When you’re watching Jessie Graff on the American Ninja Warrior course, she makes it look so easy. She swings, sails, and smiles through obstacle after obstacle, frequently earning a spot near the top of the leaderboard.
Her return to the show for season 11 has gifted us with more of THAT. She completed the Seattle/Tacoma Qualifying course. In the City Finals, she made it to the ninth obstacle, Northwest Passage. No one defeated it that night, and Jessie made it farther through the obstacle than the other two competitors who also managed to get there. Her time to the obstacle earned her the third place overall.
After her run, Jessie spoke with us regarding how her run was actually anything but easy. She also reflects upon what it’s like to return to the National Finals after a year away. (Jessie did not participate in the season 10 National Finals due to her stunt work commitments.)
Putting together her City Finals run
“I don’t even know where to start. I think when I saw what the (City Finals) course was in Seattle, I felt like I was pretty much doomed. I’ve been having a really hard time getting my lock offs back. I used to be able to hold each arm for 26 seconds.
It was funny, when I first saw the Iron Maiden in Kansas City, two years ago, I immediately knew I was not capable of doing that. So, I got to work coming up with every exercise I could do to strengthen the muscles so that I could do that. And training for that got me tendonitis in both elbows. And so, I’ve been fighting that and then I tried to rest them while I was on the stunt job. I took some time off and lost all my strength, but didn’t lose the tendonitis. So I’ve been trying to rebuild and it’s been a really hard process making very, very slow progress. I’ve actually made a ton of progress in the past four weeks.”
“But, going into Tacoma, I could hold my right arm lock off for one second and my left arm would immediately fail. So when I saw that we had something that resembled the Iron Maiden (Northwest Passage), I just was, I was so sad. Because, I really wanted to finish a course and felt pretty doomed. But, immediately went into, ‘What’s another option? There’s also a smarter way to do something.’ So, I looked up the thing that rock climbers do. It’s like a figure four, where you can lock your leg over your arm. And I was like, maybe that will work, I don’t know. I’ll probably be out of grip strength by then, because I’m still rebuilding my grip strength too. But at least it’s an option, where as I know I can’t do a lock off yet. But maybe I can do that.
When I saw Dan Yager do it, then it was confirmed. I was like, ‘Okay, I have a plan, I stand a chance. Maybe.’ It still seemed unlikely that I would be strong enough to get through all three slopes of the Northwest Passage.”
“The Flying Monkey Bars. That was another one that I knew was really challenging for me, because I’ve always done mixed grip on everything from the beginning. Because when I first tried the Salmon Ladder, I couldn’t hold it hands both forward, because it spins. So I’ve always countered that by doing mixed grip. And so, the Flying Monkey Bars, you can’t mix grip, you have one in each hand. So again, it’s just really hard to keep counter spinning the bar while you’re hanging from it with one arm. And it’s something that I’ve always struggled with, got better at, and then lost, and am now struggling with.”
I knew that one was going to be a challenge... And it’s very tricky and precise, like everything. At least I was aware of all of the tricky things to pay attention to. So that when I was there, I could place it, see it begin to roll, change my placement. I was just very careful on that. I was losing my grip by the end, but just barely made it.”
“Going into the Northwest Passage, I barely had any strength left. But I was so excited that on the way down, I wasn’t holding my lock offs, but they were lowering slow enough to not have an impact. And when I got to the bottom of that one, I did my figure fours. They worked perfectly and then you don’t have to bring the pegs with you for the next couple moves. And so, the plan had been get two hands on one, do a big pull-up, grab two hands, big pull-up. Only the second pull-up, I couldn’t quite reach. I got my hand facing the wrong way and didn’t have the strength to pop it around the other way.”
“But, I am really thrilled that, first of all, I got third place going into it thinking that I didn’t stand a chance getting third place. That’s the second highest I’ve ever placed. And then also they pointed out that I, even though I got third place by time, I guess I got a move or two farther than either of the other guys. So, that was really exciting. “
Returning to Ninja Warrior after missing the end of season 10
“I’ve been in love with Ninja Warrior since season seven. I mean, it’s a huge part of my life. It was only supposed to be a little distraction while I was injured. I have to get back to stunts and be healthy, but it’s taken over. So missing it last year was pretty devastating.
I think being away for so long and missing my friends and the community, and just the freedom of movement that comes with being strong. I was strong in different ways. I was training for different things. But to get on a Cliffhanger and feel like you can’t swing because your fingers are going to peel off. When you start, that’s how everyone feels. But to have gained all that strength and then lost it felt like having my wings clipped. It just made me appreciate everything I have in Ninja Warrior so much more.”
“Having a platform, or having a sport really that gives me the drive to push my limits and get to this higher level where I get to feel like a superhero. Being back, I was super nervous about competing. Am I strong enough? Can I do it? Am I going to embarrass myself? And so, having that same experience that I’ve had in the past, of getting up on the starting platform and just immediately... I don’t know if melting is the right word, but just melting into this comfort zone, which, I mean, it should be a scary position and it is. But, being there surrounded by Ninja Warrior fans and having this beautiful course in front of me. It just instantly, this thing that I was afraid of, was just like home. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you are back home.”
Looking ahead towards the National Finals
“You can trip so easily and I think it kind of works in my favor that I am feeling like such an underdog right now. Because it keeps me extra diligent - precise and calculated - and I don’t want to leave any little rock unturned - don’t miss anything! Because that’s my strength right now. My biggest strength is having a strategy and picking at every detail.”
Jessie will make her highly anticipated return to the National Finals in just a few weeks.