After six seasons without a champion, American Ninja Warrior crowned Utah rock climber Isaac Caldiero the obstacle-course event’s first-ever winner on the season 7 finale, which aired Monday night on NBC.
“The course had been dubbed ‘impossible’ for so long,” Caldiero, 33, tells PEOPLE. “From the beginning, I wanted to be that man to do the impossible.”
In June, when the finale was taped, Maryland sports cameraman Geoff Britten, 36, became the first American ever to complete Stage 4 of the Las Vegas Finals course – a 75-foot rope climb under spotlights – in 29.65 seconds. Yet in ANW‘s rules, while those who complete the course earn the title of “American Ninja Warrior,” the person with the fastest time is the sole winner of the $1 million grand prize.
Caldiero conquered the climb in 26.14 seconds, 3 seconds faster than Britten.
Watching Britten go first “was motivating,” Caldiero says, “but a huge part of it was intimidating, too, because in all the training I’ve done, the fastest I’ve ever climbed that amount of rope was in 36 seconds. So when they announced, ‘You have 30 seconds,’ and when I saw Geoff go, I was overwhelmed, like, ‘Oh boy, I don’t know if I can do this.’ That was the first time I had been questioning my skills.”
Caldiero regained his focus through breathing, meditation and positive affirmation.
“I totally went to another place,” he says. “I had to stay focused and kind of zone out. This year, I took a whole new approach in being really relaxed and not taking it too seriously, and that really helped me stay focused.”
The happy athlete even danced and posed a bit, flexing his muscles, after finishing obstacles.
“There’s moments throughout the time when I am running on the course where my personality comes out,” Caldiero says. “I am reminding myself as I’m on the course, and before the course, that ‘I am one with the course.’ ”
Last year, in the months prior to the start of competition, Caldiero built a replica of a Stage 3 course in the backyard of his parents’ house in Orem, Utah. This year, he and girlfriend Laura Kisana decided to hit the road and travel to rock-climbing sites instead.
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“I focused way too hard on training and trying the same obstacles over and over,” he says. “So that was the main thing that I changed up.”
Rather than get used to the same obstacles, he got a variety of experience, because “we don’t know what we’re going to get in the competition.”
Adaptation has been a part of Caldiero’s worldview since he discovered his passion for scaling new heights.
“From the beginning, I completely altered my life around rock climbing,” he says. “Whatever I needed to do, like cleaning bathrooms at my local climbing gym to get access. I did construction for about 12 years, and I basically designed my life around working three or four months out of the year, saving up $200 and living really frugally to travel the rest of the time. ”
In addition to saving a little money and his income from rock climbing sponsors, he’s been able to travel the world.
He’ll be able to do that with Kisana, 30, whom he met six years ago at a southern Utah coffee shop where she worked. He thought she was out of his league.
After a year of Facebooking, the pair hung out on New Year’s Eve for their first night together and have been inseparable since.
“For the past six years, we’ve spent only one night away from each other,” Caldiero says of his girlfriend, who has also competed on the show. “We share everything. We share a phone, we share a car, we are just fully connected and in love and we are doing what we love to do.”
The big million-dollar check Caldiero won will help keep the couple on the road in their 1978 RV and rock climbing full-time. As for the prize money, they plan on investing and being responsible with it.
What will Caldiero’s next impossible dream be? While he says he could try his hand at commentating and would like to help design obstacles, he has eyes on competing in Japan to honor the roots of the show.
“We’ll see what happens next year,” he says.