American Ninja Warrior Jessie Graff began her time on Dwayne Johnson’s Titan Games as one of his elite, selected athletes. But after she was eliminated on Mount Olympus, she had to earn her way back. Like the Ninja she is, Jessie approached the new obstacles thoughtfully and never backed down.
On the Western Regional finals, Jessie faced two other competitors, Kelly Valdez and Lindsey Hamm. In the first game, Hammer Down, Jessie soundly beat the rest to the victory chain. In the second challenge, Resistance, she almost forced a sudden death conclusion, until a last second move ended the game, and the season, for Jessie.
We’ve caught up with Jessie throughout this experience. Our first interview with her reflected on the lessons learned from losing the original face off. This second interview, presented below, goes over how she came back stronger than ever, and how The Titan Games may have changed her Ninja Warrior skills.
Once you read Jessie’s explanations of the regional finals, you’ll watch the challenges in a new light. You can see each calculated move she executed to give herself the best chance at success.
How did you develop your approach to Hammer Down?
JG: I knew I was going up against a firefighter who would have experience with axes, and Lindsey, who is outdoors woman. I had been practicing overhead sledgehammers because I knew we had that on Mount Olympus. But I’ve never actually swung a sledgehammer sideways. I’m horribly unprepared. I was like, “I know if I could be just a little bit behind when we get to the pole, I know I’ll climb faster.” Three poles to knock over... There’s a lot of time to get behind.
I was like, “How can I get better at this?” Mass-wise, strength-wise, they were both ahead of me. I just have to have perfect technique. I went back on my phone to YouTube and (looked up) everyone who used a sledgehammer on Hammering Ram in the previous season. Jackie (Wood) had some of the best form of anyone using it. I borrowed an umbrella from production and taped two water bottles to it. I piled all the pillows up from the couch in the green room and I practiced over and over and filmed myself to make sure my form was good. I practiced on the left side and the right side. It was hard to tell which one was more powerful. I know I’m right handed, so I was more precise on the right. But I’m stronger on the left because of my shoulder injury.
I wasn’t sure how hard it was going to be to hammer. But I figured if I practiced on both sides in the several hours that I had before we officially competed, than I’m prepared if I wear myself out on one side to continue the same pace on the other side.
It wasn’t a huge advantage since this is so strength based, but anywhere I can use strategy I have to maximize that to make up for being not necessarily the optimal body-type for this competition.
It must have felt good to start out with that win.
JG: Oh my gosh. I don’t know how much it shows in the episode, but I finished almost a minute before either of them got to the climbing part. I was just so shocked that I was able to be ahead on the part that I thought I was going to be behind on. It’s interesting to see how something that may initially seem so strength based, technique can make up for so much. Then, of course, the climb, I was like, “I’m here! I’m home!”
You had a really unique strategy on Resistance that we hadn’t seen before where you gathered the barrels together with your body. Looking back, would you change that approach at all?
JG: Not exactly. There’s one thing I would change at the very end. I knew I was at a weight disadvantage in this competition. So the first thing I had to do, I knew, if we run in direct opposition and hit the end of our ropes, I’m going to get yanked off my feet and she’s (Kelly Valdez) going to drag me. So I had to surprise her by pulling her in a different direction. Running to the side knocked us both off of our feet because she was braced for a backwards impact. That was exactly what I wanted to do.
Initially I had planned to go for the far right barrel so I could gather all of them. But I didn’t know if I’d be able to get all of them, so I went for the second one. I’m happy with that choice.
Basically any time that you’re on your feet, you’re not getting as much tension on the rope as possible. I knew I had to stay low to keep her from dragging me. Honestly, I didn’t think I even stood a chance of getting a barrel out. I thought I was going to be dragged around on a leash and get slingshotted out. So my initial goal was to be the most annoying sandbag possible. It’s hard for her to try to pick up barrels and move them while trying to drag around a 140 pound weight, but if you add a 50 pound barrel to that and now I’m possibly outweighing her a little bit.
So by staying in that plank position on the ground, and still having both arms to use so I could move around, and a barrel weighing me down, I could inch all the way to one side, not exerting nearly as much energy as she was. Just by anchoring myself on the barrels. So once I realized the barrels were way to heavy for me to throw, I’d have to actually get to the edge and lift and push them over.
My mistake was that I had barricaded myself behind the barrels so I couldn’t see her. I heard her barrels drop twice, and cheers. I thought she had already gotten two barrels out of the ring. So when they said 30 second left, I started making a desperate scramble, and 10 seconds left, I jump off my feet to do anything to get one barrel out. She got two, I have to at least get one.
If I had known that she hadn’t gotten any barrels yet, I was very comfortably camped out in my barricade. Every time she tried to pick up a barrel and throw it, I was able to gain an inch or two. If you’re tied when the time runs out, it goes into sudden death. It would just keep going until one of us could score a point. Since I was in this plank position, not wearing out my legs sprinting, I even had a tiny crack in the concrete where I had my fingers locked in, I was able to rest my legs. If I had slowly waited in tension until I felt a jolt, I could have inched my way close enough to get a barrel out.
It would have been more of a waiting game. Waiting for her to make desperate moves and I think I could have gotten a barrel out. But the thing that allowed her to get a barrel was I lifted my weight up out of that position. That is my one regret.
Overall, how would you sum up your Titan Games experience?
I got stronger and healthier in the process. I learned a lot of training techniques that I’m going to continue doing for the rest of my life. I made new friends. Kelly (Valdez) and I are training partners now. Not recently, because of COVID, but she came over to my house and I was helping her with agility and she was helping me with lifting.
It was such an incredibly positive experience in so many ways. The most important is how much healthier it made me and how it opened my eyes to different types of training. So much of my shoulder injuries were the result of overtraining in my Ninja, pulling muscles. Neglecting my pulling muscles. This gave me a chance to build strength in a different way.
I was feeling really down because my body felt so broken. I couldn’t do the stuff I loved to do anymore. Having to train for this before I was able to fix my shoulder allowed me to see that I could be strong and do exciting athletic things even with those injuries. There are things I can do. My life doesn’t have to revolve around Ninja. I can do other things and be strong.
And with the new tools I have, I can be healthier and do Ninja, which I love.
Ninja Warrior or Titan Games? Which is your favorite?
(Laughs) Obviously, Ninja! It plays to my strengths and includes all the things that I love. Whereas Titans is like, “Okay, here are ALL your weaknesses. We will shove them in your face, and you will beat them.” Which I also love, because it forces me to grow. But it’s one of those things where... You know, math makes you better too. That’s a bad example! But it’s one of those things that I needed so badly.
Jessie’s time on this season of The Titan Games is done, but there are still new episodes every Monday at 8pm on NBC as the action rolls on!