No one climbed Mt. Midoriyama for $1 million in Season 8 of "American Ninja Warrior," which was expected but disappointing nonetheless. Veteran Drew Drechsel and wunderkind Daniel Gil were the only two competitors to survive the brutal test of Stage 2 in the season finale, which aired Monday. Their Stage 3 quests, however, came up short, and both of them ended up in the water.
Geoff Britten and Isaac Caldiero both conquered the four-stage course last season, and Caldiero became the first million-dollar winner in the show's history.
This season was as compelling as it was historic. There were fresh faces and new challenges, but above all else, ANW Season 8 will be known for its ground-breaking accomplishments by women.
While Jessie Graff's star shined brightest, all of the ANW women proved their athletic chops this season. Meagan Martin hit a city-qualifying buzzer for the third consecutive season, two women ran in the Los Angeles city finals, four women ran in the Philadelphia city finals, and three women punched their own tickets to Vegas. To top it off, a record 18 women competed in the national finals.
"I think this season was a game-changer for female competitors," Erica Cook said. "Girls have been breaking through in the past few years but falling just short of competing on par with the men."
When Kacy Catanzaro became the first woman to finish a qualifying course in Season 6, she opened the door for other firsts and helped the ninja community understand that female competitors should be taken seriously. Her triumph was soon followed by Martin and Michelle Warnky doing the same.
Catanzaro went on to become the first woman to complete a city finals course. (She's still the only one to do so.) Martin bested the Jumping Spider in Vegas, but for a few years, Stage 1 was left unconquered by a woman.
That changed with Jessie Graff. The 5-foot-8 powerhouse athlete blazed through Stage 1, becoming the first woman to finish the course and placing fifth overall. No one was happier for her than Warnky, her competitor and friend.
"I loved seeing her run on Stage 2! I knew she had worked so hard for it," Warnky said.
Last year, both were unable to beat what Warnky considered to be the easiest Stage 1 in the show's history. But this year, Graff hit the buzzer on what was arguably the hardest Stage 1 in the show's history. A record-low of 17 competitors finished the course to advance to Stage 2. Her completion, and this season as a whole, prove that women of ANW are capable of challenging the men.
"I think [this season] has given girls and women out there more confidence and that with hard work and dedication, anything is possible," said Rachael Goldstein, one of the four women to reach the Philadelphia city finals. "Women can compete alongside some of the strongest men, and rank near the top.
"I know that this season has given me more confidence anyways. Before this season, I was unsure of myself and my ability to compete alongside the best ninjas in the country."
For many of the women competing in Vegas, Graff's completing Stage 1 was just the beginning. She's inspired them to chase their own dreams.
This is what some of them had to say about Graff:
"She is truly an incredible athlete and inspiration for all the ninja ladies to get there, too." -- Tiana Webberley
"She isn't just an inspiration to kids and adults training to reach fitness goals, but to the men and women who compete on the show as well." -- Rachael Goldstein
"She has finally let the females see past the mental block we've all had about Stage 1, and now Stage 2 is the next to be conquered. Most of the females who make it to the Vegas rounds tend to all be thinking, 'I just want to beat Stage 1!' and I personally love that the standard has risen and that it will forever change the mentality of the female competitors, plus the viewers at home." -- Cassie Craig
"Jessie is leading the way for what many women are capable of accomplishing in Ninja Warrior." -- Kirsti Pratt
"In my opinion, she showed everyone that gender doesn't necessarily confine you. If you work hard enough, anything is possible." -- Erica Cook
"We always knew women have been fully capable of beating Stage 1, but now that Jessie has finally proved that, it's set this awesome and inspiring bar for all other female ninjas." -- Allyssa Beird
It was an amazing season of "American Ninja Warrior." Hopefully next year, there will be even more women making history. Perhaps one of them will even beat Stage 2.