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Jessie Graff says the course is her chance to test herself and play

She spent the off season rehabbing injuries, but returned with a strong run to the buzzer.

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

There really is no denying Jessie Graff’s popularity on American Ninja Warrior. Her perseverance and strength show through every time she steps on the course. Her popularity is bolstered by her success. Jessie was the first woman to clear Stage One at the National Finals. In season 11, she completed the Seattle/Tacoma Qualifying course and placed third overall in the City Finals.

Her return for season 12 was highly anticipated, and it did not disappoint. Jessie cleared the course, earning her fifth career buzzer. You can watch the full run below.

We had a chance to sit down with Jessie shortly after her run. We went over her Ninja group, her thoughts on the course, and what she has in mind for this unprecedented season. What we learned is that, while Jessie made her run look easy, it was the culmination of months of healing and work.

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about your Ninja group, Jenn DeBellis and Davyon Hancox.

JG: Davyon is an EMT. So he’s a real life superhero that drives around in an ambulance and rescues people. He’s on the frontline of the pandemic. He’s super fast and explosive.

Jenn DeBellis is my other teammate and she’s literally my twin. We’re the same height, and size, and shoe size, and we both did gymnastics and then pole vaulting. Then majored in engineering of some sort before we decided to become professional athletes. And we have equally hyper extending elbows.

What do you think happened for them out on the course? (Jenn fell on the Lunatic Ledges and Davyon fell on the Spinning Bridge.)

JG: It’s a very volatile course. I just think the Lunatic Ledges are super sketchy. It didn’t feel as sketchy last year in Tacoma. I don’t know if that’s just me. Even if you’ve seen an obstacle before, they can tweak so many different things where it looks the same but feels different. It’s important not to take that for granted and I think I did.

Jenn didn’t run into it with enough speed. You almost have to run into it, grab the front, and push it forward. If your feet get ahead of you, if they touch the board before your hands, it will move. You have to make sure you get your hands around the bar before your feet push it away.

Davyon was crushing it! He was so fast! It’s just the Spinning Bridge is so tricky. I think I tripped in a very similar fashion. I’d have to watch it again to even say what went wrong. It doesn’t take much. You just have to be off by one inch or leaning forward, or back. It’s heartbreaking because he could have had the fastest time.

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

How does it feel to be here, really making the season, with everything going on?

JG: Holy moly, we’re here! Honestly, I was still calling into production like last week saying, “Guys, are we really doing this? Is this actually happening?” I was personally hoping for another month. I really needed another month to train. When I found out how soon we were competing, I think I started rushing too much. I was trying to take my time so I didn’t re-injure anything. My tendonitis has definitely come back because I rushed.

(Jessie was dealing with injuries and rehab during the off season.)

A lot of me coming into this was like, “Please be pushed back. Please be pushed back.” I just did my best to be ready. Coming into it I was really anxious. There are a lot of expectations on me and I want to do my best. I just don’t feel strong enough to do my best.

But having competed now, and at least I hit a buzzer. I tripped on everything. I should just be grateful that I hit a buzzer. So much can go wrong. But I’m always analyzing what did I do wrong. What could I have done better? I never feel strong enough. But I was strong enough for that course and I get to move on. I am really just grateful to be here and be not broken.

It’s worth noting that at this point in the interview, there was a brief interruption by Meagan Martin. In a nod to social distancing, the two tapped their feet in a Ninja-sidekick to greet one another. Meagan gushed over Jessie’s great run, while Jessie wished her luck on her upcoming performance. Ninjas are the best.

So what’s the goal this season?

JG: My goal, every season, has been to hit a City Finals buzzer. The only difference now is that it’s called a Semi-Finals buzzer. Since season six when I saw Kacy (Catanzaro) do it, that’s the course that’s most inspiring to me. 10 obstacles. The difficulty level. That’s the course that I think is the coolest that I want. Until I’m strong enough to do Stage Three.

This year is perfect. If I do well at Semi-Finals, then I get to try another City Finals course. For me, City Finals means more than Stage One.

Elizabeth Morris/NBC

Okay, so what’s your motivation this season? What’s keeping you going?

JG: I have been stuck in this phase of being hurt, trying to rehab, feeling almost okay, and then having something else (happen). Then almost rehabbing the first thing, but the second thing is acting up. Just this cycle of something always hurts. Right now my big motivation is that I want to get healthy enough to feel okay and to be able to play.

For so long, it’s just been very structured, regimented injury prevention, strength training, joint stabilization. Then go to a competition and hope you still have the technique to do it. The thing I’m most inspired by is that I want to rebuild that foundation so that I can play again.

Ninja Warrior is one of those moments where, even though I don’t feel quite strong and stable enough to really play, this is the moment where, ‘Okay, you get to test yourself and play on everything because this is the moment that counts.’ It’s almost that moment where I get to break free and push my limits. It’s dumb to push your limits in a way that could get you hurt in the gym, or at home. I don’t get to go for big moves because it’s not worth it.

But in a situation like this, on the big stage, those are the moments were I get to say, “This is it, give it all you have.” Those are the moments where I prove myself.

Jessie will step up to attempt her goal of a 10-obstacle course when she returns for the American Ninja Warrior Semi-Finals, which are just a couple of weeks away.