By Cassidy DeStefano, news editor
Growing up in San Francisco’s Bay Area, a toddler-aged Josh Levin climbed everything – bookshelves, lampposts, whatever he laid eyes on. Years later, the Northeastern senior scaled one of the most important walls of his life: One that led him to the buzzer to secure a victory on NBC’s sports entertainment TV show American Ninja Warrior (ANW.)
“Climbing was my natural outlet; it was something that I always wanted to do,” Levin said. “It’s a lifelong activity.”
On July 11, Levin was the sole contestant to complete the obstacle course at ANW’s Los Angeles finals, boasting a time of 8:21.30 and ensuring his advancement to the final stage of the competition in Las Vegas beginning on August 29. There, he will battle for the grand prize of $1,000,000, a factor that he says is only an added bonus to the experience.
“Climbing is not something that you do for the money or the fame,” Levin said. “It’s much more about trying to conquer something that’s physically challenging and working with others to beat that.”
Along with physical strength, Levin said that ANW contestants often have a philanthropic initiative that they present on the show. For him, inspiration came in the form of his first trainer, Stacey Collver, who received a double lung transplant in 2003 after she was diagnosed with LAM, a rare lung disease.
“One third of people affected die waiting for organ transplants because the organs just don’t become available in time,” Collver said. “There are so many people on the waiting list who need some sort of transplant to solve a life-threatening situation.”
Since Collver’s diagnosis, Levin and his family have contributed every year to a climbathon, hosted by Levin’s home gym, Planet Granite, to raise money for her treatment.
“As someone who looks up to her as my coach, I thought she was invincible, and now I was seeing her on her deathbed,” Levin said. “With that, I realized the most impactful thing I could do on ANW was share her story.”
Collver said she began to train Levin when he was five years old, kicking off his professional climbing career.
“He was a shy, tiny little boy who didn’t like to take class right away,” Collver said. “But in our private lessons, I was able to pick up on his natural ability, strength and flexibility.”
From there, Levin’s involvement in climbing grew at an exponential pace: He began competing at age 7, captured his first national championship title at age 9 and attended his first international competition by the time he was 10 years old.
“I loved being able to go outdoor climbing and seeing the most beautiful natural landscapes you can imagine in some of the most remote places on Earth,” Levin said.
Charlie Andrews, an MIT student and a fellow climber, has traveled the world with Levin and witnessed his ANW training firsthand.
“The ninja community is pretty tight,” Andrews said. “Josh had infiltrated the whole thing; it’s funny how systematically he went about it. He made contact with key people and groups through Facebook, and pretty soon he had this entire knowledge base of a ton of people’s experiences, advice and mockup obstacles.”
Andrews applied for a spot on the show but was unsuccessful. Still, he said that training with Levin through the years has helped to keep him focused and grounded.
“I think that the number one thing that we’ve helped each other do is keep climbing really fun,” Andrews said. “It’s so intense to have just one try at the obstacles on the show, but the two of us were able to make it into a game and laugh it off when we failed.”
Although to viewers at home the obstacles may seem to cause the most difficulty for contestants, Levin said that other production factors made his victory run even more challenging.
“The entire course is filmed at night,” Levin said. “You get to set at 4 or 5 p.m., sign 200 pages or your life to NBC and then wait around for hours. Sometimes you’re running at 2, 3 even 4 in the morning with only 20 seconds of rest between obstacles.”
Despite the difficulties, Levin cited the contestants’ ability to collaborate and work toward a common goal as one of his favorite parts of the show, a skill that that he first honed under Collver’s watchful eye.
“The most valuable thing that I taught him was probably the better a climber he became, the more humble he had to be,” Collver said. “Because people look up to him, he becomes their idol, and so he has to treat his fellow competitors with respect.”
Trading in training with Collver to pursue mechanical engineering at Northeastern, Levin sought to establish a new homebase to pursue climbing. This interest led him to co-found the university’s climbing team with roommate Evan Goldfinger in the spring of 2014.
“At first, we started pretty small at 13 members, then the next year we doubled it and had 50 people try out,” Goldfinger said. This year, he said that 115 people applied for 30 open spots, many with goals equally ambitious as Levin’s.
“A lot of us are interested in [ANW;] there’s a lot of overlap and climbers tend to be naturally equipped for these obstacles,” Goldfinger said.
Levin agreed, but said that the physical aspect of the show is only part of the test.
“You want to find something that really pushes your limits, both physically and mentally,” he said. “And once you get to the top it’s the best feeling ever.”
The ANW Las Vegas Finals will air on NBC in a three-part series beginning on Monday, Aug. 29.
Watch Levin’s climb to victory below:
Screengrab by NBC