TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — When Vance Walker, 18, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child, his family was told he may have to wear leg braces for the rest of his life and would never be an athlete.

Now, the Tampa man is just the third person in 15 seasons of American Ninja Warrior to snag the competition show’s top prize.

Speaking to TODAY on Tuesday, Walker and his family recalled his struggles with the neurological disease, which began when Stacey Walker, 49, spent months in the hospital during pregnancy.

“For so many weeks (the doctors) would come in and say: ‘He’s not going to make it. He’s not going to make it,'” she said. “Starting at 20-something weeks, it was: ‘OK, he could make it, but he could have brain damage. He could be blinded.'”

Walker was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after he turned one. He recalled facing bullying and grueling physical therapy as a child while speaking to TODAY.

“It was just a constant, constant battle,” Walker said. “I had to wear those braces until I was around 6 or 7 years old. Since then … I have to spend around 30 minutes to an hour a day stretching out my legs and making sure they’re loose enough to walk.”

He became enthralled with the American Ninja Warrior television show and switched to online school at age 13 to focus on his own training. With the support of his newfound Ninja community, Walker secured wins in the American Ninja Warrior junior division before moving up to compete against adults.

“I’m so used having to work harder than everybody else — I’m accustomed to doing whatever it takes to achieve a goal,” Walker told TODAY. “I think all those struggles as a kid really prepared me for working as hard as I possibly could, having a goal and doing whatever it takes to get there.”

After completing his run during the finals, Walker could only look on as other contestants attempted to beat his time climbing Mt. Midoriyama. He recalled the moment it dawned on him – his hard work paid off, and he was the winner of American Ninja Warrior.

“When RJ got to around 50 feet on the robe, I realized that he wasn’t going to get to the top and I realized that I was gonna win the show,” Walker said. “And I just broke down crying. I fell over the floor. And that was just the most amazing feeling in the world. I had been training for that moment for the last eight years. And just finally being able to do it was amazing.”

Walker’s parents were there to celebrate with the “Walker Texas Ninja” – the nickname he was given because of his Texan roots.

“There’s probably not a Ninja out there who has worked harder than he has to get to where is,” Vance’s dad, Kent Walker, told TODAY. “Seeing him work so hard to be able to accomplish his dream is just — you can’t describe it. It’s amazing, and we’re just so proud.”

Stacey said it can be hard to watch her son compete, even though he makes it look easy on TV.

“I know the pain that he is in, and I know what he has to do before he can go out there and even show up,” Stacey Walker said. “Right now I’m sitting here next to him, and his legs are just twitching – like there are aliens in his lower legs – and they do that constantly. There were times when his legs hurt so badly that he couldn’t sleep.”

Walker said he intends to return to American Ninja Warrior for season 16, but also has plans to go to college and study architecture and engineering.