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Pinellas man with cerebral palsy wins $1 million ‘Ninja Warrior’ prize

Vance Walker, 18, is just the third winner in the show’s 15 seasons.
 
Pinellas Park's Vance Walker won the 15th Season of "American Ninja Warrior."
Pinellas Park's Vance Walker won the 15th Season of "American Ninja Warrior." [ NBC | Elizabeth Morris/NBC ]
Published Sept. 12, 2023

PINELLAS PARK — As a little kid with cerebral palsy, Vance Walker was told that he might not ever walk without some form of assistance.

Now, the 18-year-old Pinellas Park resident is the best ninja warrior in the nation.

Walker has won the “American Ninja Warrior” Season 15 championship and its $1 million prize.

The show, which has contestants race extreme obstacle courses, was filmed earlier this year, and the final round was broadcast on Monday on NBC.

“Even if people say you can’t do anything, if you put your whole mind and whole focus into it, you can achieve anything,” said Walker, who became just the third competitor to ever win the show. “Never give up, no matter how hard it seems.”

Pinellas Park's Vance Walker won the 15th season of "American Ninja Warrior."
Pinellas Park's Vance Walker won the 15th season of "American Ninja Warrior." [ NBC | Elizabeth Morris/NBC ]

The season began with 238 ninjas. Of those, the 96 men and 32 women with the best qualifying times for their gender moved on to the semifinals.

The 48 male and 16 female winners of one-on-one races plus eight wild card contestants then competed in the finals, where men and women were in the same bracket.

To win the finals, Walker had to complete three different obstacle courses and then, in under 30 seconds and with the fastest time, climb a rope up an 80-foot tower known as Mount Midoriyama.

Seven other ninja warriors made it to Mount Midoriyama, but only two finished in the allotted time.

At just under 27 seconds, Walker was around a second faster than contestant Daniel Gil.

In 12 of the 15 seasons, no contestant made it up the tower in under 30 seconds, so there was not a winner.

“I started bawling my eyes out when I realized that I won,” Walker said. “Years of hard work came to fruition.”

Cerebral palsy is a “motor disability … caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain that affects a person’s ability to control his or her muscles,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nicknamed “Walker Texas Ninja” by the show because he grew up in the Lone Star State, Walker was diagnosed at 18 months old with a form of cerebral palsy called spastic diplegia.

“My legs were tight and twitchy,” he said. The braces stretched and strengthened his limbs, but Walker “was told I had to wear them for the rest of my life.”

But on the cerebral palsy spectrum, Walker said, his was not severe, plus he was diagnosed early. Walker was able to remove the braces by age 6 or 7 and treat the cerebral palsy with stretching and physical therapy, which he continues to do.

When he was 10, Walker’s family moved to Atlanta, where he discovered the “American Ninja Warrior” television show.

“I watched at a friend’s house and thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he said. Walker then looked for a ninja training gym, found one 10 minutes from his house, “and I never looked back.”

He twice won the 13-14 age division for “American Ninja Warrior Junior” and then moved on to “American Ninja Warrior.” Walker made it to the third stage of Season 13′s finals but failed to make it past the first stage of Season 14′s finals.

He graduated early from high school and moved to Pinellas Park to work out at the Jungle Gym, a ninja training facility run by the Bergstrom family who had four family members competing in season 15.

There, Walker estimated, he trains two to five hours per day, every weekday.

“I have dedicated my entire life to being a ninja and being the best that I can be,” he said. “Nobody wants it as badly as I do. When there are times that I want to stop, I picture myself at the bottom of that rope, climbing it for that million dollars and reaching my goal.”