Vance Walker has a knack for beating the odds. Born with a form of cerebral palsy, he wore leg braces until the first grade, but now the 18-year-old is American Ninja Warrior’s third-ever million-dollar prize winner. "When I started watching the show, I never would've thought that I would've been able to win the whole thing, especially with having to wear those leg braces and struggling to work on things like flexibility and all that," he tells PEOPLE.
"But if you put your mind to stuff like that, you can do pretty much whatever you want." Walker's win on the long-running NBC competition series, which dares contestants to complete extreme obstacle courses, also coincided with new challenges for this season, such as head-to-head racing to the "Mega Wall," which at 18 and a half feet was taller than ever before. The Texas-born competitor known as "Walker Texas Ninja" discusses how he's trained for ninja while coping with his disability, spastic diplegia — a form of cerebral palsy that mainly causes "muscle stiffness" in the legs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The winner says that although his spastic diplegia keeps his legs "very tight and twitchy," it "hasn't really affected his gameplay" because he has "done so much work outside of competing to compensate." Vance Walker.
Elizabeth Morris/NBC Walker dominated two seasons of American Ninja Warrior Junior, a children's version of the popular show in which he won every race in his age group, before competing in seasons 13–15 of ANW. This year, he won the top prize after conquering all four stages at the National Finals in Las Vegas, beating ANW veteran and friend Daniel Gil by just over a second on Mount Midoriyama, an 80-foot tower with a 75-foot rope climb. Walker says he was an active kid and found an outlet with ninja. "I always wanted to do sports, but I was never any good at a lot of them," he adds.
"I tried playing baseball and I tried playing soccer, but a lot of sports where you had to be on your legs the entire time, I wasn't very good at." "The second I found ninja, I knew that that's what I wanted to do," he continues. "I knew that that's what I wanted to fully focus on." His journey to TV victory began in 2018 after he’d been practicing ninja for about three to four years, and he'd already won a national championship outside of the show.
Once Walker heard that ANWJ was happening, he says he "immediately" applied with friends. "Luckily, I think five of us from my gym that first season were able to make it on," he says. "So my whole entire training squad was able to go on there together." He adds, "I had been training for a couple years at that point and doing well at the local competitions.
I just decided to take it on the big show and see what I had." Elizabeth Morris/NBC Walker went on to impress during his rookie season on ANW in 2021, making it all the way to stage 3 of the finals. After nearly seven years in Atlanta, he moved to Houston, where he trained with Gil ahead of season 14.
But several stunning defeats — leaving that season without hitting a single buzzer — pushed him to work even harder. At 18, he decided to graduate high school early and move to Tampa, Florida, by himself ahead of season 15 to train with show veterans like R.J. Roman and Caleb Bergstrom. Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from celebrity news to compelling human interest stories. "I just came down here to test out a new environment to see if this would be the right fit for me to fully prepare for the show," Walker adds. Now reflecting on his historic victory, Walker shares that it was a "little sad" that he beat Gil because they "both worked super hard." He says, "I know Daniel was happy for me, and I was definitely happy when he was able to get up there too." According to the champion, ANW is not about the cash prize but rather "being out there with the community," and it’s "a communal effort" to get someone to win. "The entire community [is] trying to get someone on top of that mountain, trying to get somebody to beat Mount Midoriyama and all the stages in Vegas, because not many people have done it before," Walker says. Though Walker has the crown, he reveals he’s not giving up on the competition. Vance Walker.
Elizabeth Morris/NBC "No matter how many times I win, I'm still going to stick around. [I'm] still going to compete," he says, adding, "I'm sticking around as long as I can." His cerebral palsy community is also on the 18-year-old's mind. He hopes his win shows that they too can "achieve their dreams." "If you just work hard and focus on just being the best version of yourself," he says, "you can achieve things that you would never think possible."