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The evolution of American Ninja Warrior: Seasons 5-7

The executive producers reflect back on two of the biggest moments in ANW history.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

This is part two of a three part series on the history of American Ninja Warrior. Read part one here, and part three here.

Season five

2013: Last Ninja standing - Brian Arnold

As time raced on, more changes were ahead for the show. G4, the original home of American Ninja Warrior, was preparing to be shuttered during the show’s fifth season. The channel still premiered the episodes, with reruns on NBC, but the end of that era was drawing near.

But as one era was ending, another was beginning. Season five saw Matt Iseman get some new company in the host tower by the addition of the now beloved Akbar Gbajabiamila. The former NFL player dove into the show with gusto, using his enthusiasm to entertain fans with his endless puns.

Brandon Hickman/Esquire Network/NBCU Photo Bank

In Season five, Akbar joined. What did he add to the dynamic?

Arthur Smith: They’re a great team. Someone had to go toe-to-toe with Matt in terms of enthusiasm and Akbar can do it. Akbar’s great. Akbar brings his Akbar-isms which are hysterical. That’s a levity that works well. Being a pro athlete, there’s a lot of credibility that comes with that.

The two of them are not only great broadcasters and a great team, but they’re great ambassadors for Ninja. And unlike any other broadcast team that does sports or athletic events, they’re cheerleaders. In a good way. Not in an overly hyped, unfair kind of way. They’re very supportive of the athletes, but they’re also analytical. They’re not afraid to call it the way it is. Akbar is really good at getting into the nitty-gritty of what went wrong on the obstacles, as well as what went right.

They’re a good team. They just connect. And they’re the same height. Akbar is a little taller. Along with Kristine, they’re the tallest broadcasting team in television. They’re huge.

Season six

2014: Last Ninja standing: Joe Moravsky

Who can forget season six? While the show was steadily gaining viewers and popularity, season six would bring an explosion in notoriety that no one could see coming. American Ninja Warrior’s relationship with NBC was solidified as premiere episodes moved to the network. New channel Esquire featured the re-runs.

But one of the show’s most transformative moments wasn’t created in a boardroom or settled with a distribution deal. It was the product of the hard work of one woman who refused to give up on the course and inspired a new flood of competitors.

This was the season of Kacy Catanzaro.

Here’s what many of the show’s key players had to say about that memory.

Arthur Smith:

“I don’t even know how to describe it. It was such a huge moment. Not only was she the first woman to accomplish the Warped Wall, but she was so tiny that people thought it wasn’t possible for someone that size to do it. Let alone someone 5’4” or 5’5”. She’s five feet maybe.

Kacy proved that gender wasn’t an issue, obviously, but she also proved that with perfect form, which she had to have to do it, that it could be done. It was just so amazing. The Qualifying when she got over the Warped Wall was unbelievable and shocking in a good way. Then what she did in the City Finals, it was like icing. It was just ridiculous. It showed about determination. It sent so many great signals out there. She created the women’s movement.

Women had always been participating from the very beginning. We always loved that our events were the only events where men and women compete on the same stage, at the same time. But after Kacy got over the wall in season six, the women’s’ applications went crazy the next year. We were up 40% the following year. She’s become a role model and hero to young women. Actually women of all ages.

When the show went on NBC, there was a lot of word of mouth. The show was growing naturally and organically. People were catching on with the show. But what she did was have people talking about it in other places. Whether it was the TODAY Show or magazines. It went viral. It started to get other people to pay attention to this obstacle course show.

When you think of it as just an obstacle course show, for some people it’s like, ‘Sounds interesting. Not my kind of show.’ But the Kacy moment brought even more awareness to the show. It was a huge moment.

But the truth of the matter is we’re all fans.

Peter Larsen/NBC

Kent Weed:

“It was electrifying. You knew you were witnessing history. I was a personal friend of Kacy’s. I’d followed her since day one. As well as Brent, we were friends as well as being on the show. You just felt like it was her time. When she made it up the Warped Wall, it was electrifying.

When she completed the finals course, it was just insane. We were all on the edge of our seats in the control room. On every obstacle. On the back half of the course. With our throats in our stomachs.

Her completing the finals course was tremendous. Her completing the Wall was probably a little bit bigger because it was something that, up till then, unachievable by women. They’d never done it. They’d come close. And for her to be five foot tall on top of it.

I always compare it to the four-minute mile. When Roger Bannister beat the four-minute mile. Until he did it and opened the door for others, it couldn’t be done. And it proved to be true with women doing it all the time now. It’s commonplace for women to get up the Warped Wall now. Even a taller wall. A wall that’s six inches taller.

Kristine Leahy:

“That’s the moment where so many women watching at home really knew that it was possible for a female to compete evenly with the men. After that, we saw so many more women applying to the show and almost every single one of them mentions Kacy as a source of inspiration. She led the way for the females.”

Matt Iseman:

Mighty Kacy: in back to back nights she became the first woman EVER to get up the Warped Wall and then, the next night, she became the only woman EVER to complete a city finals course. That video was the one that went viral. I don’t even know if people knew what they were watching, but you could feel by the energy that something special was happening.

Seeing the reaction of the crowd and hearing Akbar & I losing our minds, I think we all felt we saw a moment we would never forget. I think that was the moment that so many people discovered ANW. Not just as fans, but competitors. People like Barclay Stockett, Tyler Yamauchi and Jonathan Horton all talk about watching Mighty Kacy and saying she inspired them to come out.

Akbar Gbajabiamila:

That’s a story that has put this show on the map. She was the first viral moment for our show, she’s a great ambassador for the show, and most importantly, she redefined what strength is. At 5 feet tall, 95 lbs, most people wouldn’t look at her and think “ strength”, well she showed them. And then look at the explosion of women after her. People thought that Ninja was just a show for guys until she came along.

Brian Richardson:

Still for me, I think the most transformative moment was Kacy Catanzaro’s run in Dallas in Season 6, becoming the first woman to get up the Warped Wall and hit a buzzer in City Qualifying... and then finishing the City Finals course. Kacy was a 5-foot nothing, 100-pound dynamo with a great smile who did what no one thought was possible.

Her story just broke through. It went viral and people who had never heard of the show suddenly heard about it. That was when the show seeped into the zeitgeist of pop culture. That was when people started talking about the show at the water cooler, on the radio, on late night tv. It wasn’t a cult hit anymore- it was mainstream. The Today Show wanted to book Kacy. Other media wanted her. She was on commercials. That type stuff had never happened before with our athletes. The next season, submissions increased ten-fold. And they’ve gone up every year since. Before Kacy, ANW was largely a show featuring male athletes, with only a few women applying every year. Now, Jessie Graff, Meagan Martin, Jesse Labreck, and Alyssa Beird, and others, (many of whom were inspired to compete after watching Kacy) are some of our most recognized athletes. So, I think that was the moment when the show turned a corner.”

Peter Larsen/NBC

Before we move on to talk about season seven, there’s one other change we want to note. Season six saw Anthony Storm and Brian Richardson come on as executive producers and showrunners. They were selected for the job based on the individual expertise they brought to the table. Their influence on the show is important to note.

Kent Weed elaborated on the contributions they’ve made:

KW: The previous show-runners, their skills were more in reality (tv), which is what the show was at the beginning. It had a lot of reality components to it. What we needed as the show was evolving was someone who had more of a sports background, more of a live competition background. Who could do packages and were adept at editing. One of the skills they brought was exactly that. Their backgrounds matched up better with the type of show we were (creating). They had experience putting together football packages, which is one of the things that we upgraded greatly in the show. The other thing is they were very much involved in graphics packages and how they’ve evolved. To help me with the look and design of that stuff.

Anthony, as well, has been very very involved with the obstacles and has been my right hand in helping design and come up with new obstacles. The course design as well. He’s really stepped up and he’s gone a great job with it over the years. He learned quickly and has been a big plus for us.

And Brian is so helpful in editing. That’s where he shines. How to put things together and keep them interesting and keep them exciting.”

Season seven

2015: Last Ninjas standing - Isaac Calidero and Geoff Britten
American Ninja Warrior Champion: Isaac Caldiero

With a new army of fans watching, season seven needed to keep them impressed and the athletes didn’t let them down. The show up-ed the ante by moving the prize for completing all four stages of the National Finals from $500,000 to $1 million.

More on that in a minute, because first, we need to talk about a new cast member who joined for season seven. Sports reporter Kristine Leahy joined us on the sidelines.

“Kristine knows sports.” Arthur Smith told us. “She knows athletes. She genuinely cares about the Ninjas. She has really good judgment. She knows how to deal with disappointment and she knows how to deal with elation. Sometimes people are crushed, sometimes people are over the moon over what they’ve accomplished. She’s really good at dealing with all parts of the emotional ladder. She’s able to weave in the personal side as well as the sports part of it all. She has this really good combination of understanding athletes and she knows how to get to the heart of what the story is. She does so many interviews during the course of the night, so she’s consistent and talented. She’s been a great addition.”

Brandon Hickman/NBC

Little did Kristine know that her first season would require that she interview the two athletes who’ve yet to be matched on the show. After six years, two Ninjas, Isaac Caldiero and Geoff Britten, would both defeat all four stages of the National Finals and achieve total victory.

The story played out in the most dramatic way possible. Eight Ninjas moved on to the third stage of the competition, which had never been beaten before. With his fingers almost peeling off the final obstacle, Geoff Britten tossed himself to the landing pad, sending the crowd into a flurry of excitement. Minutes later, Isaac Caldiero matched the accomplishment. Together, they moved to the 80-foot rope climb of Stage Four, an obstacle we had never seen the Ninjas on before.

They were given 30 seconds to complete the obstacle. Geoff climbed the rope and hit the buzzer with 0:00.35 seconds left. Isaac climbed next and finished with 0:3.86 seconds left. The shock that both of them were able to complete the task was palpable. Isaac Caldiero was awarded the title of Champion and the $1 million.

We asked the team about this both thrilling and slightly controversial moment.

Isaac and Geoff both completing the final climb, had the production team ever envisioned that was possible?

AS: No. Well, we knew it was possible, but it was just so shocking that both of them did it in the same night. After having no one do it and then having two of them do it on the same night. We did not expect that to happen. It was very special that one of them did it. It was really incredible that both of them did it. Isaac and Geoff are so different in personality and what they do. It was an amazing night.

It’s so difficult. Stage three is so difficult. You just never know. To do all four stages is such a huge task. We know it’s an incredible feat. We know that we always make it tougher for these guys with new obstacles. But they’re so good. Every season we go into it saying it’s possible, but at the same time, we know how difficult it is. The fact that two people did it in the same year was crazy.

KW: We knew we were due for a winner. We felt the same way the audience felt, which is they were hungry for a winner. Hungry for someone to complete. We also knew that we had really good talented competitors that season that could complete Stage Three more than ever before. We felt strongly that we had at least three that we felt very confident that could beat Stage Three. But anything can happen like we say. Someone can fall on Stage Two.

But I think the stars aligned. Did I think we were going to have two? No. Was it dramatic? Yes. We had no idea. When Geoff made it up the rope in under the time limit, we were just shocked. Oh my god. This is amazing. For Isaac to do it right on the heels of that… Well, the first thing we did was go, “Well now what do we do?” Because we didn’t expect that at all. We didn’t expect two winners and I don’t think there was a contingency for that. There was no contingency about what to do with the money. That became a bit of a controversy and ultimately it came down to the rulebook. The rule book said the fastest person gets the money.

There’s a part of you inside that’s a fan and wants to share the money. But you have the rules that you have to abide by. Everybody knew the rules going in.

It didn’t take away from the drama of the moment or how exciting it was to finally have a winner and how immense it was to know someone had achieved something that’s so difficult.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

Anthony Storm: It’s hard to argue that any moment in ANW history was more transformative than Kacy Catanzaro’s Dallas Finals run. But Isaac Caldiero and Geoff Britten’s epic Stage four battle also stands out. The spectacle of seeing Geoff achieve what had never been done before and seemingly win a million dollars in the process, only to have Isaac beat his time just moments later was as dramatic as any sporting event I’ve ever witnessed. Crowning our first and only champion took the sport to another level and gave hope to every ninja alive that one day maybe he or she could achieve Total Victory. I expect we’ll see another champion soon.

Read about seasons one through four here.

Read about seasons eight through 10 here.

The final vote: Who had the best buzzer of season 13?

“Best buzzer” of season 13: National Finals championship

‘Best buzzer’ of season 13: National Finals round four