Sean Bryan, known as the Papal Ninja, has got to be a fast learner. He made his American Ninja Warrior debut in season eight. After completing the Los Angeles Qualifying course, he was out on just the third obstacle in the City Finals.
Sean took those lessons and came back in a BIG way. In season nine and 10, he completed the LA Qualifiers and City Finals. In both City Finals he took the fastest times. Also in both seasons, he’s made it back to Stage Three.
As we saw on the American Ninja Warrior season 10 finale, Sean was the first to complete the difficult Stage Two. He survived the devastating Wingnut Alley and dove through the new Water Walls. He returned to Stage Three along with Drew Drechsel. Sean went first and strategically opted for time, trying to keep himself in the running for the last Ninja standing prize.
Sean fell from the Ultimate Cliffhanger and came up a bit short on time after Drew’s run. That left him as the season’s runner up. It also left him as the only Ninja to claim four buzzers this year, a pretty incredible streak.
With the season behind him, we asked Sean to look back at those brutal courses and his feelings on the season.
“I was more nervous than usual. I don’t know why exactly. I wasn’t shaking, but all my muscles felt pretty weak. I prayed beforehand and went to Father Michael to get spiritual advice. That really helped as well. He reminded me of the prayer he gave me. Hearing the encouragement from him helps me remember how true and how effective that prayer is. Once I actually stepped on Stage One and blessed myself and focused on the obstacles, it all kind of dissipated and went away.
I liked it. It was pretty much what I was expect, but you can never prepare for how dry the air is. There’s a lot of breathing in of dust. That really does affect performance. By the time I got to Jeep Run, I was really just gasping for air, trying to not puke. By the end, it can be pretty hard.”
On those Double Dipper falls
“It didn’t really affect me. I was pretty confident going into it. I was able to see how some people were doing it. I saw what I analyzed to be why they were falling. I just tried to remember the motions that I did the previous year and tried to do it again.”
“The first obstacle, I saw that some people were really having a hard time releasing was Catch and Release. I think it’s because people were trying to push the bar up to help it release, and it looked like people who tried to force it backwards and upwards were able to release it a little bit better. I focused on trying to do that instead of pushing it straight up.
The Salmon Ladder, I really wanted to go up one side of it. I remember being disappointed when I asked if I could stay on one side and was told no. I remember getting up to it and starting it and hearing someone in the crowd, which I usually don’t hear people. But I heard someone in the crowd, I don’t remember specifically what they said, but it really gave me a lot of confidence. Like, ‘Watch this guy. He’s awesome at this.’
“I was looking forward to Deja Vu. As soon as I laid my eyes on it I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ As people went, I started to see one of the issues. It’s not as locked in as other obstacles. A lot of other obstacles are locked in to certain axis of motion. That one wasn’t. So if you’re a little bit off, you can pull it off the side. That one had a lot more variables. So I knew that I really needed to focus on my motions and where I’m putting them. I couldn’t just barrel through that obstacle.
The Swing Surfer, I was really confident in. Last year I saw it taking a lot of people out who I didn’t expect it to, so I didn’t want to take it for granted. I do remember someone saying, ‘Have fun!’ And I think I had a little too much fun because I knocked the wind out of myself a little bit.”
“I remember this year I was a little more tired than I was last year on the Wingnuts. That was probably because of Deja Vu and knocking the wind out of myself. I just kept pushing through it. You have more in the tank than you think. When I got through it, I said, ‘Okay, still the heart rate.’ I tried to do some breathing while I was running to the next obstacle to still the heart rate. I remember thinking efficiency, efficiency, efficiency.”
“I was actually pretty concerned about the water obstacle. I’m very familiar with water and I love swimming. But I recalled last year how out of breath I was at the end of Stage Two and realizing, ‘Oh it’s just a couple of doors I have to push through. I can do this.’ But to think of having to hold my breath and exercise underwater was really intimidating. I thought it might be a little dangerous. As soon as I found out about it, I started to visualize. Get my heart rate up using interval training and see how long I could hold my breath without freaking out.
I jumped in towards the door instead of straight down and swimming to the door to save a couple of seconds. It’s amazing how your mind wants to play tricks on you when you’re gasping for air. I had to really build the confidence and tell myself, ‘You’re not going to drown. You have more in the tank than you think.’ Having to repeat that over and over.”
“It was a surreal moment. Last year I was in the top three and this year I thought I was going to be in the top two. But the added element of the last Ninja standing prize really changed the dynamic going into it. The strategy was not just cut and dry of you have to get to Stage Four. Now it was, well if I make a mistake, or he makes a mistake, you need to gauge where the mistake is going to be made. If I have a weakness or he has a weakness, what’s it going to be? I had to make a decision whether or not to go faster and possibly make a mistake or take my time.”
“Going into it, before the night began, I told myself no matter what, I was just going to take my time. But, I was a lot more tired than I expected. I honestly figured that it would be very difficult to get through Stage Three. Itself, I think is possible, but after that grueling Stage Two and very little rest between, I figured I needed to kind of focus on time. So that’s what I did. I didn’t want to push myself too hard and possibly fall, but I wanted to ride the limit of where I felt I could complete the course while not taking as much rest.
I certainly thought Stage Four was possible, but the added dynamic of last Ninja standing prize as a consolation prize did change the approach. If that wasn’t there, I would have definitely taken more rest in between the obstacles. But I was going at a pace where I thought I could still complete it. I was trying to calculate the risk and make a decision on that risk.”
“My fingers were so cooked. My forearms were so cooked. My fingers were locked into place. I remember telling myself, ‘Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.’ By the time I did the first transfer, my hands were almost giving out and I thought, ‘Take it one move at a time.’ By the time I got to the last one, I said, ‘Just one more big grab. One more.’ When I grabbed on to that last ledge, I thought ‘Wow, I have this!’ But my fingers weren’t really communicating with my brain very well. Because it felt like my hands were locked into position.
It felt like I had it. But what was really happening was I was peeling off and I thought I was holding on to it. It was an interesting dynamic that I haven’t really experienced before. Complete and utter failure to the point of not knowing where your body is. It was a grueling obstacle and I remember as I was falling thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going into the water.’ I really thought that I had it.”
“I really didn’t have any clue as to how fast I went. I gave it my 100%. I wanted Drew to give his 100% and may the best man win. I really wanted him to do his best. I didn’t want it to come down to him making a mistake. I really wanted it to be based on the decisions that we make. The risks that we take and abilities that we have and trained.
I think that’s what happened. He made his decision calculated on risk. The same risks that I was trying to calculate. And he actually did what I did, without much rest in-between and he was a little faster. I’m happy with the results.”
“I think it was a fantastic season where I learned a lot in terms of training and how to focus under pressure. I think I’m going to use that to really dial in my training for next year. On top of that, there’s a lot of learning moments that I can go back to and talk about in the talks that I give. Especially the talks that I give within the church. People have a hard time understanding how the faith affects how people act in their everyday life. By using this as an example it gives them something concrete to utilize in their own life. Every experience that I have as a public witness to the faith gives me more of an opportunity to evangelize.
As a summary, it’s two-fold. One, it was a huge learning experience that I’m going to use to hopefully achieve total victory next year. And two, it’s something that I utilize to help me spread the faith.”