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Daniel Gil reflects on what it took to become the season 12 champion

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We sat down with the American Ninja Warrior champion for a post-win interview.

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

The buzzers have rang out. The dust has settled. American Ninja Warrior has a champion of season 12. The winner of the Power Tower playoffs was...

Daniel Gil.

It was a fitting and hard-fought ending for Daniel, who came in second during season 11 when he timed out on the rope climb of Stage Four. He finally beat the brutal Stage Three of the National Finals just to come up a few seconds short.

This year, Daniel wanted it all.

In the Qualifiers, Daniel tried for the Mega Wall. He didn’t get to the top, but he did place fourth overall for the night. He was even more locked in during the Semi-Finals, tearing through the course to place second for the night. But during the Finals, Daniel kicked things into an entirely new gear.

He whipped through the course. After navigating the new Dragonback, he actually sprinted to the Spider Trap in an attempt to take the top time. He took second place on the top eight leaderboard and moved to the Power Tower. There, Daniel managed to beat Jesse Labreck, then Adam Rayl, then Austin Gray. We need a nap just thinking about how draining that must have been.

Race after race, Daniel put it all on the line. Now, after six seasons of competition, Daniel Gil can call himself a champion. We had a chance to speak with Daniel after his win. He gave us a look at what it took to win during a very challenging year.

(Responses are lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

How did it feel to take part in season 12 in the middle of everything that’s happening?

DG: It’s something that I look forward to every year. One, just for the joy of competition, but also for the platform that is Ninja Warrior, that brings just encouragement and overcoming your own personal obstacles in life. And what better time than right now during the season that the world is going through then to have a platform that showcases people showing their skills, showing that it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world, what life brings your way you can overcome.

What was your motivation for this season?

DG: Gosh, my motivation for this season is community. I think it’s so important to remind viewers this year that even in times of crisis like now where we are spending a lot of time indoors, a lot of times just with our families, it is still so important to have our families, have our churches, have our communities, whatever small groups we have. Stay connected however we can, whether it’s online or whatever that looks like. Don’t let yourself be isolated, stay with people. We need each other to move forward.

There’s been a lot of talk on the show this year that this was your redemption season. Did you go into the season feeling like you had something to prove?

DG: To me, yes, it felt like a redemption season. However, I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove. I knew what I was capable of. And I knew that getting to Stage Four last year and getting three seconds away from the million, I knew what I was capable of. So for me, it was redemption this season, but it wasn’t ... It came with zero pressure to try to prove myself. I felt like I had done that last year. And this year was just go out there and do what you’ve already done. Do what you know you are capable of doing. Now, there was a bit of a curve ball with all the changes with the pandemic situation. But I suppose all in all, I was still able to navigate through it and keep my eyes on the prize, so to speak.

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

You were three for three on buzzers with Qualifiers, Semi-Finals, and Finals. Which course was your favorite? Or do you have any memorable moments from those runs?

DG: Goodness. I loved all three of them. I loved how every single course was very different from each other. We were on a lot of different obstacles between those three different courses. I loved the Semi-Finals course. That one stuck out, I think, more so than any of the other ones, because two of the obstacles were brand new, very challenging, very technical, but also a lot of fun. I mean, first off, with the Semi-Final course, right after the Salmon Ladder it was the Corkscrew obstacle.

One, I got to do an obstacle that my friend designed and sent in, Josh Norton, who won the design challenge with that obstacle. I got to take on a course that just came from the mind of a friend of mine. So that already was special. And then after seeing so many people fall on it, I was like, “Okay, I think I know what I need to do in order to make it happen, but let’s just see if it all goes according to plan.” And it did. So conquering that obstacle felt amazing.

And then right after it, the very next one, The Dungeon, that one was super intimidating. And halfway through it I felt like I was going to slip and fall. But after I successfully finished it, I was like, “Okay, looking back, that was just a brutal grip intensive obstacle that really separated just the athletes, those of us that have the grip strength and have the endurance to be able to beat all the prior obstacles and do that one, and those who don’t.” So I loved those two different obstacles, and that particular course was amazing.

What did you think about Dragonback in the Finals? That looked like such an unpredictable obstacle.

DG: Yes, it was. I think the best term would be finicky. Like you had to be very precise with it. It was very easy to make a small error and just not be able to recover from it. But I loved it. I love that obstacle. I mean, the only reason that wasn’t my favorite course is because in the Semi-Finals I had the Corkscrew and The Dungeon. And that one, in the Finals course it was just the Dragonback. But I loved it. I loved how it was like a combination of like three different obstacles. You had like a bar hop, then you had a slider, and then you had the bungee on it. I absolutely loved it. And everything went according to plan again. So I was very, very pleased with the obstacle too, or at least my performance on it.

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

Were you feeling confident that the Power Tower format was something you could excel at?

DG: Yes and no. I knew doing speed courses I have an advantage because I train speed courses all the time back home in Houston at Iron Sports with my Ninjas. But at the same time, I understand better than most that when it comes to breakneck speeds, with the speed course, it is so much easier to make a small mistake that will cost you a race. I mean, those are the moves where, in a speed course, you have to be risky, especially when you’re competing not against a course but against another Ninja that is extremely capable and well-equipped to defeat that course as well. I mean, honestly, the speed courses or the Power Tower are definitely more stressful than just any Qualifiers, Semi-Final course, or just any individuals course. But everything worked out. Everything worked out.

So heading to the Power Tower playoffs, your first matchup was against Jesse Labreck, which was kind of a historic moment. How did you feel about that race?

DG: Oh man. Oh man. In my opinion, I think Jesse is currently sitting in the top spot of female athletes on the show. Top spot for females definitely, but right there at the top of just anybody on these courses. And so I knew that if I let up off the gas or made even the smallest error, it was going to be over, it was going to be done. So I was like, “Okay, yes, Jesse’s a friend. Even though she’s a female, do not treat her any differently. Actually, it would be a disservice if I tried to hold back at all. I’m going to give Jesse everything that I’ve got on this Power Tower.” And it was still difficult.

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

And then your next matchup, you went against Adam Rayl, and that one was extremely close.

DG: Oh Lord, yes.

What was going on there? Walk me through that one.

DG: I knew that the race against Adam, to me at least, was going to be the hardest of any of the possible races in the Power Tower playoffs, because I’ve lost to him many times before in previous speed courses at local Ninja competitions. So I knew what he was capable of more than any of the other athletes out there. And for that reason, I knew that that was going to be the most difficult race. And, Lord, it was the closest match. It was the closest one.

But it worked out, it worked out. I was able to do what I believed I was capable of doing.

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

So then you had your third match, the championship match. You’ve already run the Power Tower twice. You’re going up against Austin Gray. How were you feeling? Were you exhausted yet?

DG: I was getting there. I was getting there. But at the same time, I was more confident than ever before, because I had already touched the Power Tower so many times up until that point. And the thing about speed courses is, the more times you get to run them the better and the more confident you get with them. So by the time I had my final race against Austin, even though I knew it was still anybody’s game and I knew that literally anything could happen, I was the most confident in that race, especially after coming out victorious against Adam. I was like, “Okay, if I can do that, if that’ll work out, then I don’t have any reason or excuse why I don’t think I can repeat it again.” That’s not to take anything at all away from Austin, because like I said, it was still anybody’s game. But for me mentally, my confidence was at an all time high at that point. And I think that helped me perform the way that I did in that final race.

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

Were you surprised that it was you and Austin at the end, especially in the season where there were so many big name ninjas like Adam, like Joe, like Najee? Were you surprised at all by the final round?

DG: Yes and no. Yes, I was surprised because there were other athletes like Joe (Moravsky) and Najee (Richardson) and several other, just powerhouses, that I was expecting to race in the Finals. But at the same time, I don’t think we give enough credit to guys like Austin Gray or some of these newer Ninjas just because we haven’t seen them run enough. We haven’t seen what they’re capable of. But at the same time, I think Austin just proved that there’s a lot of competitors that have exactly what it takes to excel and to make it to the final rounds in these competitions, but we just haven’t seen them enough. We don’t give them enough credit.

So at the same time that I was surprised that I didn’t see some of these other athletes, when I stood against Austin in the final round, I thought to myself like, “Yeah, I hundred percent believe that Austin is deserving of a spot to be here. He’s proven it. He’s hit every buzzer this season, and here he is standing rightfully where he should.” And so I think he proved himself in a new way this season, and that’s going to stick with him for years to come.

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

How does it feel to be the season 12 champion?

DG: Oh, man, it’s a dream come true. It’s incredible. Just the feeling that after coming so close last year I was able to redeem myself. I was able to prove to myself and everybody watching that last year wasn’t a fluke. I am capable of consistency. And I’ve proven that now. But you better believe, I still feel like this is just the beginning. And I still have a date with Mount Midoriyama that I’m going to try to make happen, hopefully next year.

The format was obviously a little bit different. Do you consider this the championship that you’ve worked towards all these years?

DG: Yes and no. I feel like this is the championship that I’ve worked towards, and that I’ve trained for, but it was also a bit unexpected, because coming into this season I was still in the mindset of a four-stage final ending with an 80-foot rope climb known as Mount Midoriyama. So that’s how I was training. That’s how I was preparing. That’s what I was ready for. And that’s what I really wanted to get my redemption on. Now, things didn’t play out that way this year because of the ongoing situation with the health crisis. I was still able to get the victory that I had hoped, but not under the circumstances that I was mentally prepared for. So I’m grateful for this victory, but you better believe I’m coming back for Mount Midoriyama, hopefully next year.

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

Congratulations to Daniel Gil, American Ninja Warrior’s season 12 champion!