“We lived in the middle of the woods; she was a single mom and we just constantly in these impossible situations where we would be snowed in,” says Jessie Graff, stunt woman and Team Ninja Warrior sensation, about the inspiration she got from her mother. “Nobody could get to our house, we were out of groceries, the electricity was out, she would have to cross country ski to get medicine for my brother—Situations where of course it didn’t even come up [that] ‘I’m a woman, I might not be strong enough to do this.’”
Graff would know. The all-around athlete made history last fall when she became the first woman to complete Stage 1 on Season 8 of American Ninja Warrior. The show involves complicated obstacle courses that test contestants’ abilities, as they jump, swing, and suspend themselves between walls across pools of water. The video of Graff’s success went viral, and she was welcomed back for Team American Ninja, serving as one of three woman team captains for Season 2, which begins tonight. She says her mother, a Broadway dancer, taught her early on that if you don’t question yourself you can accomplish a lot.
“It was just, ‘Here’s what needs to be done,’” she says. “ ‘We’re gonna be in trouble if we can’t do it, [so] figure it out.’ And just seeing her always overcome that, it never occurred to me that being a woman might hold me back in any way.”
Graff trained as a pole vaulter in college while getting a theater degree, and says she has always been attracted to the performance aspect of her job as a professional stunt woman, working on films like X-Men and Bridesmaids or on the CW’s Supergirl. It’s not just the incredible feats, though she’s great at those too. Despite the obvious marriage of both on the show, she wasn’t a particular fan of American Ninja Warrior before appearing on it.
“I didn’t know what I was showing up for, or what the obstacles were; I just heard, ‘Fun obstacle course, climbing, swinging’ and thought, ‘Oh that’s right up my alley,’” she says. “And when I got more involved, I realized someone took all my favorite hobbies, piled them into one obstacle course and cranked them up to a hundred. I was drawn to that but also, when you’re doing sets of ten pull ups as a girl people are like, ‘Wow, you’re really strong.’ Whereas in ANW, I’m hanging out with girls who are like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m not that great at pull ups. I can probably do 25 or 30.’”
Much of Graff’s strength as a pole vaulter had been in her legs, but during Season 6 of ANW she suffered a serious injury to her knee, which she says completely changed her approach to training and thus her abilities.
“When I hurt my knee it was like having the floor ripped out from underneath me,” she remembers, “I knew it’s a 12-month recovery for that injury and I can’t just get on the sidelines and watch for 12 months. So I have to find something else that would inspire me.”
Graff spent the year training her upper body with a focus on ANW, and found herself incredibly motivated by the work. At the end of the year, she realized that, without meaning to, she had fallen in love with the sport. “And then it took on a life of its own,” she laughs.
After Graff’s success on the Stage 1 course blew up on YouTube—gaining over 3.5 million views and thousands of comments—she encountered the kind of commenter backlash typical of viral videos, but it took her awhile to notice. When she finally read them, she says, she was strangely flattered by people calling the course easy, accusing her of steroid use, or suggesting her performance was enhanced in some way.
Being accused of cheating when you’re not is the highest compliment of all, according to Graff. What makes people so skeptical of what she does right in front of their eyes? Graff knows her abilities are uncommon, but doesn’t appear to think they’re unattainable. Working with other stunt people and then on a show like American Ninja Warrior made enormous strength as a woman completely normal.
“I’m surrounded by stunt women who are held to the same standards as stunt men,” says Graff. “Of course we do all the same things. It just didn’t occur to me that there was a difference. So being in this position, I’ve gotten so much interaction with all these women who this is news to them. They weren’t exposed to that as kids, so they grew up feeling like they couldn’t do certain things. And so getting to hear from them making that realization that they can is such an honor, it’s such a privilege to be able to share that with them and then for them to share their progress with me. Like, ‘I didn’t know I could ever do a pull up but I’ve been working on it because you showed me how and now I can do three.’ It’s just such an amazing experience that it inspires me right back. They’re watching and they’re getting better because of the way I’m pushing myself.”
Graff thinks that the expectations put on men and women as children tends to shape their approach to building strength. She believes that if boys don’t meet high physical expectations they’re accused of weakness, while a girl who can’t climb the rope in gym class isn’t pushed to do more, unless she finds a sport to focus on.
“Which is why gymnasts have amazing upper body strength,” she muses. “They’re put in that situation, they’re held to higher expectations and they rise to the challenge. I prefer to hold people to higher expectations and say, ‘Yes, you can do this and yes, it feels impossible at first. That’s normal. Figure out how to do it. Here’s the progression. Work on it.’ And it’s through working through that process and something feeling impossible, fighting through it anyway, and getting to the point where you can do it that builds the confidence to believe, ‘Yeah, there are a lot of things that feel impossible, but I can do them. Someday, if I work hard enough, I can do them.’
“Without that confidence, it’s hard to get to a place where you can try new things.”
Jessie Graff will appear on Team Ninja Warrior May 2 at 10/9c on USA Network, with her team, G-Force (Nicholas Coolridge, Jesse La Flair).