do three different stages and they’re all completely different. It’s all about properly strategizing and getting ready at the right times and the right moment. Obviously not getting too excited, too early. It’s all about timing.

But really, once I made it through Stage Two, which didn’t feel that bad, it was something I’d trained a lot for. I knew, right in that moment, there was no way I was going to fall on any of the obstacles on Stage Three. I got this in the bag. And sure enough, I felt 100%. I was barely fatigued.

I was sweating because heat’s my kryptonite. That’s probably the only thing that really gets me is the heat. I just felt like everything was perfect. Picture perfect all the way through Stage Three. It couldn’t have been any more perfect. At that point, it was like, “Alright, now it’s the real moment.” Game time.

The rope is something I didn’t really train a lot for. Even in all the training I’d done, I’d only ever done maybe that amount of rope. Even though it’s hard to simulate, the closest I could get in simulation was 36 seconds. Going into that... It was going to be really hard to get a fast time and beat 30 seconds. They were going back and forth deciding how fast the time should be. When they told us 30 seconds, it was like “Oh boy. Here we go.”

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

What did it feel like emotionally standing there looking up at the final climb?

Emotionally, I was trying not to have too many emotions. Even throughout the course, and a lot of my experience on Ninja Warrior, I really have to tune into the ability to forget things around me. It’s pretty hard. I have to forget my friends, family and loved ones and just really blank everyone out. There’s no room for any kind of emotional attachment to things or emotional distractions. That, right there, is going to be the number one failure for a lot of people I feel like.

That was something I’d trained a lot with through my climbing. Doing a lot of free solo climbing. Obviously, it’s a little bit easier in those moments because it’s just me and the rock. But obviously there’s this big thing hanging over my head, like I could die, that I really need to not think about. The second you think about that, you’re going to die. I go into that same mentality when I’m on the course.

What were you thinking and feeling while you watched Geoff do his climb?

IC: I spoke with him previously to it. I’d seen videos. He and I had kind of talked back and forth up to that point before we even made it to Vegas. It seemed like he was training rope quite a bit and he was in pretty good shape. He just flew up the rope. It was very impressive. He did the first half without any legs at all. That to me was like... I just can’t do that. Mostly just because I didn’t train that. Obviously, he trained that. So it was good for him to be able to utilize that strength of his. But yeah, it was impressive to see. Even in that moment, I was like, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to beat that. I can’t beat 30 seconds. There’s no way. But I’m going to give it my all.” Try to stay focused. Try not to think negatively. Try to keep visualizing success all the way through and to the top.

David Becker/NBC

When did you realize you’d clocked the fastest time?

IC: I really had no clue. Right when the buzzer went, I was just off. I went into fight mode. I really tried to maintain a really steady pace all the way through because it’s easy to go really, really fast at the start and then burn all your muscles out. Then the last 20 feet is the hardest part. It was all about maintaining a good pace all the way from the beginning to the end. That’s where I feel like me and Geoff had different strategies. He was like rocket fuel at the very beginning, then he hit this wall and slowed down quite a bit.

I had no clue what the time was. I couldn’t see a timer. All I knew was I hit the buzzer and I didn’t see any red lights, so I assumed I was under the time limit. Knowing that Geoff had beat the time by like a fraction of a second or something, I was like, “I don’t even know. I was probably at a fraction of a second too. I don’t even know if I beat the time.” I got to the top and was just on the verge of vomiting. Totally delirious. Just kind of out of this world. No one was talking to me. I don’t think they knew either, the crew that was standing up there.

So I looked over the edge to look down, and everyone was just swarming the base of the tower and the rope like a zombie apocalypse. Just screaming. I saw all the thumbs ups, and I was like, “Did I do it? Come on, tell me!” I could tell at that moment that I’d gotten the fastest time. I still had no clue what the time was. Later on, I heard that it was 26 seconds and I was like... It’s still unbelievable. I have to re-watch it. It doesn’t feel like it ever really happened. I was in a delirious state from being up all night and just all the pressure. The moment was very intense. Definitely one of the most special moments of my life.

David Becker/NBC

What was it like to then keep one of the most special moments of your life secret for months?

(The show films several months before the episodes air.)

IC: That was pretty cool actually. That was a fun little challenge. Especially for my family. No one in my family knew anything about it. Normally, I watched the show with my parents. So when it came to September time and the finale was airing, they were actually really pissed off. They were like, “Isaac, where are you? Why aren’t you here?” I was actually in New York City to be on the TODAY Show and get ready. Basically, I had to lie to them and say I couldn’t get off work. I can’t make it. Sorry. They’re in Utah. I was working in Colorado at the time.

Then, sure enough, they called me and understood. It was a fun little game to play. Even with some of my co-workers at work. This guy was egging me on. They all knew I went to compete. Weeks go by. I kept my job. I kept bussing tables for another month after I won before I started pursuing other things. This one kid was like, “You won, didn’t you? You won.” Eventually, he was like, “Well I guess you probably wouldn’t be working here still if you won.” Then I literally quit a week later.

So what does winning a million dollars do to someone’s life?

IC: Well, for one, it ended up being about half that amount after taxes and everything else. Which is still amazing, no complaints there. It was awesome. It definitely gave me a really cool head start in life. I’ve never really focused my life, like most people have, on careers and making income and securing a financial future. So this kind of caught me up to everyone else my age.

Everyone thinks I’m this millionaire rolling in the dough and it’s like no, not really. Maybe like 30 years ago when a million dollar prize was a big deal. It is a big deal, but it’s not like this huge, life-changing event. I would say the biggest thing is the way people perceive me now. That’s the biggest change. The financial stuff has been this nice little boost. Overall, the way people treat me now and the way people look at me has probably changed the most.

In what way?

IC: Primarily, like I said, they all assume I have millions of dollars. Especially new people who don’t know me, who didn’t know how hard I worked prior to this. I wasn’t given a golden spoon. I had to work really hard my entire life to do what I’ve done and travel. I haven’t just been this climber bum who lives out in the mountains. I was constantly working to afford that lifestyle.

For people who don’t know me, they just know me was the guy who won a million dollars. The Ninja guy. It’s really hard for them to detach from that, so they kind of treat me differently. They’re not rude or mean. It’s just weird. It’s hard to get a genuine interaction and friendship with people.

David Becker/NBC

How soon after winning did you know that you wanted time off from the show?

IC: At that moment, I wasn’t even thinking about going back on the show. I was just on this high of winning. Even prior to that, in my head, I was thinking “Oh yeah, if I win why wouldn’t I go back on the next year?” But then as the months went by and my life progressed in different ways, I just got and more deterred from going back on the show. A lot of it was my drive. I would try to psyched and be like, “Alright, I’m going to do this again.” But it wasn’t there. It was like something was missing. It just wasn’t there. I don’t know where it went.

I left it at the top of Mount Midoriyama, I guess.

After years of that going by, I was still fully caught up. I’d watched all the episodes. I’m still out there in the world of Ninja. I still love it. I love everything about it. It makes me happy. I love seeing the obstacles. I just had no desire to be back on the show.

In a nutshell, what have you been up to since season seven?

IC: In a giant nutshell, three years of my life was a lot of traveling, a lot of interviews, a lot of TV, a lot of eating good food. And just relaxing, kind of unwinding from everything. Then right back into rock climbing. Traveling and rock climbing. That was kind of the big thing up until the last couple of months.

What sparked your interest in coming back to Ninja Warrior?

IC: Well, to be honest, I’ve been keeping up to date with everything and watching every single episode since I’ve been on the show. It’s been three years now. And every time I watch it, part of me is like, “I’m glad I’m not doing it anymore.” But then part of me... it’s really hard for me not to want to get my hands on the obstacles. It’s just come to that point now where I’m like, “Alright, I’ve got to get back into this.”

Initially, I took a break not only for myself but, I guess, to give everyone else a chance. I felt like, after having that weight off my shoulders, I was a huge advantage coming back into the next season. I still do. I feel like I do, which no other competitor has.

It seems like you’ve done some international competitions as well lately. Can you tell us what you’ve been doing?

IC: Last year I started slowly delving back into the Ninja scene, but more for work-related situations and competitions abroad. I went out to Germany and took part in their celebrity Ninja Warrior, which was super cool.

I was the last man standing. I got to complete alongside all these actual celebrities. Which was fun, to beat them. Professional soccer players. Olympic gold medalists from Germany. We just played on the obstacles. We raised a lot of money.

That was my German Ninja Warrior experience, which was really fun. I’d love to do more stuff like that where it’s not a lot of pressure, more fun. That was something I kind of wanted a big break from as well. After I won, I just needed to decompress. No stress.

Then another one I took part in was KuroOvi in Japan. It was very cool, kind of a different feel from Ninja Warrior. It was created by the same guy who created the original Ninja Warrior. This was like his new little baby he’s trying to open up to the world. It was fun to take part in that.

What was it like to return to Ninja specific training?

IC: The transition for me works out pretty well. Even my first season I didn’t train at all. The second season, I mostly just rock climbed, up until about three months prior to the competition. Then I went into Ninja specific training. Same with the year I won. I actually probably trained the least that I’ve ever trained. I was working in Colorado, mostly climbing, and like once a week I would do Ninja obstacles.

How do you feel Ninja Warrior has changed since you were last on the course?

IC: Since I was last on the course, I don’t really feel like Ninja Warrior has changed a whole lot. Behind the scenes has changed a lot, which is really cool, as far as the production standpoint. And as far as the overall talent coming into the competition. Way more people are training, there’s way more gyms that are opening. So that’s changed. Obviously, the obstacles on the actual show have slightly gotten harder, to keep up the pace with all the Ninjas. But that’s kind of what they’ve always done.

So that to me is kind of cool too. Now, coming back into it, it’s not a whole new challenge, but it’s still a new challenge.

Now that you’ve seen a season 10 course in person, do you think the obstacles have changed since you were on the show?

(Isaac watched the competition in Miami.)

IC: I don’t really feel like the obstacles have gotten that much harder. They’ve made slight changes to make it a little bit trickier, but in general, I feel like they’re pretty similar to season seven when I competed. There are small adjustments. I think it will be hard for people who don’t have good grip strength. But the way I train and the amount of grip strength I had at that time, and what I can have, it’s above and beyond what I’ll need. I have a lot of room in between for them to make stuff harder.

David Becker/NBC

What are your thoughts on this new generation of competitors? They’ve been fans their whole lives, and now the age limit is down to 19.

IC: I think it’s awesome. I think they should bring it. Let’s see what the young bucks got in store for us old fogies. We’ll see if they can keep up with us.

You’ve had a chance to watch the competitors, both the veterans who were competing when you were on the show and the rookies. What are your thoughts?

IC: The biggest thing I see is, even the veterans, they obviously have a lot to learn. The rookies are doing awesome. They’re coming out fresh. Fresh, clean slate. They’ve got a lot to prove. They want to make a good impression. It’s cool to see the different dynamics.

After watching some of the competitors, where do you think you rank amongst them?

IC: I definitely say I’m still in the top. For sure. Especially when it comes to the final stages. 100%.

Coming back in as the champion, do you think that adds pressure, or takes pressure off?

IC: I feel like, coming back as the champion, I don’t have any pressure on my back. I’ve done what I initially set out to do. I became a part of history. I’ve made my mark in the Ninja world. I don’t feel like I have a lot of the same pressure as I did before. Kind of how I mentioned, I feel like I have an advantage now coming into the competition. I don’t have that weight on my shoulders anymore. I don’t have all that weight holding me down. I feel like that is what really works against a lot of the other Ninjas. It worked against me the first two seasons. I feel like if more people learned to tap into that, take that weight off, we’d probably see a lot more finishers on the show.

What are your expectations for yourself this season?

IC: My expectations for myself are to go have fun, enjoy myself. That’s one of the biggest things for me in my life. If it doesn’t make you happy, you’re not enjoying yourself, then why even bother doing it? Whether it’s work, or a relationship, or anything you’re doing in life. And to me this is fun. This makes me happy. Whether I fall or win, whatever, I’m having fun learning and progressing and getting stronger. That’s all I want to do.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

Isaac will run the course in Indianapolis, with the episode airing on Monday, June 18 at 9/8c.