The Man Who Won And Lost "American Ninja Warrior"

On "American Ninja Warrior," Geoff Britten did something no one's ever done. Then another ninja did it faster, and won a million dollars. What comes next? Life, mostly.

Nov 6 2015, 4:22pm

Photo via NBC

For six years, there was no American Ninja Warrior. The show, of that name based on the Japanese original, premiered in 2009, and it's good. But there was not one person who could claim the title of American Ninja Warrior—something bestowed on those who successfully complete both the qualifying rounds and all four final stages of the weird strength-based obstacle course. For those six years, no one made it up Mount Midoriyama—an overly reverential name for what is simply the last obstacle: a 75-foot rope that must be climbed in less than 30 seconds.

This year, that changed. In this year's final round, after hanging onto moving monkey bars and upside down ladders and floating lily pads, Geoff Britten, 36, a father and cameraman from Maryland, hit the buzzer at the top of Mount Midoriyama with just .35 seconds to spare. Britten was the only competitor who hadn't missed a single obstacle all season. (While the later rounds are single elimination—miss once and you're out—it is possible to mess up in the early rounds and still go through to the finals in Vegas, provided you go far enough, fast enough.) With his wife and daughter cheering from the sidelines, Britten seemed like the ideal person to finally take home the title and the $1 million—an out-of-nowhere backyard warrior with forearms that earned him the nickname "Popeye."

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Then, in a span of minutes, NBC had not one, but two American Ninja Warriors. Isaac Caldiero, 33, a professional nomad and rock climber, followed Britten up the rope, and beat him to the top by three seconds. By the rules, and quite suddenly, Caldiero was the official champion and the $1 million winner. Britten took home nothing more than the distinction of being the other American Ninja Warrior.

By the time that final episode aired in mid-September, Britten was back at work as a freelance camera operator for sporting events, managing the big cameras on the sidelines of MLB games. The week the episode aired, while six million viewers watched, it was back-to-school night at his daughter's school. He and his wife, Jess, flew to New York so he could appear on The Today Show, and then flew back home and drove straight from the airport to his daughter's soccer game.

"He went right back to work. I went right back to work," said Jess Britten.

"[Geoff and Jess] are just two regular people, who are both just dedicated," said Dusty McKinney, a friend who met Geoff during last year's Vegas finals. "[Britten] is dedicated to his daughter, to his family, to rock climbing, to American Ninja Warrior, to his cat and dog." Caldiero and Britten have many things in common, except for the million dollars.

There is something quintessentially American about Britten's success, the idea that an average guy could reach the top where everyone else had failed. And there is something quintessentially American, too, if in a less benign way, about the fact that he did it without any reward. After he became a legend, Geoff Britten simply went back to work.

What the show's announcers seemed to suggest, what the fans echoed and what Britten, himself, believes—is that if he can do it, in spite of his 60-70 hour work weeks and walking his daughter to the school bus each morning and only really training during family outings to the gym, then anyone can do anything. This is at the core of "American Ninja Warrior," the idea that these superheroes of grip strength and persistence walk among us like mortals, not quite aware of the awesome things they can do.

But that's not totally right. What Britten's success proves isn't that anyone can do what he did, but that he isn't just anyone.

The couple that is extremely fit together, remains extremely fit together. — Photo courtesy of Geoff and Jess Britten

Britten grew up surfing and adventuring in Hawaii. In high school, he started rock climbing, which took over his life. For years, he did the semi-professional thing—training, traveling to competitions, bumming through side jobs.

He met Jess while climbing, and that was serious. He started working behind-the-scenes of sports TV. He doesn't even like sports that much, but running the camera equipment at games was a good job. The couple had a daughter, Allison, who is now 6 years old. His life got fairly normal, something like average. Yeah, he and Jess still went rock climbing sometimes. He still did crazy things in their backyard and they'd challenge each other to try wacky stunts at the playground. But, really, overall, things weren't that crazy at all.

Here's the joke:

Why does a normal guy apply to be on American Ninja Warrior?

For the normal reasons: his wife told him to.

She was at home, after the birth of their daughter, and saw the show on TV. It looked like the kind of thing Geoff would be good at. "There was no real convincing," she said.

After Jess mentioned it a few times, Britten looked up "ninja" gyms—which, yes, are a thing—and found there was one an hour away. He went and completed every obstacle successfully on his very first try. The gym owner told him he should be on the show.

There are people who wait for days to get a chance at running an American Ninja Warrior course. Britten didn't have the time to be one of those guys. He has a life, a wife, a kid and a job and other things he has to do. He sent in a tape and a 20-page application. If you're Geoff Britten, "the hardest obstacle on the show is getting on the show," he joked.

That first year, in 2014, he made it through the ANW preliminaries and city finals to the national finals in Vegas, but fell on the jumping spider—an obstacle that requires ninjas to jump off a trampoline and wedge themselves between, and then climb, two Plexiglas walls spaced about four feet apart. It was not a win, but it introduced him and his family to the ninja community—which, also, yes, is a thing. It was a new experience, outside the norm. For many people, it might have been the last of those experiences. But not many people are like the Brittens.

This year, both Geoff and Jess competed. (She fell in the early preliminaries.) During the work week, the two sometimes rock climb together. On weekends, they'll head to the ninja gym, where their daughter plays on the obstacles while they train. "We don't have date night," Geoff says. "We have ninja night." Still, these ninja nights don't add up to very much training relative to the competition.

"I've probably trained the least out of all the top guys," Geoff said. Jess agrees; he was too busy to train more. "He worked a month straight before Vegas," she said.

It's Jess who sometimes seems to love the ninja lifestyle even more than Geoff. She quit her job as a librarian a couple years ago to become a personal trainer. She gets up early each morning now to train clients, while he gets Allison ready for school. Then he heads to work and Jess works out on her own, before training more clients in the evening. In the summer, he travels constantly for baseball games and big events; he's even worked the Olympics. "I call it my single mom season," she said.

Adding ninja-ing to that schedule made it more complicated, more costly. There are small prizes to be won at small competitions. Mostly, though, they spend money and time. They spend money flying places. They spend time at random gyms signing things for kids who love Britten, and who want to show him their tricks.

Why do it? He's not going to lie, the $1 million would have been nice. But that's not the only reason. "I wanted to be the first person," Britten said. "That's not an opportunity you get in life."

After Britten lost out on the money, fans were outraged. After six years without a winner, it made a sort of sense that "American Ninja Warrior" didn't have a contingency plan for the sudden arrival of two in rapid succession. But the idea that Britten could do what he did and finish with nothing didn't sit right with the ninja community, which has always been more about ninja v. the obstacles, rather than ninja v. ninja.

Most importantly, some thought, Britten had completed all the obstacles. In fact, he was the only one to have made it through every single course. Caldiero fell in the city finals in Kansas City, but still qualified for Vegas. (NBC says there was simply fan confusion about the rules, and Britten was always considered the co-American Ninja Warrior—despite fans originally being concerned that he didn't get the title.)

The ninja community, pictured. — Photo courtesy of Geoff and Jess Britten

McKinney wanted to start a crowdfunding campaign to raise a $1 million replacement prize for the other American Ninja Warrior. Britten said no.

After the final aired, a fundraiser was started anyway—not by McKinney, but by fans—and it has brought in $12,900 so far. "We're not rich," said Britten. "That's a substantial amount of money."

It is a substantial amount, but not a life-changing amount, at least in the long run. It certainly pales in comparison to the amount that the show's corporate sponsors handed to Caldiero, all because he climbed a rope three seconds faster than Britten did.

What do you do, then, after winning the unwinnable without anything to show for it? Britten felt done after the final. He didn't go to the gym, and wasn't sure he wanted to do the show again this upcoming season. Maybe it was time for a normal life, one spent doing things other than climbing along ledges suspended on one's fingertips, or shimmying down a floorless Plexiglas corridor at full extension.

But then Britten and his wife got calls to be on the upcoming "Team Ninja Warrior," which will air on the Esquire Network in January. It's a timed, head-to-head team competition. She wanted to do it, and he realized he kind of did too. This is what it's about, they thought, why they like the training and the community. This is why they spend the money and the time: for the fun, for the experience, for the new challenge.

Britten told the producers he wanted McKinney to be the third member of their team. McKinney has kids, too, and a real job, as an information warfare office with the Navy. Still, he loves the challenge, just as Britten does. McKinney fell in the second round in Vegas this summer, but he'll be deploying with the Navy before the next season of ANW, so he won't be able to compete again. Britten wanted to give him another shot.

They filmed the team competition outside Los Angeles a few weeks ago. "It was just so much fun," McKinney said. "It was a blast. You're standing there at the start line, with some of the top athletes out there, and you know when the buzzer goes off, you're going all out."

Britten is now planning on returning for the next ANW season too. "There's an opportunity to keep my perfect streak going," he said. "No one else has that."

The million dollars would certainly have changed his life, and his family's, but that's not why he did it, and not why he'll do it again. He does it because it's there, and because it's fun, and because he's the only dad on the sidelines of the soccer field who can say that he's done it. The prize money will still be there next year, but the prize money was never really what Geoff Britten was chasing.