There are few faults you can find with Daniel Gil’s performances on season 11 of American Ninja Warrior. He took the fastest times in the Oklahoma City Qualifiers and City Finals, and on Stages Two and Three, picking up the Mega Wall and the Speed Pass along the way.
The greatest season of Daniel’s five-year Ninja Warrior career culminated in a showdown on the rope climb of Stage Four. After Drew Drechsel went, Daniel attempt to best his time to the top of the tower. After an incredibly strong start, the previous courses caught up to him and exhaustion set in. Daniel slowed, timing out before hitting the buzzer.
Daniel leaves season 11 as the runner up. He stared down his dream and was within feet of touching it. It’s one of those bittersweet moments. Yes, he was incredible this year, the best we’ve seen him, but there has to be a little heartbreak behind the conclusion.
Daniel spoke candidly with us about what it was like to garner so much momentum this season, and to miss out on the $1 million. In typical Daniel fashion, he’s already found the upside and he’s so ready to come back stronger next season.
DG: I’ve been looking forward to coming back to Stage Three ever since season eight when I got there. When I got there the first time, I wasn’t already. I didn’t know what to expect. Stage Three chewed me up and spat me out. After that, I knew what I needed to do and I knew how to be prepared for the next time I got to Stage Three. This year I prepared myself. I knew exactly what I needed to do and that was the plan.
You got to go last on Stage Three, didn’t you? Because didn’t you go in with the top time (from Stage Two)?
DG: I did, yes. Yes.
Did that position help you? Did it help your strategy at all?
DG: It helped my strategy for finishing Stage Three, yes, because I got to see exactly what I needed to do. I got to see how far others were getting, so then if it came down to a matter of time, I knew, “Okay. Well, I just need to get to a certain number of obstacle within a certain amount of time.” But the goal was to see the most efficient and effective ways of getting through the course. Because Stage Three, it’s just a grip gauntlet. I mean, it’s straightforward and it is just the most brutally excruciating upper body obstacle course that there is on the show. I felt ready, and I was happy to go last because I wanted to end it with a bang.
21 ninjas went into stage three. Two were left standing. Do you think that’s about right? Was that about what we should have expected?
DG: Well, actually, honestly I was expecting up to four, but I knew we’d at least get two. I knew that from the way that I had been training, I was confident that I could be one of those two. Things worked out. Prayers were answered. It worked.
Who were your personal biggest surprises to see go out on Three? Who did you think was going through with you to Four?
DG: Oh, man. I was certain that Joe Moravsky was going to finish Stage Three, and he was this close. I mean, he was right there. I was certain that Adam Rayl could finish it, and again, he was right there. I was surprised in a great way at Kevin Carbone getting all the way just short of The Flying Bars. I thought he could do it too, but Joe and Adam I thought were two guys that I would expect to see get past Stage Three.
You clear stage three. It’s a huge moment. That is, in and of itself, a huge moment in your Ninja career. Then you realize that you’re standing next to Drew Drechsel and you’re both facing Stage Four. What did that feel like?
DG: Oh, man. Again, it was one of those kind of dream come true moments. I had the last four seasons leading up to this, like the goal was to beat Stage Three and stare down Mount Midoriyama. Here I am fresh off of Stage Three looking up at that rope thinking, “Okay. Here I am and now I’ve got to climb this thing.” I was excited to get there with Drew cause I kind of expected him to be there anyways, knowing Drew and the decade that he’s put into this sport. It came down to, “Okay. What am I capable of? I think Drew can finish this rope, but now it’s up to me to see if I can also do it and do it faster.”
Have you been training rope climbs and things like that?
DG: I had, yeah. I’ve been doing rope climbs for a couple of years now and have had good success at some of the big Ninja competitions across the US. Mike Cook’s Ultimate Backyard Warrior. He always has like a hundred foot rope climb out there. I’ve won that a few times and did really well. I was confident in my ability, but man, it took me by surprise, Midoriyama did.
DG: Well, one thing, like I stated in one of our other interviews, like the way that we train or the way that the show is set up, the courses are back to back to back with very little rest in between. Coming out of Stage Three being the last runner, needless to say I was more than a little pumped. Coming out of Stage Three and doing those brief interviews and then them saying, “Okay. You’re going directly to Stage Four now,” part of me was panicked because I was... I remember thinking like, “Oh my gosh. How the heck are my arms supposed to recover enough to climb this rope within this very, very short timeframe of finishing Stage Three as the last runner and then going straight to Stage Four?” Because there was a very, very short turnover between the two stages.
Standing there, by the time I actually ran Stage Three, my arms, they were almost fully recovered, but I feel like... Maybe it’s just part of me that’s thinking like, “Oh, if only I had been able to recover more.” But at the end of the day, climbing up Stage Four, it felt awesome. It felt exactly how I thought it would feel in all the dreams where I had envisioned what it would feel like, but I was surprised to discover a wall that I didn’t know I had. I didn’t know that I would hit a wall at like, shoot, like 10 feet until the end. I was right there, and all of a sudden I felt like I couldn’t pull anymore with my arms and like I couldn’t push anymore with my legs.
I just found myself just dead in the water praying, “God, like what? I’ve come this far. You’re not going to help pull me up the rest of the way? What is this? This was my dream.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned from American Ninja Warrior and having dreams and having these aspirations and goals of ultimate victory, it’s that it doesn’t always look the way you think.
It’s not always going to come as quickly or as easily as you think. It might not happen the first time you get to Mount Midoriyama. Because up until this point in the last four years, I’ve gone down early, whether it was Stage Two or Stage Three or two and then two again. I remember thinking and praying and being like, “God, my goal is to get to the top. Why is this not happening?”
Learning through those experiences of failures that people love to see winners. People love to see you achieve your goals and to see, in my case, me give all the glory to God. But I can remember thinking about it and being like, “Well, God, I used my platform for good to encourage and inspire as many people as I can,” and I’m doing that. I’m very successful in that. I said, “But how much more impactful is it when people see you lose and people see how you handle that failure? People see the look on your face and they see that it hurts, but they see what you say afterward.” This year, I feel like, was probably the most important year for me to handle failure on this national level.
I mean, people all across the world, they’re going to watch and see me come so close to hitting that final buzzer and time out. But I think it’s going to speak volumes to what you can come back from, because at the end of the day, I got to Stage Four in Mount Midoriyama. I got there once. If God can get me there once, I’ve got the strength and I believe that I’ll get there again.
This was by far the best season that I’ve ever had. Had the fastest time in almost almost every single race that I ran. I feel like I still have not peaked. I still have not become the athlete that I’m going to. I mean, some of these other guys, like Drew especially, have spent about a decade training specifically for Ninja, and I’m only about five years in. I’m really excited for the future that lies ahead of me, and I’m excited to see all the other Ninjas that are going to come up and make their way up through the ranks, just like I did, in the coming years, and just see what the sport turns into.