As a teenager, Isaac Caldiero cleaned bathrooms at a Provo climbing gym in exchange for a membership. Yesterday the nomadic climbing guide/busboy/carpenter, now 33 years old, became the first person to conquer American Ninja Warrior, earning himself a million dollars in prize money.
Climbers have excelled on the obstacle course since the show began seven years ago, but Caldiero surpassed them all, closing out his victory in Las Vegas on Monday night with a 26-second speed climb up a 75-foot rope. This morning he was featured on the “Today Show.”
So…Who is this guy?
Caldiero started bouldering and sport climbing as a boy in southern Utah. At age 17, he tested out of high school and “started attending the school of rock,” he says. For the past 16 years he has worked odd jobs—canyoneering guide in Zion, busboy in Colorado, on-and-off carpenter—making just enough money to kick the dirtbag dream a bit further down the road. “I like saying that I got my PhD in rock climbing.” He’s developed a reputation for highball bouldering—attacking problems between 20- and 60-feet tall. He was one of the first people to complete a ropeless ascent of a 5.14a.—it was an old classic route in southern Utah, one of the first 5.14a’s in the country, called The Present.
Six years ago, Caldiero met Laura Kisana, whom he introduced to the climb-and-camp-forever lifestyle. The two have been inseparable since, driving around the country in an old RV, never too far from the crag. Two years ago Caldiero started trying out for American Ninja Warrior. He failed two years in a row before this year. "I wanted to be the guy who does the impossible," he says. We caught up with Caldiero this morning to ask for tips on how to train for American Ninja Warrior, and what’s next.
OUTSIDE: You just won $1 million. What are you going to do next?
CALDIERO: Same thing I’ve been doing! My girlfriend and I have worked random jobs for the last six years to do what we love most, which is traveling and rock climbing. We’ve learned how to live off of less than $10,000 a year, so this is going to enable us to do some amazing things and go to some amazing places.
Like where? What’s on the bucket list?
Definitely South Africa, to this place called Rocklands [a bouldering spot three hours north of Cape Town]. It’s one of the newest, hottest climbing spots. It’s been an unattainable mission for us to get to South Africa—it’s really expensive and far away. But that’ll wait until next summer. Another bucket list item is to go to Japan—not as much for the climbing but for the history and cultural experience. In the meantime, we just got to Squamish, in Canada, and we’re going to head down the West Coast in our RV.
What’s your RV like?
Four years ago we bought a 1978 Dodge Jamboree for $1,200. It’s got 50,000 miles on it, and it has its old, original interior. It’s a gas hog so we mostly use it as our main hub and we’ve got a little car to transfer to and from it.
Does it have a name?
We just call it the rig, or the Jamboree.
How’d you first get into climbing?
I grew up involved in the Boy Scouts of America and that really helped me develop my passion for the outdoors. When I was 15, a close friend of mine and his brother were big climbers and they took me out. From that point on, I took to it. I started cleaning bathrooms at the local gym in exchange for a climbing membership. Got my first sponsorship a few years later, then started traveling in the States and then around the world, developing new climbing areas. Obviously I’m looking forward to some bigger, more exciting opportunities.
Yeah, it seems like American Ninja Warrior competitors are getting some commercial attention. Kacy Catanzaro is doing car commercials now. Do you have any interest in that kind of work?
Totally, if there’s a good market out there for me to represent. I would want to make sure that it’s an organic fit, that it’s true to my and Laura’s lifestyle. If it’s along those lines, I’m all about it.
What’s your favorite climbing spot?
Utah is just phenomenal. Joe’s Valley is one of the most inspired climbing areas I’ve ever been to, and it’s also the first place I ever went. Laura and I wrote a guidebook to the place. Another one that sticks out is Fontainebleau in Paris.
You’ve been going for ninja-warrior status for three years. How have you been training and eating?
The first year I was working in Zion as a climbing guide and canyoneering guide, and I didn’t really have a place to train. I was out hiking and climbing and trail running every day. But after that first year [in which he fell and was disqualified] I realized I needed to step it up, so I built all the hardest obstacles in my parent’s backyard. All last year that’s all I did leading up to the 2014 competition. And then I fell again. It was heartbreaking when you’ve put in that kind of time and dedication and it ends in a matter of seconds.
This year Laura and I were working a bunch so we’d climb, do some pull-ups, push-ups, and some cardio. I had these atomic climbing holds that you can dangle from a tree limb or a bar—they build your grip strength well.
Then also trying to stay light and eating healthy: Morning time is oat bran with cinnamon, molasses, and honey. For lunch we do a basic power smoothie with fruits and vegetables. Nighttime is the big meal of the day where we try to get protein in. We’ll do salmon and quinoa and spinach-kale salad with goat cheese, lemon, and olive oil.
What was the toughest part of the obstacle course?
Stage 1 is super sketchy and terrifies all the rock climbers because it involves lots of speed and coordination, which is counterintuitive for climbers. You’re racing against time and can’t screw up.
What’s up with so many climbers excelling as ninja-warriors?
A lot of the harder obstacles revolve around upper body strength, so for climbers it comes naturally. And you need to have a lot of agility and balance. With climbing you’re building all these stabilizer muscles in carrying awkward bags on the hike to the crag. Then there’s the mental aspect of it too—you’re doing death defying stuff. That’s similar to American Ninja Warrior—it’s one-shot, one-kill. You hit the water and that’s it. You have to get in the zone and focus like you do in rock climbing.
*Corrections: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Caldiero cleaned bathrooms at a gym in Salt Lake City, and that his RV cost $400.