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Jessie Graff on surviving the pressure of being at the top

Jessie’s perspective on valuing yourself and your skills is a life lesson we could all learn from.

David Becker/NBC

Whenever we see Jessie Graff on the American Ninja Warrior course, she’s a picture of poise. She greets the crowd with a confident smile, and somehow manages to keep that smile steady as she sails through seemingly impossible feats.

In season eight, she became the first woman to clear Stage One of the National Finals. In USA Vs. The World, she cleared Stage Two, another first for women. In season nine, she stunned the Daytona crowd with her limber solution to the Giant Cubes. She placed fourth overall for the night, qualifying for the National Finals.

To say fans thought Jessie would clear Stage One again would be an understatement. They were expecting it. Which is why, as Jessie slipped into the water after missing the cargo net on the Flying Squirrel, you could almost hear hearts breaking.

Pressure and expectations are some of the side effects of success in any sport. Ninja Warrior is no different. Competitors need to prepare for it, and have a game plan for recovery, just as they would with physical fatigue or a strained muscle.

Jessie Graff is no different. We spoke with Jessie after her incredible USA vs The World performance. She had yet to go to season nine’s Stage One, but knew she had qualified. She gave us a candid look at just how she maintains her crucial mental state as the pressure from the outside world grows day after day.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

How does it feel going into the National Finals, with all the excitement built up behind you? First woman to clear Stage One. First woman to clear Stage Two.

JG: I don't know. I think it makes it harder. I really prefer going into competitions feeling like an underdog. It keeps me focused. In my first couple seasons, the expectations on me, myself, as well as women in general, were not as high. So even if I fell short of my expectations, everyone else was like "Oh my gosh! I didn't know women could do that."

So it was this huge excitement of the audience compared to my disappointment in falling short of what I thought I could do.

Now going into it, I think the expectation is "Oh, okay. She's got Stage One. She's got Stage Two. Let's see Stage Three."

Like Stage One and Two are a given. I think the audience forgets sometimes how volatile these courses are, and how few of the top guys complete Stage One and Two twice in a row.

If I get there just a second after the buzzer, I'm still going to be really proud of myself. And they're going to be like, "Oh man! She missed it!" So I think that makes it a little harder. A little scarier.

But, I always try to stay focused on the straight forward reality of it, despite what any expectations are. I'm training to do my best. And being really realistic about what the challenges are so I can plan for them.

https://www.instagram.com/jessiegraffpwr/

It wasn’t shown, but your mom ran the course with you in Daytona. She had an early exit on the Floating Steps. How did you both handle that?

JG: We have been focusing, this is probably good for me too, when there's so much hype around Ninja Warrior, it's easy to start defining yourself as like, “I'm the girl from Ninja Warrior. And I have to do well.”

What I've been working on with my mom is being like we train for life. We train to be strong. To be capable. To have fun and do cool things. And if we do great on an obstacle course, awesome. That's really fun. And if we fall on an obstacle course, does that take anything away from how much stronger and more capable we've gotten? Obviously not.

And so staying focused on the new things I'm capable of doing, like the flips that I'm learning and stunts because now my legs are stronger from training for the Warped Wall. It's an ultimate win, no matter how I do. So I've been working on that with her, because she took it really, really hard. Really hard. She's finally feeling better after Mike Cook's Ultimate Backyard Warrior. She feels like she got redemption.

Working on that with her has really helped my mentality as well. Because I tell myself that all the time, but trying to convince someone else and seeing it on her. It's unbelievable to all of us what you can learn and how much strength you can gain after 65. None of us knew you could do that. We were all like, yeah, if you've been doing it your whole life maybe you can still do these things are 65. But she'd learned from scratch.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

I think it opens up a whole world that we didn't know was possible. Life now feels like it's 30 years longer. Just things that we thought would end, like learning new physical skills and gaining strength in different ways. We didn't know you could keep doing that for so long. It changes my perception of life. Just seeing what she's done. And it's like "Oh you're upset because you fell on an obstacle." Just try to keep it in perspective.

Then when I think about that with myself too. I'm like "Yeah. Do your best on this course. But think about what you've done outside of it." It helps to take off some of that pressure. Sort of. It helps afterwards if it doesn't go how I want it to. It's so important.

Especially with how goal oriented my mom and I are. I always remember motivational speakers when I was in school, being like "Make a list of goals. Give yourself a deadline. Hold yourself to it no matter what." But they don't talk very much about if you set high goals, you're not always going to reach them. How do you cope with that? What's the next step? That's been a big journey for me. It’s learning where yeah, I've ultimately failed at my goal of getting a world record in pole vaulting. And that's devastating.

Until you realize that the pursuit of that goal made me really good Ninja Warrior and changed my life now. Same with gymnastics. I wanted to go to the Olympics for gymnastics and I didn't make it past level nine. And that was hard. And when I had to quit gymnastics. But being a gymnast made me a great stuntwoman. And then Ninja Warrior. So it's kind of like, knowing when to let go of old goals in favor of new ones that inspire you at the time. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's following your inspiration and staying aware of what that is.

While Jessie Graff’s American Ninja Warrior season has come to a close, you can still follow all of her exciting adventures here, on Instagram.