American Ninja Warrior Jessie Graff knows how to make history. She became the first woman to complete Stage One at the National Finals in season 8. She’s the first woman to be selected to compete on USA vs the World, representing Team USA. Once there, she broke the internet again by becoming the first woman to hit the buzzer on Stage Two.
What really goes into creating all those momentous runs? How does Jessie prepare and hone in on those incredible performances? We wanted to find out. Jessie somehow came up with a few spare minutes in her insanely hectic schedule as a stunt woman and sat down with us in her home gym. With her pig Sammo Hog trotting around the room, Jessie dove into what was going through her mind during those fateful nights in Las Vegas.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Were you feeling tired since regular competition was just one night before USA vs the World?
JG: I felt like my shoulders got ripped out of their sockets on Stage One. They haven't recovered. The labrum is pulling away from the bone on my right shoulder.
That still effects you to this day?
JG: Yup. Yeah. Definitely.
So where did that leave you mentally going into USA vs the World? Knowing you weren't feeling at your peak?
JG: I was a little nervous about doing the Flying Squirrel again. Because I knew the reason it was a problem for me. Extra wide grip has always been a problem for me. And because it was hurting me every time I did it, I'd stopped training that. So I'd gotten weaker in an area I was already weak.
I was nervous that I was going to hurt my shoulder again, but for the most part, I was only doing Stage One, so I wasn't too worried about it. It's (Stage One) not that upper body based.
And then you found out you were doing Stage Two...
Jessie ran Stage One for Team USA first, but had a very early exit when she was disqualified on Snake Run, the first obstacle.
JG: When the guys gave me the opportunity to do Stage Two, I was so relieved. Everyone has these crushing defeats on Ninja Warrior. It happens to everyone at some point. And almost never do you have the chance for immediate redemption.
I knew mine was a long shot because I just didn't feel strong enough to do Stage Two. Until I had that additional push of: You have no choice. You have no choice. You have to do this. You have to find a way.
It was definitely a feeling of, "This is not something that I think my body is fully capable of. But IT WILL DO IT." We are doing this! Because I can not let my team down. If they're showing this much faith in me, there's no choice. I have to make this work.
It felt more to me like representing women. Because they've never had a woman on the team (in USA vs the World).
So you get on Stage Two for the second time. Were you nervous about going up against the Wave Runner again? Where you thinking about that obstacle at all?
In season eight of American Ninja Warrior, Jessie’s season ended when she fell from the Wave Runner of Stage Two at the National Finals.
JG: There's nothing that particularly difficult or intense about the Wave Runner itself. It's just, over time hanging from things, your grip gets tired. It happens to be in that position of the last of a bunch of grip things in a row. My concern was making sure that I had enough grip strength left when I got there.
So it was more about being efficient on the rings and the Salmon Ladder. I think I rushed it a little bit in the regular season. I was kind of pacing myself on that platform between the rings and the Salmon Ladder.
Were there any obstacles that you were particularly worried about on Stage Two?
JG: No. Grip endurance. It's all grip endurance. That's pretty much the main thing that I'm always training for and worrying about when I go into competition. I know that the people who have done really well in the past, most of them are elite rock climbers. I came into Ninja Warrior being able to hang on Cliffhanger for one and half seconds and do six pull ups total.
When I looked at how long it took those guys to have as much grip strength as they have, we're looking at like 15-20 years. I thought, “Well, if I'm very scientific about my training and do everything right, build the maximum strength. Take the exact amount of rest that I need to make sure my muscles recover faster. Train year round. Taking breaks only when it's most beneficial for strength gain. I mean, can I really expect to do that faster than five years?”
Every year my grip has gotten way stronger, and I've seen that progress. But at the same time, I know that I'm just like barely on the verge of... if I do everything absolutely right, I might be able to finish a City Finals course. I might be able to finish Stage Two. As long as there are no trip ups.
Obviously I had trip ups on the Ring Swing in the regular season. Of course, I had made one adjustment. It looked to me like on the first ring, if you off set it slightly, then it would swing at an angle to land perfectly on the first hook. I didn't think about the fact that now I'm swinging crooked, so when I make the lache on the next one, I have a circular swing. And that's why I got stuck there the first night.
I adjusted that so I was straight on the first ring, and proved that my theory had been correct that that does help you get on the first hook. I was like "Oh great, now I messed up the rings again." But one extra swing on that first pendulum was not as big a deal as 10 extra circles on that later ring from the night before.
What was your strategy approaching the USA vs the World competition?
JG: I had my shoulders ripped out on Stage One (in regular competition). The next night I was having trouble lifting my arms and hanging from a bar on Stage Two. And theoretically, you get more sore on the third day, so I should have been more sore going into (USA vs the World), but I had the rush of adrenaline and emotional rollercoaster of feeling great about Stage One and then suddenly crashing.
I always go into competition with this underdog idea of I'm not strong enough to do this. I have to be extremely smart and efficient on every single move. Any one can fall at any moment, so I have to stay absolutely focused so that that doesn't happen.
Then after completing Stage One and realizing that every time I've competed I have gone to the limit of my strength and not made a mistake. I went into Stage One on USA vs the World thinking I am a person who is consistent and just understands how to do obstacles right.
That's why I say over confidence is the number one Ninja killer. I went into it confident, trusting that I would figure it out, and not calculating. Also just knowing I'm not racing like 100 Ninjas trying to finish. I'm racing two of the highest level parkour athletes in the world. How on Earth do I improve on my time from the first night? The first night everything went smoothly. How do you improve on that?
I was like, "Okay well, you're going to have to go through faster.” The only place I could see where would be getting up the Warped Wall faster, not taking the 2 second break before the Flying Squirrel and running through the steps.
Normally if I was going to make a change like that, I would measure all the steps. Draw them out on the ground on the side. Practice it. Feel it. Check again. I would do all these things. And I just went in with that new confident attitude of like, "I'm a person who figures this kind of thing out in the moment."
But the reason I am that kind of person is because I plan it so meticulously. So that was a huge important lesson for me. When I just trusted it would work, I didn't do the physics, I ran off the side and was just horrified.
It was just that immediate redemption that we never get on Ninja Warrior. We usually have to wait a whole year. Nothing could have been better. Even looking back, it wouldn't have been better. Huge pressure. But luckily not days of planning to panic about it.
At what point on Stage Two did you realize you were going to be able to finish the whole thing?
JG: After the Double Wedge. Flipping the boards is pretty straight forward, you can't fall. You can't fall off the course at that point. I did know that I had completed the Wedge that one time I tried it (in Los Angeles City Finals), and that my grip had been taxed at that time too.
But when I transferred to that second bar, if you look really close it was already a little crooked. So when I caught it, even if I was straight, I think it was that left hand was already low. That was terrifying. But it was still there, so I was trying to bounce it back up and it wouldn't move. I just knew, "You only have one chance here. You have to get off this bar before it falls.”
But with the Wedge, the reason it was so tricky in LA when we first had it was because if you swing too powerfully on it, it sinks through. It falls out, or it twists. You have to find that perfect balance of a gentle swing but travel far enough to make it to the end. Luckily, I calculated correctly.
What was it like when you hit the buzzer? You kind of gave a humble shrug of your shoulders.
JG: It was more of like "I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS JUST HAPPENED!" It was like, "Did you guys know that was going to happen? I didn't know!" It wasn't quite a shrug, it was more like "What is going on?!?" That's what it meant.
Did the other teams talk to you about it afterwards?
JG: They were just flipping out and cheering me on the whole time. The whole Latin American team, when you see me do the little heart sign, I don't think I'd ever even seen people do that before. But they're all just jumping up and showing me the heart, so I was like, “Yeah! Same to you!” They did it first. It was adorable.
What was it like to do that in front of your mom? Has she been to all your competitions?
JG: Last season, yes. When I first competed on Ninja Warrior A) Not knowing what it was or how big it was and B) Having no idea if I was even going to be good at it, I just didn't tell anyone I was competing. I was like if I don't do well I don't want a whole crowd of family here trying to comfort me. I want to go home, sleep and go to work tomorrow.
But once she saw the first season that I did and how hard I'd been working for a whole year. Season 7, I still was borderline, but by Vegas that year she was like "there's no way I'm not coming." I was like, “Well I can't promise I'm going to do well.” And she was like, “I don't care. I'm there.”
She looks like she's beaming at you!
JG: She is. She's always telling me that she's sending energy waves. She's beaming them at me.
So she was literally beaming at you.
JG: Oh yeah! Yes.
What's the reaction been like for you once everyone saw your run?
JG: It's been pretty good. Pretty exciting. I was at work fighting all day yesterday, so I was kind of in an out on Twitter and stuff.
I was thrilled just to be on the team, before even knowing that I was going to do well. I was hoping that I could score a point on Stage One. Or at least not lose my heat, but both of which were like, "I don't know."
It's just such a huge thing to see that the producers and the decision makers were like, "Yeah, she did well enough to compete against the top guys in other countries." Not just to place among our top guys, maybe it's a fluke. But she's consistent, she places that high, we can trust her to compete against other countries representing us.
Just knowing that now people are thinking, “Women really can compete with the men. Let's watch!” Wanting to be able to prove that I can compete with the men. Women can do this. And we can score a point in round one, where I'm competing. It is such a statement to the world that women can do that.
Catch more American Ninja Warrior on June 12 when the show returns for season nine with the Los Angeles City Qualifiers!