From behind-the-scenes stuntwoman to on-screen role model, American Ninja Warrior’s Jessie Graff is proving to be one of the most skilled athletes on television. More than that, she’s showing generations of women that anything is possible—even being a real-life superhero.
From the moment she laid eyes on the flying trapeze at the age of four, Jessie Graff was determined to fly. Her parents immediately enrolled her in gymnastics, then circus classes two years later, and finally, at the age of 10, Jessie’s dream came true. “I can’t even explain the feeling of the flying trapeze for the first time,” she says. “My heart fluttered and my stomach dropped. It’s like being head over heels in love, only more.”
This love affair would become the catalyst for many of Jessie’s athletic achievements, which include competitive gymnastics and collegiate championship pole vaulting, with records at Georgia Tech and the University of Nebraska. “It’s all about flying and being free,” she explains. “Or being a superhero.”
To anyone who has witnessed the 33-year-old in action, her backstory should come as no surprise. As a three-time contestant on NBC’s obstacle-course game show American Ninja Warrior—and the first woman in the show’s history to complete Stage One of the Las Vegas Finals—Jessie has inspired audiences with her superhero-like strength, skills, and even costumes. (If you haven’t seen her crush the course in season 8 wearing a Green Lantern two-piece, it’s worth checking out on YouTube.)
But long before she and her outfits became synonymous with ANW, Jessie has been achieving superhero status behind the scenes as a stunt double in Hollywood. Her ability to fight (she’s a black belt in Taekwon-do and Kung Fu), flip, and yes, fly, have landed her jobs appearing in dozens of big and small screen titles, including Agents of Shield, The Dark Knight, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and most recently, Supergirl. These days, she’s working on the set of the show Future Man, but had to remain tight-lipped on the details.
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Jessie, who holds a university degree in theater, hopes her on-screen experience will one day help land her a lead role, a goal she’s had since childhood. For now, being a stuntwoman and training for Season 9 of ANW (premiering June 12) keeps her pretty busy, but as long as she’s able to fly, she’s always having fun.
SFM: Do you enjoy an element of danger?
JG: I don’t think it’s the danger that I’m drawn to. It’s the goal of doing something spectacular, something superhuman.
SFM: Are you ever afraid to attempt a stunt?
JG: In a high stakes situation, there are far too many technical details to focus on to have any room in your mind for fear. Some of the most important qualities in a stunt person are the confidence and self-awareness to not accept a job you can’t handle. I definitely get butterflies sometimes, but I re-focus on technical details, and get the job done.
“I don’t like the term “adrenaline junkie.” It sounds like a reckless daredevil, and stunt people are more calculated than that. But I do love adrenaline, in moderation.”
SFM: What did it feel like to complete the Stage One course in the Finals?
JG: I’ve had some really lofty goals in my life. I’ve dedicated my life to each of them in turn, shown every sign of being on track to accomplish them, and then fallen short. It was devastating every time. After failing to make the Olympic trials for pole vaulting, I learned to enjoy the journey of working towards a goal, rather than relying on the achievement of that goal to fulfill me. I constantly remind myself that all of my hard work and training is about becoming stronger and more capable, not about winning or hitting a buzzer. But I did hit the buzzer, and in that moment, I allowed myself to acknowledge how badly I’d wanted it all along.
SFM: What have you enjoyed about fame?
JG: I love getting to share my passion for pushing the limits of what is possible. I love receiving pictures of little girls who have become active, and are now running obstacles and doing pull-ups! I love the messages from adult women who are getting strong for the first time.
SFM: Do you think ANW has influenced how others view female athletes?
JG: I was shocked to hear how many people had no idea women could be this strong. I know lots of women who are stronger than me, but so many women are told from an early age that they can’t, or they’re too weak. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to get messages from women who say that because of a video of me doing an obstacle course, they now believe they can.
“I learned to enjoy the journey of working towards a goal, rather
than relying on the achievement of that goal to fulfill me.”
SFM: Did being turned down for jobs because you were too muscular impact your confidence?
JG: In order to get the roles and do the stunts I’d always dreamed of, I had to be the right size and shape to match the actresses. My focus was divided: How do I stay strong enough to safely perform the stunts and skills I love, without looking “too muscular” to get the job? I was afraid to touch weights, and spent all of my time doing high-impact martial arts and flipping, or doing hours of cardio. Sound like a recipe for a major knee injury?
SFM: How did that mindset change after your injury?
JG: After my knee surgery, I was determined to reinforce my joints, and build myself an armor of muscles, so that I wouldn’t ever feel that fragile again. So I started a strength training and injury prevention program, which actually made me leaner. All of my flips improved because I could jump higher, and I started beating more of the guys on ANW.
SFM: What is your advice for women who workout?
JG: First ask yourself why you’re doing it. People become obsessed with weight loss and getting skinnier, but there’s a point where it becomes unhealthy. I really stress finding a skill and basing your strength training around those skills. There’s always somewhere upward you can go with skill.