Grant McCartney is the charming Island Ninja who has danced and dabbed his way into our hearts over his two seasons on American Ninja Warrior. Little did he know, the show was also going to help him fulfill his life-long dream of meeting Ellen DeGeneres.
After Grant made sure Ellen spotted his dance moves on Twitter, he was invited to be on her show on September 14th. He not only danced for Ellen, but played "Foot Flickers" with Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, and created some incredible family memories with his sister.
We had Natalie then interview Grant on the experience. The result is a great behind the scenes peek that really gets into the heart and mind of the Island Ninja as he hit the Ellen set!
When did you decide that you wanted to be on the Ellen show? Or when did it feel pretty malleable that it was a possibility?
GM: I don't know. I've just been watching Ellen forever. I just always thought it would be cool, and I started putting it into motion two years ago.
Two years ago?!?
GM: Yeah. I've always wanted to. I just didn't know how.
That's awesome. So you always just dance normally in real life? Or were you like "This is my thing. I'm going to be that dancing Ninja." Or just like with happiness dancing comes along with it?
GM: I've just always danced. I've always loved dancing. In all kinds of fashion. I never really thought about it like I was linking up with Ellen, but during the second season of American Ninja Warrior, they kind of labeled me as the guy who dances.
I started to put it together that Ellen also dances, and everyone kept asking me, "Why do this? Why do you dance?" And I said, "I'm sure it's the same reason Ellen dances, because it's fun. It's a good way to start the day."
How did you get yourself noticed by the Ellen team? Did you reach out yourself? Was it a collective effort of everyone?
GM: So I was in Vegas, and I was about to do my run and this whole year I've been dancing more. And I thought it would be fun to dab on the buzzer. Last year I was going to do the whip on the buzzer but I thought "No, I better not, that's pretty dumb."
Then this year I was like "Whatever, I'm going to do it." So I was doing all that. I just realized that, you know, I'm going to have fun and dance. Then in the interview right after my Stage One run, they were like "Why do you love dancing so much?"
Kristine Leahy was asking me, and I was like "I like to dance like my girl Ellen DeGeneres." So they left that footage in there. Ellen ended up seeing the show and liking it and tweeting out to me saying I was her favorite Ninja. Then they reached out to me.
How close was that communication from when the episode aired on TV to them first contacting you?
GM: What happened was the show aired and I was at Jessie Graff's house that night. That night you all were there and I was super late.
They showed that I said shout out to Ellen DeGeneres, so that night Maggi Thorne showed me how to use Twitter. We made a little video saying like "Hey, you guys saw my run tonight. Thanks for the support. Retweet this so Ellen can see and maybe we can have a dance off or something."
Then people started retweeting it, and that's when she tweeted back to me like maybe a week later.
What was your experience on how the whole day went? Like you arriving from Hawaii, all the way to LA. Did they take care of you before you got on the show?
GM: I was actually coming back from Mike Cook's [Ultimate Backyard Ninja] contest in North Carolina. So I went from North Carolina to Knoxville to see my brother, when to Vegas to speak. That was Sunday.
Then Monday I was flying to LA. Then because Hillary Clinton got sick, we were planning on doing it Wednesday, but she got sick so we had to move it to Tuesday.
Were you nervous getting to the set? How prepped were you for the event or was it pretty spontaneous?
GM: It was so fast. I didn't sleep very well the night before. I went to bed but I kept waking up all the time. Then the whole morning, from like 8 am to 2 when the ride service showed up, my stomach was just in knots.
I tried to go workout and burn it off somehow. That didn't work. I tried to eat. That didn't help. I tried to breath and calm down and that didn't help. I was just super nervous I guess.
Were the nerves different than waiting to compete on American Ninja Warrior? Was this a totally different nerve wracking experience, or was it pretty similar?
GM: It was different. On American Ninja you have to perform. I wasn't worried about performing [on Ellen], I didn't really care about performing. I was just nervous. I didn't know why. I was just antsy. It was weird.
Did you get to talk to Ellen beforehand or off camera?
GM: Once I got there all the nerves were gone. I had the big lighted bulb mirror in the room. We did hair and make up. I was like "I've officially made it. This is it."
I was bummed I didn't get to talk to her off screen. I met her on screen for the first time. Hardest decision of my day though, they wanted me to pick 5 songs to do my walk out to. That was really important stuff.
So which song did you choose?
GM: Well the first song was C+C Music Factory, which was "Everybody Dance Now." Then, Lil' Jon, "Turn down for What" was on there. Justin Timberlake's new song.
But then they ended up not using any of them and going with the Running Man song. I was like "Alright."
Ellen is pretty notorious for giving away gifts to her guests. What did she surprise you with?
GM: In the [dressing] room, there was a fresh pair of undies, and a tee shirt and a Ellen mug. The room was stacked out with snacks and drinks and stuff. It was cool.
Did you get to keep the thing she made you on set? [Ellen gifted Grant with two free weights with serving trays on top, so he can train while performing his job of an airline flight attendant.]
GM: They said they're going to get them to me. So I assume they're going to mail them out here. And there was the waffle maker. I made some waffles this morning. It works great.
What was it like to meet Katie Ledecky? Did you know she'd be on the show with you?
GM: I knew she'd be on the show. I didn't know we'd be doing something together. Her and Selena Gomez I knew were going to be there but I wasn't too worried about who was going to be there.
I was just kind of like excited to go. Then when I found out we were going to be competing against each other, I was like "Oh man I want to win." I got competitive. I know she's going to be competitive.
She's an Olympian and I want to beat her. We have the "Foot Flickers" game. She kicks one. I kick a pretty junky one. She kicks a pretty good one. I squeak right inside of her for a good shot. Then all of a sudden she drops a bomb on me and kicks a bull's eye solidly square and that was that.
I think your reaction had to be the best reaction to losing ever. To anyone. How did it feel to lose to an Olympic athlete?
GM: Part of it hurt, and then part of it was "Well, I guess I should have seen this coming.
Did you talk to Katie off set?
GM: She was kind enough to give me her waffle maker [The prize in "Foot Flickers."] She's stoked about college. She's young and talented. We took a picture with her and her weighted down neck of medals. I have my waffle maker around my neck. I gave her an Island Ninja tee shirt and said thanks for being cool.
Is she familiar with American Ninja Warrior?
GM: I don't think so. I don't really think she knows me. But hey, whatever!
Yeah, when you're an Olympic athlete there's not a lot of time to watch TV so much.
GM: Yeah I doubt she's watching it every Monday.
What was your favorite moment of the whole experience?
GM: My sister being there. I really wanted her to be there. There were a couple moments with her that were really important.
One was like looking from backstage out into the crowd and seeing her cheering and dance before I came out. Being able to meet with her after.
But most important was when she first got there and I just haven't seen her belly in awhile. Just to hold her belly and feel the child in there. The child I've been praying for for months. I wake up every day praying for that kid. So I had a little moment there. That was the most important part of that.
The first photo of you as an uncle is in the Ellen green room. That's going to be a nice framed shot forever. Is it a boy or a girl?
GM: It's going to be a girl.
What's next for Grant McCartney, Island Ninja?
GM: That is a true question. The plan is to win American Ninja Warrior. Then go on all of the talk shows. Back to Ellen of course. Go on Jimmy Fallon. But step one is winning American Ninja Warrior. But apparently you don't even have to win to get on the [Ellen show] though!
You found a way around that!
GM: My goal now is to have some redemption in the games played on national television. Win something.
Are you still going to be working on Hawaiian Airlines?
GM: Yeah. I am going to take a leave of absence next year and do a little tour across the US. Stopping at all the Ninja gyms. Doing the UNAA and NNL competitions. Also stopping to speak at events and that will help cover costs and stuff. And then doing the van plan.
Oh that's right! You're going to live the van life? [Living out of a van]
GM: Yeah, I'm going to do the van plan, and hop in and off of the airlines too. Maybe get to some cities and stuff.
Maybe I'll be your paparazzi and manager.
GM: I'm trying to figure that out. When you come into a new city, how do you do this? How does anyone do these things? People reach out to me. I wasn't planning on speaking in Vegas till a week before when they were like "Hey you want to stop here?" and I was like "Sure!"
It's like I'm always telling you. You're a people person and I feel like you're one of the most genuine people on American Ninja Warrior and I think people really respond to that. This is only the beginning, Grant! It's only going to get better and better! Keep dancing!
GM: I'm getting better with social media stuff. I actually use Twitter now.
Your videos are hilarious!
GM: If people want to follow along on what I'm doing next, they can follow on my Instagram, @Grant.McCartney and on Twitter and Youtube. I'll keep updates there on where I'm going and where I'm training. Feel free to reach out if you have an event you want me to come through and do!