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The runs that led us here: Michelle Warnky’s journey to the City Finals buzzer

The emotional moment was the culmination of years of work.

When we watch those huge moments on American Ninja Warrior, it’s easy to forget all the years and gritty work that it takes to get there. So we’re looking back to appreciate “the runs that led us here.” We’re starting with American Ninja Warrior Michelle Warnky’s Cincinnati City Finals buzzer.

Before we get into this, we need to give credit where credit is due. The idea for this article came from ANW Nation reader, Dylan Payne. They left a comment on another article that sparked the thought. It WOULD be fun to revisit the runs that led up to historic moments on the show. Thank you for the idea!

Season 11 was Michelle’s seventh year on the show and held a massive milestone both for her and for the sport. In Cincinnati, Michelle became the first woman since Kacy Catanzaro in season six to complete a City Finals course. (Jesse Labreck then joined Michelle in the accomplishment later in the night.) While we all watched this fierce competitor ascend the Spider Trap, what we were seeing was the culmination of years of determination.

American Ninja Warrior - Season five

Michelle first appeared on the show in season five, running the course in Baltimore. She fell on the Circle Cross but was given a wildcard pass to Las Vegas.

But even at this point, she wasn’t a novice. Michelle was already a rock climber and avid Ninja. Check out her submission video for season five. Her skills and personality were undeniable. (We had no idea Michelle spoke Russian!)

American Ninja Warrior - Season six

Michelle began making her mark on Ninja Warrior history in season six. Shortly after Kacy Catanzaro became the first woman to clear the Warped Wall, Michelle also broke through that barrier with her run in the St. Louis Qualifiers, snagging her first buzzer.

She followed it up with a run in the City Finals that ended on the Salmon Ladder. Although she once again got a wildcard pass to the National Finals, Michelle was hungry to qualify for Vegas with a buzzer on the extended course.

American Ninja Warrior - Season Seven

This year was bittersweet for Michelle. In the Pittsburgh Qualifiers, she missed out on a repeat buzzer hit, but did make it into the top 30. In the City Finals, she slipped on Snake Crossing, a brutal balance obstacle. Again, she was given a wildcard to Vegas. But the falls galvanized her resolve to get there on her own merit.

American Ninja Warrior - Season eight

The season marked a turning point for women in the competition and for Michelle. In the Philadelphia Qualifiers, she was one of the “Fantastic Four” (including Jesse Labreck, Allyssa Beird, and Rachael Goldstein) who all qualified to advance to the City Finals. It wasn’t a buzzer, but it was a strong showing on a mean course.

The City Finals course also ended on the Rolling Thunder for Michelle. You know what happened next. She got a wildcard pass to Vegas. However, this was the end of that tradition.

American Ninja Warrior - Season nine

The women’s rules introduced in season nine both helped advance women through the rounds, and removed the wildcard process. In this case, the rule sent Michelle through to the Cleveland City Finals, but marked the first season she would not step on Stage One in Vegas.

Let’s take stock for a moment here. At this point, Michelle had competed on the show for five years and reached one buzzer. She’d become incredibly respected in the Ninja community, but hadn’t quite received as much television fanfare as some other competitors. After every fall, every early exit, Michelle would simply get back to work, pushing herself to make her goals possible.

American Ninja Warrior - Season 10

Michelle had a fire under her during this year. She wanted a buzzer and she wanted to be in Vegas. Returning to Philadelphia, Michelle hit the buzzer on the Qualifying course for the first time years, and even gave the Mega Wall an attempt.

Not one to let her joy distract her from the next challenge, Michelle welcomed the work of the City Finals course and reached another career goal. She qualified for the National Finals in the top 15. No wild card. No women’s rule. She’d made it on to the leaderboard, further solidifying her place as a top contender.

American Ninja Warrior - Season 11

Looking back through all these seasons, you can see the pieces falling into place for Michelle. She was so poised for more success and Cincinnati was going to be her moment. The Qualifiers had us all screaming for Michelle when she hit her head early on the course. She pressed the buzzer with blood dripping down her face. If there was ever a moment that visually represented Michelle’s inner determination, this was it.

With stitches and a smile, Michelle stepped up to the start line for the City Finals. Steadily, Michelle put obstacle after obstacle behind her. On the back half of the course, the anticipation, excitement and cheers from the crowd all swelled as we realized what we were about to see. To this day, we can’t watch this run without tearing up a little as Michelle reaches the top of the Spider Trap.

The moment marked a goal she had set for herself all those years ago. It was the first time in five seasons that a woman had completed the City Finals course, and Michelle was the second person to do it.

But we know that Michelle’s not done here. That was a goal post on her Ninja Warrior journey, not the finish line. When we think back on the focus and drive she possess, we get chills wondering what she’ll accomplish next.