Chattanooga’s ninja champion Isaac Caldiero — and the making of a sport

Contributed by Nathalie DuPré Photography / After becoming the first person to conquer the final "American Ninja Warrior" obstacle course, Isaac Caldiero came to Chattanooga and, in 2020, founded Synergy Climbing and Ninja.

A few months ago, a high school friend got married. I ate my fish, drank my wine and prepared to drop it low. The toasts wrapped up, and the music swelled. Within minutes, I was deploying a never-before-seen dance move, raising my leg high, then snapping it downward like a whip, cracking heel against floor with mighty force. I did this a few times. Perhaps three or four. And then I felt a jolt — and I hobbled off into the night.

As I turn 29, these and other such incidents occur with alarming frequency. The other day, someone addressed me, and I turned to face them. Jolt! My neck was stiff for hours. Obviously, I'm just starting down a path I can not truly avoid. But in some moments — and more to the point, in some people — there seems to be another way.

In 2015, at age 33, Isaac Caldiero became the first person to conquer the final American Ninja Warrior obstacle course, where contestants, chiseled and lean, fly like audacious monkeys high above the water, under the bright lights of the NBC television network's cameras.

"Tell me dreams don't come true!" shrieked the announcer, as a Jesus-like Caldiero heaved himself down a final sequence to complete Stage 3 in Las Vegas. Soon after, he bested "Mount Midoriyama" and won $1 million, prompting an announcer to shriek again, this time that viewers were looking at the "richest busboy in America."

  photo  Contributed by Nathalie DuPré Photography / Isaac Caldiero moves through the ninja obstacle course at Synergy Climbing and Ninja.

In fact, as the NBC personalities also noted, though with slightly less verve than when they discussed his seasonal labor, Caldiero was among the world's best rock climbers.

Now 41 and living in Chattanooga, Caldiero came of age in Utah in a time when climbing was the fringe domain of the dirtbagger, and where "ninja" — drawn from folk tales of covert agents of Japan's feudal past — was just a quirky show on foreign TV.

Now, rock climbing is an Olympic competition, and according to Caldiero, ninja may be next. The Olympic imprimatur would probably speed ninja's mainstream ascendance. But as with rock climbing (though certainly to a lesser extent), visibility and facility of access have meant increased public participation in the sport — including in Chattanooga. Caldiero is among those responsible for this fact.

How Ninjas Feel

In the book "You Are Your Own Gym," the Navy Seal trainer Mark Lauren advises readers on workout regimes involving their own body and everyday objects. He instructs readers to do pull-ups on doors, or bicep curl-like movements with towels secured underfoot.

A couple years ago, after completing a 10-week "beginner" regime of "Mark Workouts," I felt limber, powerful. Occasionally, I felt the urge to just ... run, explode forth, leap at some protruding brick or emergency fire escape and fling myself into the realms of a cityscape that had previously seemed so forbidding.

  photo  Contributed by Nathalie DuPré Photography / Isaac Caldiero gets ready to open Synergy Climbing and Ninja in 2020.

Is this how a ninja feels? Reached by phone, Caldiero described a unified vision of fitness, personal entertainment and sport. He has never been a weightlifting-type either; he tried that kind of gym a few times and found the repetition dull and the movements — bench presses, squats — to be irrelevant to real life. He had better luck getting his exercise incidentally, through mountain biking — or rock climbing, which before long, he was doing professionally.

Climbing is characterized by slow, methodical motions. Ninja is dynamic and dramatic. Intrigued by the U.S. landfall of "American Ninja Warrior" — and the mystique of an unconquerable obstacle course — Caldiero prepared a successful pitch video, built makeshift obstacles and competed for two seasons until his triumph in a third.

Soon after, Caldiero moved to Chattanooga, where rock-climbing opportunities abound. But even after opening Synergy Climbing and Ninja on the Chattanooga Southside in 2020, he's been ever on the move, doing shows and clinics around the world.

Weary of this lifestyle, however, he said he's entering a new phase. As this past summer wrapped up, he joined the ninja-instructor team at his Southside gym. Welcome to all ages, the classes entail assessments, personally tailored training regimes, even dietary advice. Still, according to Caldiero, ninja is not just about swinging and jumping around but is rather a way of being in the world. Ninjas, Caldiero seeks to impart to his students, are not only good to themselves but can skillfully encourage those around them — especially those struggling with something that may, for another person, come easy.

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  photo  Contributed by Nathalie DuPré Photography / Isaac Caldiero works out on his ninja obstacle course at Synergy Climbing and Ninja.