Kacy Catanzaro is the undisputed star of American Ninja Warrior. Her magical run in the 2014 Dallas City Finals rewrote what was possible for women on the course. ANW‘s policy of subjecting men and women to the same course is quietly revolutionary — there are no excuses or limits for women on the show — but it also threw in stark relief the physical limitations of female competitors who are on average smaller and leaner than their male counterparts.
In order to progress past the first round of qualifiers, every competitor generally needs to scale the Warped Wall, essentially a 14-foot (with an added six inches this year) quarterpipe. Few women had even gotten far enough to attempt it, and none had ever done it for the first five and a half seasons, until… Well, if you’re reading this you know what happened:
It’s easy to get carried away with a moment like that, considering that even now, ANW is a niche show, but that was a legitimate glass ceiling-breaking moment. And yet it was mere prelude to those mythical City Finals, when she not only surpassed what any woman had done before, but went farther than all but the most elite male athletes. I’ve personally watched this dozens of times, and I get chills every time:
Kacy’s run in Dallas instantly made her more famous than every other ANW competitor combined, and deservedly so. Her finish earned her a spot in the Vegas Finals at the American version of Mount Midoriyama, where she failed at the fourth obstacle, the Jumping Spider:
It was a respectable run that nevertheless highlighted her biggest disadvantage, which is hammered home by commentators Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila every time she runs the course: she’s only 5-feet tall, far below the ideal height and reach to combat some of the limb-stretching obstacles, the Jumping Spider among them. That’s part of what made her successes in Dallas so awe-inspiring: Kacy isn’t even the most physically imposing female competitor, so if she could do it, that means the floodgates could really open.
And open they did: In the same season as Kacy’s milestone, Michelle Warnky and Meagan Martin got up the Warped Wall as well, and Martin progressed further than Catanzaro at the Vegas Finals. That’s the whole point, right? You break the barrier so that others can surpass you? It’s not as if Roger Bannister still holds the record for the fastest mile. But Kacy was the first, and she’s got a megawatt smile, so NBC justifiably threw their marketing weight behind her. They invited her on their press tours, and they put the spotlight on her — and with it, the pressure.
Kacy has failed to advance on merit to the Vegas Finals the last two years now, and whether it’s been due to physical shortcomings, mental mistakes or the heavy emotional burden of that pressure is known only to Kacy. It’s hard to say the pressure didn’t affect her after her wildcard invite to Vegas in 2015 ended in ignominious fashion:
You can feel the weight of all that pressure when Kacy breaks down. She was a fiercely competitive athlete full of self-belief before the spotlight ever shone on her, but when everyone else starts believing as well, your story is no longer one of defiance, of beating the odds. The goalposts get moved, and when the best you can do is meet expectations rather than exceed them, falling short is more painful, if only because, as Kacy admits, it feels like you’re letting people down.
Kacy doesn’t deserve that kind of pressure. Martin, like so many of the top male competitors, is a professional rock climber. She even trains with Isaac Caldiero, who was the first ever to win the $1 million prize after season eight. Jessie Graff was the first woman to attempt the Warped Wall the season before Kacy made it, and she’s a powerhouse of an athlete who made it to the second-to-last City Finals obstacle in 2015.
This year, she was the first woman to beat the Warped Wall at its new height of 14 feet, six inches, and in her return to the finals, was the first competitor (and only one of two the whole night)to pass an obstacle called the Wedge:
Graff is 5-foot-8, with a background in pole vaulting (a common thread with many top competitors) and a day job as a stuntwoman. When she takes the course, she doesn’t look like she’s overcoming any obstacles by doing so. She may not be as inspirational as Kacy, which means she didn’t quite fit ANW producers’ preferences for who to foreground, but she’s a much more suitable target for Great Female Hope aspirations, and she’s finally being treated like it.
Even though she washed out of the competition early, Catanzaro will likely be invited back to the Vegas Finals as a wild card, and Graff will definitely be there after qualifying second overall at her City Finals — better than all but one man. Only time and NBC will tell if Graff’s star will truly overcome Kacy, but the show would be wise not to keep insisting that the trailblazing Catanzaro is the most notable female competitor. That does a disservice both to her and to the other deserving women in the competition.