Jessie Graff has been described as a modern-day Wonder Woman, and her achievements and accomplishments are seriously impressive. In today’s episode, Jessie has a conversation with Rachael and Kelsea, and you’ll be able to hear all about her background as a stunt woman, television personality, and Ninja Warrior. Listen to the episode to hear Jessie describe what it was like to discover her talents, what her first television experiences were like, and how she’s trained her body to do amazing things.
Kelsea and Rachael: Welcome to The Thick Thighs Save Lives Podcast, guys. I’m Kelsey and I’m Rachel, and we have an amazing guest on this week. Jessie Graff. You’ll hear from her. She is an absolutely amazing guest.
Kelsea: We are obsessed with this episode, the blueprint for how to be successful and resilient and just bad-ass and ninja warrior. Yeah. Amazing is all in this episode. And I’m so excited for you guys to listen.
Rachael: Today we have on the amazing and incredible Jessie Graff. If you do not know Jessie, she is a SEM girl, a ninja warrior, and a modern day wonder woman. Hey girl. Oh, I’m so happy to have you. She is known for smashing scenarios. Define the impossible and routinely places among men on the strengths-based obstacles of ninja warrior. She is the first woman to clear multiple courses in America, Japan, Germany. This girl is absolutely incredible and actually attributes a lot of her success on these like ridiculous obstacles to her engineering career and a decade long career and stunts. She was recently awarded the action icon award for stunt woman of the year. Let’s go. You might have seen her stunts on Wonder Woman, Super Girl, Transformers, Die Hard, The Dark Knight, like an elite pole vaulter high-level gymnast. And what don’t you do?
Jessie: I’m actually pretty bad at ball sports.
Rachael: Thank god, because you can’t have everything.
Kelsea: She said pretty bad, which is probably still pretty good.
Rachael: And I love your line of being most proud of your ability to push beyond your limits and transform setbacks into opportunities. Jessie Graff, we are excited to have you.
Jessie: Thank you so much. I’m excited to chat with you guys.
Kelsea: Yeah, I’m just, I’m just thrilled, thrilled to have you on here. And we want to start with, um, just a little bit about your athletic background and how you found your talents in the ninja warrior field.
Jessie: I guess for me, it started when I was like three or four years old and I saw the circus and I was just this painfully shy kid is how my parents described it. Like I would hide under tables. I got rejected from a preschool because I hid under a table the whole time. I just like, I wouldn’t speak to anyone. And when I saw the people in the flying trapeze, I just, I turned to my dad and I was like, dad, I have to do that. I have to do that. Can you ask the ringmaster if I can go up there and do that, they’re going to say no, like you’re you’re three or four or whatever I was, and I just begged and he was like, Hey, if you want to do it, the only way he’s going to let you do it is if you ask yourself, which obviously was a safe bet, because I didn’t speak to adults.
There’s no way I was going to do it. So that was sort of his out. And I go. Okay. Just like toddled down the, you know, the bleachers. And I asked the ringmaster, if I could do the trapeze. And he said, no, and I cried. And my dad was like, oh my God, we need to find circus classes for this child. And so they found a place. We were living in New York City at the time. It was called surface gymnasts. And I started learning trapeze and Spanish web and acrobatics. And through that I learned how to make friends and ask questions and grow. And it was just, it was this thing that connected with me so much that I wanted so badly that it made me brave enough to face my fears, learning how to socialize basically.
And so that’s still to this day, how. I, socialize best. How I make friends the most is like, let’s get in the gym and figure out how to do this weird, impossible thing. And like we’re working on it together. Or in stunts, you know, we’re trying to put together a fight scene or do some kind of impossible stunt and we’re working as a team and thats my favorite kind of friendship team building. Get to know you thing with people, but from there, I moved with my mom and brother into the middle of the woods in Pennsylvania, and there was no circus gymnastics classes. So I started regular gymnastics. I competed in that from like age 12 to 16, I got up to maybe a level nine, not maybe there’s a level nine, but gymnastics just became the center of my life and my home.
I still go back to Maryland and visit my gymnastics coaches, Kurt Morris and Tammy Jackson. They’re like my second parents, I love them so much. Actually, Tammy just started teaching my mom how to do tap swings on bars. And it was awesome to see. I was like, oh my gosh, you’re a genius. I am really grateful for that foundation I got with them. And that’s where I learned how to work hard and apply myself and be a good student, I guess.
I wanted to go to the Olympics. I started way late, not really built to be an Olympic gymnast, as much as I, I refused to admit at the time that being short was an advantage, I was 5’ 7’’ at the time doing gymnastics.
And I mean, I just, I kind of hit a plateau and wasn’t growing anymore and I wanted it so badly and put everything into it. And it was pretty heartbreaking when I realized it was time to transition. From gymnastics into pole vaulting. Gymnastics is still like my heart, but I mean, pole vaulting was blossoming for me.
I started pole vaulting when I was in ninth grade, my geometry teacher was the track coach and he was like, oh, gymnasts make good pole vaulters. Why don’t you try this out? If you suck we won’t waste your time and if you’re good, then you know, you can just come on your days off from gymnastics and competing.
And it went really well. It was actually the only, the second year that pole vaulting was allowed for girls in high school, in the state of Maryland, at least. And so I got to be a part of one of the first generations of girls in Maryland to do that. And so at the time that I was beginning to plateau in gymnastics, I was growing exponentially in pole vaulting.
I’m realizing that like for college, that’s where my scholarships were going to come from. And so I got the state record my sophomore year in high school kept building, and then it was really when I needed to get a pole vaulting specific coach that, that I realized it was time to let go of gymnastics so that I can really focus on the area that I had more potential and was hoping that that would be my route to the Olympics.
Um, it’s still a dream that is maybe less likely at this point. Maybe ninja will become an Olympic sport. But at this point I think the little kids are so strong at it. I don’t think that’s possible anymore, but yeah, so I put all my effort into that. I went to college at Georgia Tech for one year thinking I might become an astronaut.
So I majored in aerospace engineering and just realized that that’s not where my heart was. Like the whole reason I wanted to be an astronaut was actually just because I wanted to float in space. It was kind of this ridiculous story of like I knew from such a young age that all I wanted to do was join the circus.
And I wasn’t doing very well in school because it was like elementary, middle school. Um, so I was like, who cares about math? I’m joining the circus. Like my bags are packed. I’m ready to go join the circus right now. You guys are forcing me to sit in this chair and I was just miserable in school. And it was, I said, well, we took this aptitude test in middle school that showed that I was good at science.
And I had a teacher who was like, Hey, if you’re going to be stuck in school anyway, why don’t you pick a goal where you can apply these things that you’re good at and maybe school will feel more worthwhile. And I thought that that was great advice, but at the same time, I like hyper-focused on this goal that I wasn’t passionate about for the right reasons.
I’m still grateful for it now, I learned a lot of really valuable things. Surprisingly came into play later as a stump woman and a ninja warrior. But yeah, so I majored in aerospace engineering. Finally, I was honest with myself about the fact that I don’t want to build airplanes. I don’t want to be a pilot and I don’t have the passion for this career that other people do.
Like this is a very selective exclusive career and there are people who just everything in their heart is going towards this. And my heart is. My heart was somewhere absolutely absurd. I decided I wanted to be a superhero. Like that’s not a thing. I was like, I don’t, I don’t really care that that’s not a thing and that that’s not possible.
I, this is kinda what I want. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but, um, my mom’s suggestion was like, Hey, maybe you should be an actress. I was like, yeah, that makes sense. I would like to be Xena warrior princess. And so, so I switched and became a theater major. I moved to Nebraska where they had one of the best pole vault coaches in the country.
His name was Rick Attic and he was amazing a genius. And soI went partially for that, partially for the theater program. And that just like broke me out of my shell. Even more that desire to become a superhero, made me willing to open up and be more expressive and vulnerable and get in touch with all these other sides of myself that I don’t I think I ever would have, if I hadn’t pushed myself into this career, that yeah, is a shocking choice for the little kid who was hiding behind my mom’s skirt, but it just, it gave me this level of growth that I could never have done on my own. I don’t think. And so, yeah, I pole vaulted all the way through college.
And at the end, my senior year, I went to meet my mom’s agent. My mom’s an actress. And so I went to meet up with her agent in Washington, DC during summer break. And it was the most absurd story that I, I put together my headshot, my resume. I got on a train. I took the train into DC and handed her my, my headshot and resume.
And she took one look at it and was like, the thing I hadn’t realized is I accidentally printed off the resume that I made for the circus when I was in high school. So it didn’t have any of the plays that I’d done in college. Any of my theater classes, all it had was gymnastics, pole vaulting, flipping, acrobatics, blah, blah, blah.
And so she just looked at it and she goes, what is this? Why are you here? Do you act, you should be a stuntwoman here, call this guy. And she hands me a post-it note and just shoves me out her door. And I’m just like holding this post-it note and just going, oh my God. A stunt woman, of course.
And so I’m like standing on the sidewalk, outside this lady’s door and I called the stunt guy, his name’s Johnny Becker. And he was like, oh my gosh. Yeah. I’d love to meet up with you and tell you all about the business, but I’m busy. I’m towing a car to Frederick, Maryland. I live in Frederick, Maryland. And he was like, okay, great.
Well, I’ll be there an hour in an hour. And I was like, ah, I don’t get there until like 6:00 PM tonight. I’m taking a train. And it turned out he was two blocks away. And so he gave me a ride back to my house. I went over, he showed me how to like hook the car onto the tow truck and like gave me a ride back, had dinner with my family and explained to me the whole, the whole deal about here’s what you need on your headshot and resume. Here’s how your headshot is different from actors. Here are the skills you need to be training. Here are the resources. This is a magazine where you can read all about the old stunt legends and their stories are amazing. It’s an old magazine called inside stunts that they don’t publish anymore, but those stories and there’s there’s books on legendary sent people and the documentary called double dare that just like just gave me this vision into what it’s like as a sound person.
Um, and so I spent my last year of college studying how to move to LA. Um, like what gyms do I want to train at? What gym can I coach at so that I can have access to gyms where I can meet stunt people and when I graduated, I like, I put down the pencil on my last final, got in my car that was already packed and drove straight from that final to LA and started work the next day.
So it was like, it was, I was just so in love with the idea and I got to train in all the coolest things that I could ever imagine. It was just like someone asked me when I first moved here, like, oh, how long are you going to give yourself to make it? And I was like, I don’t even understand this question.
If I’m homeless, but I get to train here on the rings on the beach, like take martial arts in the park with you guys. Like I’m learning the coolest skills I could ever imagine with the most incredible athletes who have expertise in every different style of martial arts and motorcycles and cars and flying trapeze.
And like everyone does all the stuff I want to do. Like this is my dream come true. Like if I never work in science, I don’t even work in stunts, but I get to learn what you guys I’m set. Like this is everything I ever wanted. Luckily having that attitude and working hard and I’d go to the gym and I’d see a guy doing these flips that I’d never seen before and just get like starry-eyed and be like, oh my gosh, how, how do you mind if I stand in this corner and like, copy what you’re doing, as long as I don’t get in your way.
They’d be like uh, okay, that’s fine. And they’d see me wipe out 20 times in a row and they’d be like, you know, why don’t you watch your hand as you go over and kick your leg at this angle and I’d make that change. And that was kind of my way of networking where they’d be like, oh, this girl, like she hits the heart, the ground hard.
She’ll do it over and over, but she takes direction well and has a great attitude. And that’s, those are some of the most important things in stunts, as well as being alert and adaptable. And, and so then, you know, I’m, I’m training with so many stunt people. You know, if they were like, oh, okay, we need a girl.
Who’s five eight that can do this flippy thing. Or, you know, get hit by boom of a sailboat as it’s coming by that I would get opportunities that way and slowly built my way in, but I guess it was. See, when did I find a ninja warrior?
Rachael: I just, I mean, that is an incredible story of just like a calling that’s like, to me, something was calling you right from being a little girl at the circus, it was pulling you the whole entire way, even outside of who you were comfortable being the calling just continued to pull you and pull you. And I just think the fact that you followed it is just so incredible because so many people feel the pole, but they resist it.
And I just think that that’s a really incredible story and I’m really glad that you shared it because. I think it’s the stuff that dreams are made out of. I mean, like you said, like you’re literally living your dream and that is just go get it.
So let’s talk about your first TV show appearances. Was your first TV show Wipe Out?
Jessie: No. No.
Rachael: Okay. Let’s talk about how you found your way onto these TV appearances. And like, were you nervous? Like how did your performance compare to your expectations of what you hope to do? Talk to us about a little bit about your, your journey there.
Jessie: I guess I, I lucked into this job before I even before I even moved to LA.
Yeah. So my, my last year of college, I, like, I was kind of a super nerd, super nerd in school. When I set my mind to it, I kept obsessive, like notes and binders. And my mom still has my backpacks with binders from every year of school. But as soon as I knew I wanted to be a stunt woman, I got the stunt players directory and kept binders.
I would print out headshots of everyone. I met and take notes on what we talked about and, um, And so there was this event. They still have it called The World Stunt Awards towards world stunt words. And so the guy that I had met in Maryland, Johnny Decker, he invited me to come out as his guest to go see the world’s stunt awards during like.
I don’t even think it was a long weekend. I flew out from Nebraska to see this event and back. And so at that event, it was incredible. They had someone like presenting an award for best high work. They fly a helicopter over the stage. They jumped out of the helicopter into a pile of boxes and walked over to present the award.
It’s the coolest thing ever. The Rock used to host it. So I got to see this event and I was like, oh my God, this is want. And I got to meet a couple people. We went to, um, the rings in Santa Monica. They just have these, like, it’s like this acrobatic everyone’s out on Sunday doing acro yoga and all kinds of acrobatics and swinging on brains.
I was like, I’m going to live here someday. But I, I met people. Put them in my binder, I made contacts. Um, and then one of those contacts, let me come out. His name’s Bill Lehman, amazing guy. He let me house it for him during Christmas break. So again, I just came out on my own on Christmas break and just went to all the places and met back up with all the people I’d met before, made new contacts.
And during that time I got to train at this place called, um, Bob, Yerkes. He used to host Circus with The Stars. His, high eighties, maybe 90 now, but he’s a huge circus backyard. So I got to train with all these sent people there and we were doing high falls where they have big mats out or an airbag. And we jump off this just ladder that goes straight up into the air out 40 feet.
It might be more,it might be like. Lands is 40. I think his goes up to like 60 or something and you climb up and there’s like a little platform that you can move up the rungs to get higher. So when we were training high falls up to like 30 or 40 feet. And so during that time I’ve been, uh, met a bunch of people and got to like, you know, learn skills and show what I was capable of.
Cause having done so much flying trapeze and high diving, I was very comfortable doing even flips off of a 40 foot platform.
Kelsea: I’ve seen some of these videos when I was in LA and I was like, you’re you’re, you’re what? What’s gonna happen up there?
Rachael: I’m like, oh my God, they’re saying 40 feet, my blood pressure keeps going off and off.
Jessie: It’s amazing what your body gets used to when you train it. Cause there is definitely like this adrenaline goes through it’s it’s a natural, healthy instinct of your body to be like, This is not right. You better be alert and pay attention up here and I’m uncomfortable and you should get back down to where it’s safe.
And if you can keep your mind about you and breathe, like with control and tell your body actually I’m in control. And this is okay. We’re doing this intentionally, the ladders here, you can hold on. You know, where you are in the air. You look at this spot, you tuck your head, then flip over you, land flat.
And yeah, so you just have to learn to calm down. Basically. You can use your breathing to calm those endorphins and adrenaline, the chemicals that are telling your body to be on edge and just focus on the technical aspects of what you’re doing. And that’s actually something that without knowing any of the science behind that I trained when I was about 12 years old, I found that on beam, on balance beam and my gymnastics competitions, I was so nervous.
I wanted so badly to do well, especially in my state competition. I was doing a scale, just standing on one leg on the beam and just trembling, just uncontrollably trembling. And I was like, this is messing with my ability to perform. I can’t let nerves control my performance under pressure. Like that’s when I need to be the most stable and center.
And so my solution is a ridiculous 12 year old was like, okay, where, how can I make the beam the most scary. And build up a tolerance to whatever these chemicals are that are making me so nervous. And so I climbed up on my garage roof. It’s like, it’s a pretty steep roof with a peak. And I started working on my beam routine up there.
I started doing like full back handsprings, um, on the roof and, and what I found and I practice you’re like…
Kelsea: You’re like, I have an idea they’re like on, on the roof.
Jessie: my mom was not happy when she found out it was, she, she worked so hard. She worked a lot of hours and I had a window of time where I would get home from school.
Practice and then zoom back into the house and like sit on the couch, watching TV the whole time. Um, eventually I showed her and she was like, oh God, don’t do this when I’m not home. So yeah, but what I found was that if I stood with my feet planted on the roof in a safe position, I was stable. And if I looked up and my eyes lost sight of the horizon, so I was just seeing the sky, I would get like wobbly and lose orientation.
So I had to stabilize again and slowly look up, get wobbly and stabilize. And I just kept repeating this until my body started getting used to it and was like, oh, okay. This is like, this is intentional. This is okay. And so I built that tolerance. And when I, when I was 15, I started working on a flying trapeze at gymnastics camp.
And so up there were about 25 feet high standing on a platform that’s maybe a foot wide. And like reaching out, holding on with one arm, reaching out, holding a child, putting them on the bar and just moving around, doing like technical tasks with a hook, just up really high. And there’s a net under us, but it’s like building that tolerance in, in my whole body and my mind to where I’m comfortable up there, where it stops being a weird thing.
And so, you know, coming out of college, Climbing up a 40 foot ladder and being like, oh, okay. You mean I’m not, I don’t have to do a double black flip, open and catch someone’s arms. That’s easy. I can spot this mat and land on my back. So it’s just what you make your body used to and where you build that calmness and tolerance and ability to focus in your brain.
Um, so yeah, so here I am in this, um, circus backyard training, 30 to 40 foot high falls into an airbag. And I, it was actually Bill Lehman, the one who I was house sitting for, who ended up recommending me for a job. So I went back to college, I’m still doing my theater major in Nebraska. And he called and asked if I was going to be available.
This job happened to be taking place during my spring break. They needed a woman who was non-union because of course I’m in college. Most of the women who are training regularly, doing high falls are already part of the union. And so the fact that I had met them gone out on these field trips before I had really immersed myself and become union, but they’d seen me perform, I was one of the few people that could, they couldn’t find someone at that time.
So I got this like rare freak opportunity to do a 50 foot high fall off of a building during my spring break. So, yeah. So I flew out for that. It was great. It was a horror movie called the ghost of the black Dahlia. Got to wear a long wig and just had to like, be afraid of a ghost backup and fall off the building.
I think we only did it one once or twice, but it was like, there was definitely nervousness. So there was pressure around it. My mom called me when I was in the makeup chair to be like, how did it go? And I was like, mom I can’t talk right now. And then she’s like trembling for hours waiting for me to call back and tell her I haven’t died.
Poor mom’s been through a lot. Um, but it went great. It was like, as soon as I was in the air and had left the building and just like in free fall, it was like, oh, this is home. It’s like, that’s where my body is most comfortable. And it was like, oh, this is, this is right. And it went great. And so then, you know, met people on that job and moved on and moved to LA when I graduated and, and there I was, that was the first job.
Kelsea: And how did you end up on ninja warrior from there?
Jessie: So I had actually been doing stunts for about six years at that point. Um, maybe my fifth year I had been, had blown up. I’d been working like full weeks every week for almost the whole year and was kind of at capacity. And I had a friend, Lucy Romberg, one of my old roommates, she’s like an 11 time world champion in free running.
She’s a legend herself, but she had done this ninja warrior thing in Japan. Um, back before it was even on TV. And she was like, oh, you would love this. It’s so fun. And I was like, yeah. Okay. But then one day I saw it on the beach. They were shooting in Venice and I went up and I was like, Hey, can I do this? And they’re like, you have to apply like a year in advance.
You can’t just walk up here. And so I put it in the back of my head and I was like, okay, don’t forget to do that. I’ll sign up sometime. And of course I forgot about it. Next time I checked in, it happened to be like, oh, the deadline’s tomorrow. And I was like, whoa, okay. I’ll just send them my stunt reel.
I lucked out. I got on, was not in shape for it. I think I could do about six pull-ups at the time. I was, yeah, I was, I was completely unprepared, but it was, it was very early. It was season five. There hadn’t been any women who had really gone. No, no woman had finished a course before or, or even cleared the fifth obstacle.
And they didn’t have a separate women’s division. It was just the top 30 move on to regionals, the top 15 of regionals move on to nationals. And they would have like wild cards who get invited to nationals, but I placed 30th. And became the first woman to move on to regionals. So I was the only woman in that next step episode.
And where did I, I mean, I didn’t place very high. I had never done a work wall before I had no technique. I didn’t even know what was going on really, but I, I had so much fun and I was like, okay, yeah, I’m going to, I’m going to do this. I’m going to train for the next one. And then, I mean, I was just, I was so in love with stunts, I was just training stunts full-time and didn’t end up training for it.
The next year it was. Um, but right before submissions were due, I tore my ACL and was in a TaeKwonDo class jumping spinning. I’d had, like, I think I’d had two 18 hour work days in a row. I was exhausted, was sore, went to do plyometrics and a TaeKwonDo class. Anyway, my leg gave out. Popped the knee inwards tore my ACL, MCL meniscus, and had to have surgery.
And during that year I knew I’m, I’m a little hyperactive. I’m a little obsessive. I need, I need a goal. It keeps me motivated and inspired. And I was like, I’m everything I do has been focused around stunts for years now. If I don’t pick a goal outside of that, I’m going to dive back into all of my martial arts classes in park whore, way too soon.
Re-injured my knee. What can I focus on? That’s going to keep me like physically active and inspired, but keeps me away from my legs. And I was like, oh yeah, that ninja warrior thing. That was pretty fun. And the big thing I was missing was grip strength and pull up strength. So I was like, yeah, maybe I could, maybe I could care about that at the time.
It was meant to just be a distraction. It wasn’t something that I had strong feelings about, but I was just like, hopefully it’ll be enough to keep me distracted. And I just got really invested in getting strong. There’s definitely a component of stunts where as a stunt woman, your first job is to match the actress.
And a lot of actresses are very slim. And so there’s a lot of pressure not to be muscular and not to be big. And so a lot of my training as it was like, you know, technique and skills and high flipping and fighting and falling and all these things that have very high impact, but at the same time, trying not to have muscles and that’s not healthy or safe.
You need muscles to support your joints. And so when I hurt my knee, there was a little bit of freedom and not being like, okay, you’re an ACL surgery takes about a year to recover. It’s about 18 months before you’re solid back to normal if you rehab well. So I was like, all right, I’m not working for a while.
I don’t need to match anyone. What would happen if I started strength training, like let’s, let’s go full out and see, are you going to get huge, like you think. What, what would happen if you did? And so I just started a strength training program, trying to get as strong as I could. And I, like, I gained so much confidence and like, I was so proud every time I got a new pull-up record, every time I could bench press a little bit more and it became so validating that I was like, You know what I don’t, I don’t really care if I’m too big.
Rachael: Dude, that shit is addictive. Being strong is addictive. It’s like the strongest drug. Ah, it’s so good. So good.
Jessie: And um, and the funny thing was, I didn’t get bigger. I got leaner.
Kelsea: It’s really hard. Really hard. No, no, no, really hard.
Rachael: Wait so you didn’t have one protein shake and do a couple of weights and like all of a sudden look like a giant man?
Jessie: Yeah. And so, so it was just like, it was just a win all around. I just focus. I just tried to get as strong as I could. And by the end of that year, I went from being able to do six pull-ups at the beginning to 25. Pull-ups I still didn’t get that good at bench press. I’m not sure why I’m still. I’m rehabbing again and working on my pushups and everything.
I’m trying to be more balanced this time. Yeah. A year later I competed in season seven of ninja warrior and placed in the top 30 again and went to regionals and places. Six among the men. So again, I was the only woman in the regional finals, but I got six plays with the guys. So I qualified for nationals without being a wild card, just like as one of the guys.
And at the end of that year, I didn’t make it up the warped wall. Like I built all this upper body strength, but hadn’t caught up with my lower body strength. So I failed the warps wall and I was so devastated because. I just put a whole year into strength training. And now I’m like back into stunts, full out, like, how could I possibly maintain this much strength for another year?
Like, that’s like the amount of time I have to put into stunt training, like it’s not feasible. And so I was just like, I was distraught. I cried so much. And I was like, oh, like, I know I can do better. I know I can go far. I’m just going to have to try and to see how it goes. So I kept working on it, kept building the next year I think I got up to like 28 pull-ups and my grip strength was way better. I was rock climbing much harder. And at that regional competition, I got second place. I, the only guy that beat me has been like a national champion, a speed climber. So he was like eight, his name’s Josh Levin. I’m probably getting his titles, definitely getting his titles wrong, but he’s incredible. And wildly strong.
And that year I became the first woman at nationals. Stage one and to compete on stage two. Uh, and then I also was the first woman on the international team on team USA, competing against team Europe and team Japan. Both of which are no, not Japan, Japan wasn’t there. It was, um, team Latin America.
And so neither of the other teams had a woman, it was just me competing with the guys. And that was just, it was so validating and then empowering to see like all the little girls that like dressed up as me for Halloween. And the message is I would get from, there was like a 12 year old girl who was like, I used to love swimming and gymnastics, but my friends made fun of me for having muscles.
And so I quit and she was like, but now. Seeing how you’re competing and you’re strong and, and, and feminine like that. She was like, I’m, I’m starting again. Like, I don’t care what they say about my muscles. I want to be strong and all these. Yeah. And like all these little girls who are. Super motivated and they’re showing their muscles and climbing things and just don’t even have that fear about like, oh, what if I, what if I look too strong?
They’re like, check out how big my arms are. Like, yeah. I was like proud of it. And I love it. And it transformed from me just like wanting to see how far I could go, which is still like a big thing. Like I always want to prove to myself that I’m stronger than I think I am, but it’s also this whole new level of how much can I impact these girls and women who don’t think that they can, and then, you know, adult women who are like, I just, I just didn’t know women could be strong in that. Like, I was always told that we couldn’t build upper body strength. And so I just, I gave up easily, especially if you haven’t done pull-ups since being a little kid, like they didn’t do it in gymnastics and you try pull ups.
It can take a very long time to get your first one. It’s really easy to try it for a year and be like, I think I’m just not a person who can do pull-ups like, that’s a pretty natural conclusion to draw. Like you try hard for a year and you don’t get. Like maybe it’s maybe it’s just not for me. And I have to talk about my mom now.
It was, it was that year when I, when I sort of broke my records and stuff on into warrior that my mom was like, you know what? I want to do a pull-up. I want to say that just so she practiced in secret.
Rachael: Say how old she was at the time.
Jessie: So at the time she was 61, but she said she wanted her first pull up at 61 and you know, I, she didn’t tell me she worked on it for a year and she showed me, she jumped up on the bar with like her arms bent at 90 degrees and did sort of the top section of a pull-up she’d been working on it alone.
So she didn’t know that she wasn’t doing a full range. She wasn’t like hanging from a dead hang and pulling all the way up. And it was one of the hardest things I’ve had to say to her to be. I’m so proud that you’re doing this, and I’m so impressed that you’ve gotten this far, but I also have to tell you that that’s not a full pull up and here’s what it is.
And here’s how you work on it. And she got a little discouraged at first because, you know, she was so proud of what she’d accomplished and if that’s all she could do. I wouldn’t, I probably wouldn’t have said anything, but I, I believe that she could do more. And so, so I had to be honest with her and she went back home.
She hired a trainer. She worked out with him two to three days a week, and two years later, Two years later, she was training with me, ninja warrior cameras were on her and she was like, I’m getting this thing. And she fought all the way through like pulled it, got her on camera, on NBC. Oh, that’s so, yeah, she just refused to accept that you can’t build strength after age 60.
Like I, when she was working on this and she’d been, you know, asking me for tips and working with a trainer for a year, and I know her level of determination.
Rachael: Well, you know, you got it from somewhere.
Jessie: It was super normalized for me as a kid, I was like, that’s just how you do stuff. It’s just how you live. But yeah, I started wondering, I was like, can you, like, I know if you’re, if you were a gymnast as a kid, like it’s a lot easier to maintain strength, but it.
My experience with what I’d seen in other people is that when you’re in your sixties, it’s hard to maintain your strength and you can stay kind of in shape, but it kind of deteriorates. And so, you know, when my mom was asking me how to get stronger, I’m like, I don’t know. Like, I’m going to give you all the tips I have.
But in the back of my head, I was like, can, is that possible? Is that physiologically a thing that people can do because you just refuse to give up. And three years after her first attempt, when she was 64, she did her first pull up. Um, she’s, she’s turning 70 in about a week and she can now do 15 pull-ups and she’s shredded shredded. And she does competitions. She goes to actual competitions, she drives like five to six hours to different ninja competitions all over the east coast and competes in the masters division, which is 40. Um, 40 or 70 and has been winning lately. She has started swimming. She, I think she won state championships in Maryland this year.
It’s just like, she’s killing it.
Rachael: I just, well, apparently we were told a lot of lies. Like women can’t build upper body strength and people over 60 are no longer making gains anymore, but I just, I, you two are just out there snatching all of those things. And as a woman and as a woman that has a very large community of women who also were told all of these things, it’s just.
Having examples out there like you two is so important. Like you said, for those little girls that are dressing up as you, for those ladies who are looking at your mom on socials and going, oh, she did what? It’s so necessary to have these kinds of examples for women and girls, because there it’s been a very, very long road where these examples just have, have been too far and few between to be believable.
And the more women that are out there just doing it, it just makes us all believe that we can.
Jessie: Yeah. I think one of the keys is to remember that if you try something and it feels impossible. That’s just normal. That’s how new things feel. They feel tender, how things feel. So it doesn’t mean like, oh, you’re not naturally made for this.
It means like, oh, you’re on the right path. It feels impossible. Okay. What’s the first progression. How do I work on this?
Kelsea: I think some of the things that we wanted to ask you, we touched on training a little bit, but what does a typical training day look like for you?
Jessie: Chaos, chaos. Well, it depends like I’ve, I’ve been in a recovery cycle for a long time. My big issue is that I tend to over train. Um, and as a stuntwoman like when we’re performing safety first, but get the shot.
Rachael: Everything they see before the butt is bullshit, right?
Jessie: No, no. I mean, we do, we do a lot to be as safe as possible, but things happen we’re on concrete. Like there’s times where you’re just, you’re gonna fall flat on your back. You’re on, on your back on concrete. Do it as safely as you can, but you’re pulling on concrete, like it’s going to suck.
So my body just has had a lot of abuse. And last year when we were shooting ninja warrior, we were competing for like a week straight on the last day of competition. I just, I just, I kind of broke everything. It was the third day of competition that I partially tore my ACL. I had a weird landing off with an obstacle.
I heard the knee pop, took a few steps and realized that it didn’t hurt that much. So I finished the course. Tested it out. I was like, yeah, I have no side to side stability here. Um, so I, but straight line, I was like, this feels okay. Like obviously I’m having surgery when I go home, but might as well finish out the competition if I can run in a straight line.
Not the best thinking, but like I said, no plan, but yeah. So I taped it for the next round of competition, made it through. And then one more day of competition. I was just, I was exhausted. I think my, my shoulders. Not in a condition to be doing dynamic moves. I did a thing where you like you swing, you let go of the thing behind you and you catch the next one with both hands, the tiny ledge for your fingers.
And it drops. So you grab it, it moves and then it stops and walks off. And on that impact my right shoulder subluxed. So it came partially out of the joint tore four different things. And then. I yelped and let go and took the rest of the impact on my other shoulder, tore the rotator cuff there and hit the water and just was like, oh, I’m in trouble.
I have really done it now. So this past year has been just completely a shift. And it’s like, like you were saying before, My big strength that I always try to focus on is how can that, whatever my situation is, whatever the worst that just happened, how can I turn that into a positive, like, what’s the good thing that’s going to come out of this?
What opportunity do I have now that I wouldn’t have had, if this hadn’t happened normally, and what I’ve done in the past with injuries is if I had a shoulder injury, my legs are stronger than they’ve ever been. And if I have a knee injury, My pull-ups are going to go through the roof, but when you have a knee injury and two shoulder injuries, what the heck are you going to do?
And I was like, you know what? I have been really neglecting my mental growth.
Kelsea: Well shit, that’s finding it right there.
Jessie: It’s like, Ooh, what have I always wanted to learn? And when I was younger, I was very much, I would pick my goal and hyper-focused on that. And like I told you, when I got into engineering, it felt like I had picked a goal arbitrarily hyper-focused put on my tunnel vision and lost track of what I love. And so this time I threw away the blinders and was like, what do you want to do?
What is interesting right now? And I just started studying a ton of different things and just waited to see which ones stick. And I didn’t know why I was studying them or what I was going to do with them. I was just like, what are you interested in? Let’s open up a whole new area of your life. So I started studying some Japanese Spanish sign language, physiology, strength, training, nutrition.
Um, injury prevention later hang-gliding and free diving. So it was just like, learn whatever you want. And so in that process, I got a nutrition certification, personal training certification. I just got a corrective exercise, one with NASA, which is huge because it’s like, okay, now I’m learning about all the muscle imbalances I had that set me up for these injuries.
I’m like, I should’ve seen this coming. Like I know I had weak glute medius. And then I was like, like my hamstring in my left leg was synergistically dominant and then strained, which may put more weight on my right leg, which also had a weak glute and started like knee collapsing inward. And, oh my gosh, that also comes from a root in my ankle.
Like I sprained my ankle when I was in high school and lost a mobility. So my ankle wasn’t bending all the way, which causes I need to go in.
Kelsea: When you learn about those, it’s like a dominoe. Oh, yeah, that makes sense. Oh, I shift this way. This is why. And then it’s like, okay, like make keeps like dominoing and you’re like, okay, this now I can understand why and how to fix it.
Jessie: Yeah. And same with my head, my head posture, my doing so many pull-ups, but being weak at the push-ups shifted my shoulders into this forward world posture, which a lot of people get from being on a computer with their head forward or texting. So we’re all in this position with your shoulders sitting, not properly in the joint.
So when you raise your arm over your head, this rotator cuff, the supraspinatus is actually getting pinched every single time. So you’re getting wear and tear on it. Just every time you raise your arms, when you do pull-ups and take impact, you’re getting all these shearing forces. Hence being in the wrong posture, change training in the wrong range of motion and taking high impact.
When I was tired, of course, I tore my rotator cuff and I’ve learned about with my physical therapist. She teaches dynamic neuromuscular stabilization, which is a lot of it is about proper breathing technique. And I learned that I was breathing with my neck and shoulders. Like a lot of people are chest breathers, but I was beyond.
Breathing with my neck and shoulders, which shortened these muscles, which pulls my, like everything out of alignment. And then of course, those muscles can help me with pull-ups, but they’re too busy breathing to help me with pull-ups. So they’re weaken it. And I was like, so I took that certification course too, and combining it all together.
And the parts that have stuck are starting to come together in my mind as like, Oh, I I’m starting to feel like I know what I want to do with this. And it’s just, it’s really exciting to feel kind of in the same way that ninja came up, where it was like, I was training all these random, different things and suddenly a sport appeared that to put them all together.
And I was like, oh my gosh, this is what I’ve been training for my whole life without knowing it. And now that I’ve been learning all these other things, it’s like, they’re coming together and I’m like, oh, I’m starting to see the new goal. And it’s a new way that I really like approaching. Which is for me, I kind of have a natural drive to like accomplish things.
And it’s easy to get into that tunnel vision where I, I start blocking out what’s what’s on the outside. That could be a new growth opportunity. And so this new way of following, or not necessarily. But it’s reviewed new. It’s renewed of following the passion, putting in the work, even if you don’t know where it’s going, it’s just like that old phrase of like shoot for the moon.
Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars. The key for me is you have to shoot with enough power to reach the moon. And if you don’t hit that goal that you were aiming for, as long as you were shooting with that power, putting in the hard work and dedication and studying and training and growing stronger, if you shoot with enough power, you’re going to get somewhere. Amazing. That’s what I love it.
Kelsea: Women around the world have watched you complete feats that they thought female bodies were not capable of. You continue to compete among the top men in your field and are considered a hero to women in the ninja community and the reason they started.
What does all this mean to you? What legacy do you most hope to leave on women in fitness, in sports?
Jessie: That one.
Kelsea: Tt was leading a little bit.
Jessie: Um, that’s what I’m most proud of all of that. I really think just that, that feeling of knowing that valuable goals do feel impossible at first. And that’s okay.
Kelsea: I love that. I love that.
Rachael: I don’t think I know people do not say enough. I think how impossible freaking impossible.It seemed to them at the beginning. You know, everybody thinks that people who have achieved really great things. Kind of weren’t scared. No. And they knew all along that they could do it. And then it came naturally to them right away. And I don’t think, like you said, people say enough how ridiculous it sounded to them in the beginning to be able to do the things they’re doing now.
Jessie: I think that’s one of my other things that I, I wish people would say more often is that there’s a lot of focus on like, you need to believe to achieve. Like, you’ve got to believe you can do something before you can do it.
And I disagree. I feel like you can’t, or I’m not very good at talking myself into believing I can do something, but I am very good at trying things, even if I don’t believe I can do it. Like I’m okay with taking on a challenge and being like, all right, I have no idea if I can do this, or even like, I’m definitely not strong enough to do this thing, but let’s see what happens.
Kelsea: Yeah. I wholeheartedly believe that some of the scariest things that I am most proud of, that I’ve done. I’ve been like uh, I’m not sure. I’m not sure if would be able to do this. So like, I’m not sure, like, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to get into the water at water whose I was like, I don’t know, I could get down the ramp and like, not get in.
Like I was really not sure. And I, I, a hundred percent agree with you. Like, you don’t have to go into it thinking you can do it. And if your mind is telling you, like, no, I’m not so sure that doesn’t mean it’s like, don’t do it. That means like, well, Yeah.
Jessie: Yeah. I mean, it means a couple of things. It means first check to make sure you have maps under you.
Let’s make sure this is safe. Let’s make sure I know how to catch myself if I fall and second, like, let’s see what happens or, you know, I’ve, I’ve gone into the competition where I got second that is probably my most proud ninja accomplishment. At least I looked at that course. No way I absolutely cannot do that.
Eighth obstacle is called the wedge and I was like, there’s no way that I’m strong enough to do that after the I-beam and the ring hopper thing, like no way, but what’s the most efficient way to do it. Like what can I do? That’s going to get me the farthest on that obstacle. What steps am I going to take?
Let’s get as far as I can. And when I got through it and landed on the platform, I was so flipping shocked.
Rachael: Well, it’s that, it’s that destination anxiety that stops so many people from ever starting. The thing is thinking about the end result and being so stuck on the end result. What if I fail? What if I fail? What if I can’t do it? What if I can do it? How will that make me feel? But it’s all about that destination, but really what we need to do is just look at the stats.
And just see like, well, how far can I get, maybe I don’t need to worry about standing on the platform at the end. Maybe I just need to worry about how far in this obstacle do I think I can get and just take that one step at a time.
Jessie: Yeah. I think one of the other things that I’ve learned to appreciate, because I was very caught up when I was younger and in that goal mentality of like set the goal, give yourself a timeline, accomplish no matter what, there is no failure. Well, sometimes there is failure. And if there are better be paying enough, you know, you’re not going to do anything, no failures. Um, and what I’ve learned to appreciate now is the struggle of growth.
So like when I’m, my goal might be to do, I wanted to save 44 pull-ups cause that’s like, that would be my record. But right now, right now, rehabbing two shoulders, 10, 10 is a great number. So my goal might be 10, but if I get to eight and I’m trembling every inch, I can enjoy the fact that I am getting stronger right now.
This struggle means I’m getting stronger. And so celebrating the push and the drive and the determination of growth, celebrating that as the victory, going into a workout, being like I’m going to push myself as hard as I can, and I’m going to get stronger and I’m going to fight through that tremble. And if I do that, I win, then you put yourself into more challenging uh, opportunities, bigger challenges, you grow way more, and then you accidentally accomplish things along the way.
Rachael: When you look back, you just, you go like, well, what’s my proudest moment. Well, like my proudest moment is all those little more. ’cause that really has made me who I am and like the standing at the podium on the ends, you know, that was really great.
And it was a culmination of all the things, but it was those days in the gym where I was trembling on pull up numbers that made it, that made the whole journey. That’s it? Yeah. I love it.
Kelsea: Or being a four year old and asking the trapeze artists, like that’s like the first step in like. Those amazing things.
So, Jessie, I know that our listeners are gonna want to hear more from you because you are amazing. So where can they find you after this episode?
Jessie: I stay pretty up-to-date on Instagram. My Instagram is Jessie Graff pwr. Um, J E S S I E G R A F F P W R. And my mom’s Instagram is Ginny Maccoll.
Yes. Yeah. I mean, she is, she’s posting cooler stuff than I am right now.
Kelsea: So my mom is already going to be following her. She’s going to be on 100. Yes. I’m so glad that we got an opportunity to talk to you today. It’s just been so incredibly inspiring for anybody who has a goal, has a calling feels that pole to just, I mean, look at the amazing life that you have felt just by, you know, chasing those, those dreams.
And I just, um, I just want to say it’s been a pleasure to talk to you and we are so glad that you decided to come on today. So thank you so much.
Jessie: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me for having great questions, man.
Kelsea: Thank you so much for listening to The Thick Thighs Save Lives Podcast. If you’d like to join our movement, get in our free app CVG nation available in your app store.
We have an amazing community of women coaches to help you with your movements, challenges. And we give away leggings daily in there. Rachel and I are in there every day. So it’s a perfect place to get in touch with us. This podcast is made possible by Constantly Varied Gear. So be sure to check out constantlyvariedgear.com, have an amazing week crush your goals.
Topics Discussed in Our Episode
- How Jessie discovered her talents
- Jessie’s first TV show appearances
- What your body can learn when you train it
- How Jessie ended up on Ninja Warrior
- What typical training days look like for Jessie
- The legacy that Jessie hopes to leave for women in sports
- Where to find Jessie
Jessie Graff’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jessiegraffpwr
Jessie Graff’s Mom’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ginnymaccoll/
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