Jessie Graff is inspiring thousands of young girls and women to get healthy. As one of the top competitors on American Ninja Warrior, Graff has shattered the expectations of what women can accomplish. With each leap, each jump, each climb, she continues to defy the odds, surpassing obstacles once thought impossible for women. A true warrior at heart, Graff is the embodiment of what can be accomplished through hard work and perseverance.
The Supergirl stuntwoman took some time out of her chaotic schedule to talk about what keeps her going and how failures are just new opportunities in disguise.
How did you get involved with American Ninja Warrior?
I totally did it on a whim. I saw it on the beach, and thought it was fun. It was very last minute, I kind of threw together a submission video and sent it in. Then a week later, I was on the course.
For someone who did it on a whim, you’ve been extremely successful. You were the first woman to successfully make it up the new 14 1/2 foot Warped Wall, compete in City Finals, and complete Stage 1 of the National Finals.
It’s just crazy how much harder it’s gotten every year. It’s kinda what I like about it. I learned a couple of years ago that goals are great and accomplishing them is amazing, but I almost prefer those moments of like driving for the goal when you know it’s possible and it’s just out of reach, and you’re fighting for it and pushing. And that’s kind of the most inspiring moment for me.
Every time a new obstacle is introduced, I just wonder how in the world is anyone going to do this. It seems impossible!
Exactly! Last year when they had Rolling Thunder in Philadelphia, we all watched it and so many people fell on it. It was an unreasonable obstacle. They brought it back, and they made new obstacles that are almost as difficult. And then this became the new normal. And it’s just every year, when we see what is the new normal, we’re all like, “Ok, well, let’s get ready for that. Let’s get used to the fact that this is just how strong you have to be.” And then they’ll add something tricky and we’re like, “Oh ok, so you have to be this strong and this adaptable. Alright, well what’s next? Ok, you have to be this strong, this adaptable, and this precise.” And so it’s adding difficulty in every different, possible way.
I wouldn’t even be able to get past the first obstacle.
When I watched it on TV, I was always like, “Yeah, ok that doesn’t look that bad.” And then when I stepped up to the starting line and saw the distance, I was like, “This is way farther than it looks. These are big gaps. I’m gonna take every single jump seriously.”
I love the fact that even though it’s a competition, everyone supports each other and roots for each other.
Yeah, I think we’re all facing such an impossible challenge where the creators and the producers are coming up with new challenges for us. It creates more of a scenario of us against the course. And so I think it became again the normal for us that we have to work together to figure out how these obstacles work. When Michelle [Warnky] gives me climbing tips and how to work on my grip strength, then I give her trampoline tips to work on how she hits the mini- tramp. And then I become invested in her doing well. The more you train other people, the better you get yourself. And the more enjoyable the whole competition is because someone’s gonna do something amazing, and if you’re friends with all of them, then one of your friends just had an amazing night and you get to share in that experience.
The expectations are so high for you. How do you handle the pressure?
When I’m at the starting line, it’s not a factor at all. It’s just there are so many details on the course to focus on that there’s no space in my head for anything outside of that. In the 4 or 5 days before competition, when it’s like, “Ok, you have to taper off. You don’t get to work out as hard. You don’t know what the obstacles are yet so there’s not as much you can do,” man the anxiety goes through the roof! I don’t know if people understand the level of volatility in the obstacles. No matter how strong you are, if you have a tiny misstep on the balance agility obstacle, the whole thing is over very quickly. It’s pretty scary going into a competition. I don’t know what I’m gonna have to face. I can’t prepare for it. I hope it goes well, and I don’t disappoint thousands of little girls.
And so the thing that helps me deal with that pressure, is I always try to stay in touch with the fact that if I fall on the first obstacle then, through all of this training, I’ve gotten stronger, faster, more capable, more confident. I’m better at everything that I do because I’ve trained for this. Does falling on an obstacle course take away from the fact that I have improved in every area of my life? Um, no. When training in this has already enhanced my life in so many ways, you can’t lose. Even if I don’t do well on this course, I’m inspiring other people to get stronger, faster, healthier.
How does it feel being an inspiration to so many young girls and women?
I don’t even know how to describe that feeling because it is so far beyond what I ever thought was possible. I set my goals for myself. I worked hard to achieve what I wanted to do and the fact that it’s not just benefiting me; it’s benefiting so many people who now are doing things that are making them healthier. It’s just added this whole new layer to my life of getting involved in other people’s self- improvement and feeling like I have an army of little girls who are growing up to be strong and capable and confident. It’s just heartwarming. Everything already was worth it because I love it so much, but now it’s just so much more because it’s not just for me.
I love that kids are looking up to you for the right reasons.
So much thanks to the show, American Ninja Warrior, and highlighting women for doing things, for accomplishing and achieving things because a lot of it rests on the producers and what they choose to create. We’re celebrating being strong, being healthy, setting goals, achieving them, helping other people, having good sportsmanship. When our TV shows are choosing to celebrate these things, then kids see that and they’re like, “Oh that’s what I wanna be like when I grow up.”
Outside of American Ninja Warrior, I read that you’re trained in 5 different martial arts.
I don’t like putting a number on it. I kind of dabble in everything because as a stunt person, so many people come from different martial arts backgrounds and different athletic backgrounds. And so I train with everyone, and I don’t always know what style I’m training in. Like I do have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu. And I trained Muay Thai in Thailand for a month. A lot of the stuff I do is kickboxing, Capoeira, Wushu, Karate…it’s just like all of my friends do different things, and I just copy all of them.
You have such a competitive spirit. Where did that come from and how do you keep it going?
I think I’m so inspired by the concept of beating myself, of seeing a goal that seems completely impossible but wanting it that badly. And my biggest reward for accomplishing a goal is getting to choose the next goal to work towards. I just really enjoy that process of working towards that goal almost as much as that moment of achieving it. I’ve always had such high goals, and for a long time I felt like a failure because I wanted to go to the Olympics for gymnastics and great that I placed at State level 9, but because I wanted to go to the Olympics, those things felt like failures. And so I had to rework it all in my brain to where the goal is great to push you to work harder, but in the process you’re getting stronger, faster, more capable, more adaptable. And those things are more important than checking a goal off of your list. It’s all about self- improvement. When you fail at something it could be the step towards a new goal that you don’t know about.
I love that!
Thank you! It took a lot of failures and tears to come to that conclusion, but it worked out.
In addition to all the amazing things you do, you’re also a stuntwoman for television and film including CBS/ CW’s Supergirl. What made you decide to get involved with stunt work?
I was in college majoring in theater because I wanted to be an action hero on TV. When someone told me that the actors typically don’t get to do very many stunts, and it’s always with stunt doubles, then it was this sudden realization of like, “Oh well, wait a second. I should be a stunt person. Obviously.” It was like how did this not occur to me? I don’t wanna be acting in a movie and watching someone else get to hang from a helicopter. Like that would be heartbreaking for me. Cool that I get to be the face of this character, but someone else is hanging from my helicopter. That would be devastating!
Has there ever been a stunt you’ve been afraid to do?
So much of it is just like being smart, being rational. I’m not gonna take a complicated stunt driving because I’m not qualified for it. If you falsely advertise a skill level, you are putting so many people at risk, and you should not be working. People will shove you out of the business because you’re a hazard to everyone around you. So generally if I’m afraid to do it, I probably shouldn’t be doing it. Fear is a very important part of what we do and helps to make sure that we’re being smart, that we’re being safe, that we’ve covered all of our bases.
You’re in such amazing shape. What’s your workout routine like?
I’ve definitely found that focusing on getting strong has been so much more beneficial in terms of getting my body to look the way I want it to. There’s a lot of pressure on stunt women to be skinny and match the actresses. And when I was focusing on trying to be skinny enough to get the jobs I wanted to do, it just never seemed to work. I could never get as lean as I wanted to. I felt like I was doing hours of cardio, and it just wasn’t having the affect I wanted. And I just stopped paying attention to that. I started thinking, “Ok well, what do you want to be able to do? Who cares how you wanna look.” How am I gonna learn how to do this trick? How am I gonna jump higher? How am I gonna get up the Warped Wall? I don’t think a year had passed before I was like, “Hey, you have abs! Where did those come from?”
What’s next for you?
The big exciting news for me this year is that I got invited to compete in the original version of the show [American Ninja Warrior]. It’s called Sasuke. It started in Japan. It’s been running for 20 years. This is their 34th season. It’s very rare for them to invite foreigners to compete, and so it was a huge honor to be invited and to get to compete.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I always think more in terms of personal goals cause you can’t control what other people are gonna think of you or the effects of how you’re gonna inspire anyone. You can only focus on what you want to do, what you want to achieve, and how you’re gonna get there. And my personal goal is always to find what is that next impossible goal and prove to myself that I was wrong. That thing that I thought that was impossible, no it is possible and you can do it.
To stay up to date with what Jessie is doing, follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @JessieGraffPWR