From Husker to American Ninja Warrior: Graff competes on hit NBC show

Jessie Graff competed this summer on NBC's "American Ninja Warrior." Photo courtesy of NBC.
Jessie Graff competed this summer on NBC's "American Ninja Warrior." Photo courtesy of NBC.

From Husker to American Ninja Warrior: Graff competes on hit NBC show

calendar icon03 Sep 2015    

Lincoln, Neb.--Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film Alumna and Professional Stuntwoman Jessie Graff (B.A. 2007) competed this summer on the NBC television show, “American Ninja Warrior,” becoming the only woman to qualify for the Las Vegas finals, which began airing on Aug. 31.

This was Graff’s second time competing on “American Ninja Warrior,” but her first time qualifying for the national finals in Las Vegas. Only those competitors who place in the top 15 of their regional finals make it to the final round in Las Vegas.

“It’s been a really fun year and a totally different experience from my first time,” Graff said. “This time I knew more about the show, and I was already friends with many of the other competitors.”

The series follows competitors as they tackle a series of challenging obstacle courses in both city qualifying and city finals rounds across the country. Those that successfully complete the finals course in their designated region move on to the national finals round in Las Vegas, where they face a challenging four-stage course modeled after the famed Mt. Midoriyama course in Japan. The winner takes home a grand prize of $1,000,000, though no competitor has yet to claim the prize.

What ended Graff’s run in Las Vegas this year was the obstacle called the Warped Wall, which has a short runway and a steeply curving wall that extends off the ground. What she didn’t tell anyone on the show, which was taped in late June, was that she was just returning after a leg injury.

“One month after the Venice Finals, I was so excited that I was overtraining and taking no rest days and got a stress fracture in the neck of my femur,” Graff said. “In order for that to heal, I was told not to do anything that engages any muscle attached to my hip. I had such atrophy in my legs and very little time to rebuild them before the Vegas finals.”

She knew the Warped Wall could present some problems for her.

“I knew going into it that the Warped Wall was going to be a big challenge for me, especially running downhill on a hard wood surface. But the main issue was not dealing with the pain of it. It was just if you’re not sprinting, then you start losing muscles in days. In two months, what could I really expect? I’m tall enough that I thought I would be able to get it, so missing it entirely was very disappointing, but also at the same time, knowing what I had been going through, it was hard to expect more from myself in that situation.”

Because she didn’t complete the course in the first stage, she did not advance to the second stage. Being a fierce competitor, Graff said it was hard to put the experience into perspective.

“I go back and forth,” she said. “I’m proud of how much stronger I’ve gotten since I started this, and I’m proud that when I’m on the course, I have stayed focused enough to not get surprised by the little things. I’ve gone out on the obstacles I knew would be challenging for me, and I did the best I could at the time and looking back, I can I identify what I did wrong and know how to do better in a similar situation in the future. Knowing that, I have to be proud of what I did, but I also feel that I could have done so much better if I had made those changes.”

Graff said her training and work as a professional stuntwoman helps her to compete on “American Ninja Warrior.”

“I train year round for stunts,” she said. “It’s mostly gymnastics, martial arts, tampolines, high falls and wire work. But work itself prepared me for that component that most people have a hard time training for—dealing with the unpredictable environment in front of you, under pressure, with cameras, lights and people yelling.”

She also keeps an irregular schedule.

“I may start work at 4 a.m. one day and then have to adjust to a night schedule where we don’t even start until 6 p.m. and wrap when the sun comes up,” she said. “People forget how big of an adjustment that can be for a person on a normal schedule, and it throws them off when they have to run the course at 6 a.m. after being up waiting all night. That’s just a normal day at work for me.”

The one area that her usual stunt training didn’t prepare her for was her grip strength.

“There’s almost never a reason, unless you’re on something very specific, that you need the grip strength in stunts that you need on Ninja Warrior, so that’s the one thing I’ve added to my training,” Graff said. “But it’s not a huge change in my life to add rock climbing twice a week.”

Once a month or every other month, she travels to one of the specific American Ninja Warrior gyms to train, often to Apex in northern California.

“They dedicate their life to this show, so they’ve built all the obstacles to scale or slightly harder,” she said. “So training with them, I get a really good sense of what to expect, and I’m able to practice and drill on a lot of obstacles.”

Graff inspired a number of women and girls this summer, as was evidenced by the outpouring of support for her on social media during her run on “American Ninja Warrior,” such as the message from @jerricahidy on Sept. 1 that said, “Love how @JessiegraffPWR just totally flushes gender stereotypes down the toilet on American Ninja Warrior. #girlpower.”

“I love those messages,” Graff said. “My favorite is when parents send me pictures of their little girls climbing a rope or doing pull ups or something. I didn’t realize until this experience how many women believe that they can’t build upper body strength. I think that’s primarily because they’ve been told that, and therefore they never worked on it.”

Graff said, growing up, society led her to believe that she was already extraordinary for being a girl who could do pull ups, so she didn’t put effort into doing more. But then when she got into gymnastics and saw how average her strength was, she soon realized she would have to push herself to do more.

“Seeing other people do something usually raises the bar of what you feel like you’re capable of doing,” she said. “The same thing happened when I got into Ninja Warrior. Sometimes it was girls doing it, and sometimes it was guys. I don’t take that into consideration. If somebody can do it, I should be able to do it—with training and dedication, of course. This was just something that had me fired up to really want to train and see how strong I can get.”

While at Nebraska, Graff was a pole vaulter on the Husker Track and Field team. She said pole vaulting prepared her well for American Ninja Warrior, and a number of pole vaulters have done well on the show.

“How pole vaulting is similar to Ninja Warrior is that you don’t know when your turn is coming, so you have to be alert and waiting for several hours and gauging when to warm up and when to stay relaxed,” she said. “You have to be a sprinter. You have to hit your marks exactly from more than 100 feet away. You have to be able to translate that forward speed into vertical speed. You have to swing on a pendulum and always be ready to adjust for changes in wind and environmental components.”

On “American Ninja Warrior,” everyone practices swinging on a bar, Graff said.

“But in the obstacles, the bar moves or is a weird shape or swings you in a weird direction,” she said. “With pole vaulting, you are swinging from a pole that is moving and you change poles multiple times throughout the day. If you have it twisted in the wrong way, it bends in a different direction. You have to be used to feeling the equipment that you’re hanging from and following its range of motion and throwing your body in relation to where it is throwing it rather than just controlling it. You can’t control the obstacles.”

Pole vaulting also teaches competitors air awareness so they can get upside down, turn around, dodge the bar and land safely on their back.

“Doing those things all in one motion happens so fast and doing it over and over again, you get really good at staying aware, taking direction, evaluating your environment, and doing that all at your peak adrenaline and performance,” Graff said. “Pole vaulting definitely prepares you for Ninja Warrior more than any other sport, except maybe rock climbing. But if you’re a great rock climber and you can’t run and sprint, then hit a mark, then you’ll trip on something early.”

Graff said her theatre training at Nebraska also helped prepare her for “American Ninja Warrior.”

“I’m much more comfortable being in front of the camera and talking to audiences,” she said.

But it was also the improvisational skills she learned as an acting major that also helped prepare her for the competition.

“When I was in the theatre program at Nebraska, my background was all gymnastics so everything is rehearsed over and over and over so you can do your routine in your sleep. Then you can focus on performance with that whole thing in your muscle memory,” Graff said. “In my theatre classes, I was told that nothing was coming off as authentic because it was so precise and rehearsed. So my assignment and my drills were always to practice showing up, not knowing what was going to happen and learning to deal with improvising and just letting go and connecting with what’s in front of me right now. That’s not something most athletes think to practice on this kind of course.  I appreciate that they called me out on that and forced me to work on that.”

Graff just completed her first “helicopter job” at the end of August doing stunts on a helicopter for a YouTube video to be released soon on a channel titled “Simple Pickups.”

“It was a really fun day. I really want to do more of that,” she said.

She continues to train and work on various television shows as a stuntwoman. Her recent credits include stunts on “Ted 2” and “Barely Lethal,” as well as the television shows “Henry Danger,” “Revenge” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Graff hopes to compete on “American Ninja Warrior” again next year.

“You can never say for sure. I will have to send in a submission video like everyone else,” she said. “But I feel fairly confident that they will bring me back.”

She likes that the show enables her to test her limits.

“Initially it was just a fun, random thing to try,” she said. “The thing that keeps me coming back is it gives you the opportunity to test your limits in so many ways. It’s inspired me to focus more and train smarter, but it also has this amazing community that brings out the best characteristics of all the competitors. I have made such good friends, and I have such a good time just training and seeing what’s possible.”