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Exclusive interview with Jessie Graff: stunt woman, “American Ninja Warrior” competitor, and role model for women everywhere

At the start of the "American Ninja Warrior" national finals course, Graff bounds across the quintuple steps.

In her early years as a stunt woman, Los Angeles resident Jessie Graff appeared in several blockbuster films, but it was not until she was accepted to NBC’s popular obstacle course competition “American Ninja Warrior” (ANW) that she received recognition for her wide range of skills.

“I initially decided to do ‘American Ninja Warrior’ because it looked like a fun challenge. I wanted to test my limits and see how strong I could get,” Graff said.

Just two years ago, Graff, 31, stepped into the spotlight when she broke the ANW women’s record for the farthest run in competition, completing four of the five obstacles in the qualifying round.

This year, Graff not only made it through qualifying, but she also delivered one of the top three runs of the season, making it to the ninth obstacle out of 10 in the Venice Beach City Finals. She became the first woman to sit atop a city finals leaderboard and the only woman to qualify for the Las Vegas National Finals.

Though her background in gymnastics, martial arts, and stunts gave her an edge in the competition, Graff’s journey to the top took countless hours of hard work.

“I didn’t train for ‘American Ninja Warrior.’ I trained for stunts, but I soon realized that the skills I was learning in stunt training translated to the ninja competition,” she said.

Normally, her training consists of fight practice five days a week. She is trained in Tae Kwon Do, boxing, Kung fu, Capoeira, Muay Thai, and Wu Shu. Twice a week, she practices gymnastics and trampolining. In her free time, she also works on high falls, trapeze, cliff jumping, sky diving, and stunt driving.

Her success this season was especially impressive to longtime viewers who remember Graff’s absence from competition last season.

“I didn’t get to compete last year because I tore my ACL, MCL, and meniscus,” she said.

Graff spent the season rehabilitating her leg and watching ANW from the sidelines. She could no longer do stunt work or any of her more enjoyable training exercises.

“I was stuck doing boring conditioning and needed something to inspire me during the 12-month recovery period,” she said. “I had fun with ANW the first season, and the main area I was lacking in was grip strength.”

To combat her boredom, Graff started a weight lifting routine at home and put up grip strength  training ledges around her living room.

“As I watched the show that season, I saw the guys do things that I didn’t think were humanly possible,” Graff said. “It had never occurred to me to try hanging from just my finger tips, but if they could do it, I thought I should be able to do it too. So, I decided to try actually training for it to see if I could do those things too.”

Throughout her recovery period, Graff said her goal was to reinforce every joint so she could become invincible.

“It wasn’t just about ninja warrior. It was about getting strong enough to prevent injuries in the future,” Graff said. “I was amazed to see how as I increased my strength, I got so much better at everything. Things that seemed hard or impossible became easy. I literally doubled my upper body strength.”

Graff’s training made her stronger than she thought possible, allowing her to meet her goals and reach for more. Her goal this year is to finish stages one and two of Mount Midoriyama, the rigorous four-stage national finals course in Las Vegas.

As Graff’s strength doubled, so did her accomplishments in competition. This season, she has completed twice as many obstacles as her first season and gone on to become a national icon for women in sports.

“If I see someone else do something that I thought was impossible, the fact that they’ve done it and proven it’s possible means that I should be able to do it too,” Graff said.

As she posted pictures and videos of her training on social media, she began to realize that many women did not think the same way. People who commented on her posts seemed shocked that a woman could have the upper body strength to keep up with the men. Graff’s goal is to show women they can do anything men can do in the ninja competition.

“Though I’m just beginning to learn what it means to be a role model for women, I really want to share one message: being strong doesn’t make you manly or unfeminine. It just means you can do more things,” Graff said. “It builds confidence and self reliance and opens all kinds of pathways and opportunities.”

“I don’t want people to think of womanhood as a handicap. We can do anything.”

Tune in Monday nights to NBC to watch Graff and her fellow contestants compete in the “American Ninja Warrior” National Finals.

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