Exclusive: 'American Ninja Warrior' Jessie Graff—A Real-Life Wonder Woman

Although Wonder Woman may be ruling the box office, on American Ninja Warrior, returning for its ninth season on NBC June 12th, Jessie Graff is continuing to prove that this woman has some wonder all her own.

Jessie may have dreamt of joining the circus as a trapeze artist, considered being a superhero (which led to her doing film and TV stunt work) and even thought of giving becoming an astronaut a go, but she found her true calling in gymnastics. Particularly as a competitor on ANW, where she has excelled. She was the first woman ever selected to be a part of ANW’s USA Vs. The World, which pit competitors from the ANW, Japan Ninja Warrior and European All-Stars, and this season she’s pushing herself harder than ever.

Trying to get Jessie to slow down for 30 minutes to chat is a lot harder than it would seem. Not that she isn’t willing, but who the hell can keep up with her?


FHM: So your Wikipedia entry begins, “Age age six, Graff started taking circus classes.” Okay, what at the age of six, makes you say you want to take circus classes?

Jessie Graff: “The real question is how did it take us six years to find circus classes? No, it was actually only two years. I saw my first circus when I was four and my parents had never seen that kind of passion and desire in me before. I'd be so shy and afraid to speak to strangers, and adults, and wouldn't come out of my shell until I saw the people on the flying trapeze. I just stood up, and was, like, ‘I have to do this.’ They didn’t even know what to do with that. I asked them to ask the ring master if I could do it, and they said, ‘If you want to do it, you’ll have to ask him yourself,’ knowing that there's no way I would speak to him. But, I just toddled down the stairs, and went up and asked him if I could do trapeze, and he obviously said no, so I cried. And they were, like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to find circus classes for this kid.’ Luckily, we lived in New York City where they have all kinds of crazy things like that. I eventually moved out of the city and got into gymnastics instead, because they don't have circus classes most places. But, it changed my life immediately.”

FHM: You can clearly remember this?

Jessie Graff: “Honestly, I don't remember it at all [laughs]. My parents tell me the story all the time. But I do remember my first time swinging on the trapeze in gymnastics. I always describe it as the same feeling as being in love. It was like my heart beat faster and everything was just the magnetic attraction of, ‘I need to be up on that bar swinging through the air and flying. And I don't care what it takes.’ It really is like flying. It is flying. It's this weird feeling of, your mind is in control, and you know what's happening, and your body gets that chemical release of, ‘Oh my God, fight or flight. I'm about to die.’ But you can observe it. Understanding what the situation is, still knowing you're in control, is such a cool feeling. A lot of people find it very hard to function when you have that fight or flight thing going on, but doing trapeze, and doing high falls, and things where your body is putting out those chemicals, and then having to think through, and function through, and take direction, makes you so much more capable of handling that if you're surprised by something in the future. You can make those rational decisions and have a better outcome.”

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FHM: You ended up going to gymnastics camp, but at what point did you know this was gong to be a career for you?

Jessie Graff: “Four. At the circus. But since I wasn't allowed to run away and join the circus, and I still didn't have a trapeze, I began competing in gymnastics and eventually I fell in love with that, too. Which has obviously contributed hugely to my job now—learning gymnastics, discipline, the hours of training. I still wanted to join the circus and was looking more at Cirque Du Soleil. But I was stuck at school, so I was studying my butt off, not really knowing why I was doing it. There were other cycles, too. I was, like, ‘Well, if I'm stuck at school, I might as well study something. Maybe I'll be an astronaut.’ So, I was taking physics and calculus, which also came in handy later when I decided to do stunts.”

FHM: So how does all of this lead to things like USA Vs The World and American Ninja Warrior?

Jessie Graff: “I saw an obstacle course on the beach and it looked like fun, so I signed up and went to play and then fell in love with it.”

FHM: Like so much else in your life.

Jessie Graff: “Exactly. I try so many different things, some of which I don’t like and I’m not going to waste my time doing something that I don't love unless it's essential for my career. But when I find those things that click, there's just something about seeing people do what I thought was impossible, being like, well, if a human body can do that, I should be able to do that, and just figuring out what kind of training I had to do to make it possible for myself.”

FHM: Obviously when we watch the shows, we’re seeing the end results. How difficult is it behind the scenes to keep yourself in shape mentally, physically and emotionally?

Jessie Graff: “Well, as we've discussed, you know that I love doing all this stuff. The hard part for me is more the maintenance of, ‘Hey, you can't just do double back flips every day. You have to have two days in between leg days where you're resting your legs. You have to do physical therapy exercises and strength training so that you're protecting your joints. Really, just the injury prevention work is the part that is hard and takes discipline. But, I mean, you say maintaining strength, and I look at it as I'm competing against elite male rock climbers who have A) the advantage of testosterone and B) have been rock climbing, training their grip-strength for 20 years.”

“So it's like I'm this huge underdog of trying to figure out the exact formula of how often I can train to build maximum strength at maximum speed without getting injured. Exactly how many rest days do I have to take, or how many hours do I have to take between grip-strength training? How far can I push each set of pull-ups? And that's not maintain from year to year, that's maximum strength gain for, I don't know, like if it took them 20 years, can I do it in five years if I'm extra focused? That's kind of an ambitious goal there. I don't know if five is realistic, and it's not like I can reverse engineer how quickly I can do it. It's really just what's the max speed I can do and just keep up with that as best I can?”

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FHM: With American Ninja Warrior returning, what’s your feeling about the new season?

Jessie Graff: “I am always thrilled for a new opportunity to challenge myself, but, like I said, I'm on this mission to gain strength as quickly as I can. I had a major finger injury on a stunt in November, so going into season nine, it's like, ‘Crap, have I gained enough strength to really improve? Have I gotten stronger faster than the course has gotten harder?’ And all this new pressure of more people know who I am and what I have been capable of. Everything fell into place so well last year. What if I trip on something? So it's pretty terrifying going into it knowing the possibilities of what could happen if things go well, and also almost what I lose if it doesn't go well.”

“That pressure drives me to be more disciplined in my training in the months prior, but I’m very adept at pushing all of that aside when I get on the starting line. There's way too many details to focus on to have any time or space in your head to think about the pressure. So being able to set that aside is one of my best skills on the Ninja course."

FHM: So what’s next for you? Obviously you want to be an action hero…

Jessie Graff: “You know I do. That’s the biggest one. I obviously still have goals of completing more stages in Ninja Warrior. I think those are long-term goals. I have a lot of goals in tricking and martial arts. Those are the ones I like most right now. So much to do, so many exciting adventures to explore.”

FHM: Looking back at all you've accomplished, what's your assessment?

Jessie Graff: “I'm just so thrilled that everything has come together so nicely, and Ninja Warrior especially, because I had such high goals for all of the other activities I was doing and I really felt like I was falling short. It felt like I would always push too hard and then things would collapse. It didn't stop me from trying. It made me a little afraid of trying, because it is such a disappointment when things don't go the way you hoped. But seeing how all of those things that I pushed so hard for, and then ultimately, depending on how you look at it, failed at the goal that I was going for, they all still came together to make this new goal that I hadn't thought about being possible. It makes it so much easier to deal with other failures when you can believe that each failure contributes to succeeding at something else in the future.”

Season 9 of American Ninja Warrior premieres tonight, June 12th on NBC at 8/7c.

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