October 14, 2021

#030: American Ninja Warrior – Jessie Graff

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The highest levels of physical performance require the utmost mental and emotional strength. To achieve the impossible, we must first believe that the impossible can be achieved if we only put our minds – and our bodies – to the test. Jessie Graff is an American Ninja Warrior, a stuntwoman, a martial arts expert and an inspiration to all those who seek to defy physics and elite performance.

Jessie joins host Fran Racioppi to share her leadership lessons on competition, the mental approach to negotiating complex problems, combatting failure through expectation management and how every setback is an opportunity to grow.

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The highest levels of physical performance require the utmost mental and emotional strength. To achieve the impossible, we must first believe that the impossible can be achieved if we only put our minds and our bodies to the test. I’m joined in this episode by Jessie Graff, American Ninja Warrior, stuntwoman, and martial arts expert.

Jessie and I dig into the mental aspects of performance at the moment, negotiating complex physical and emotional problems, and how we come at failure and living up to our own expectations. We also discussed how we as leaders are defined not only by our experiences in life, but also by how we seized opportunity and growth from the challenges and roadblocks thrown in our path.

Jessie defines Jedburghs core characteristic of the drive. She holds several Ninja Warrior records for first among women. She holds collegiate pole vaulting records. She studied Aerospace Engineering before becoming a Theatre major. She serves as an example for women, men, and all who simply want to be the best versions of themselves. Jessie, welcome to the show.

Thanks, Fran.

There are lead athletes, high performers, experts in their craft, whether it’d be in athletics or business. I’m fortunate to interview elite talent across so many different domains and levels of the spectrum. There are then people who defy logic who show us that the seemingly impossible can be achieved, who demonstrate with the utmost confidence, dedication, and commitment that your body and mind can achieve results that the rest of us mere mortals can certainly only ever dream about.

I came from an organization in Special Operations where elite fitness was a requirement. If you didn’t have it, you couldn’t be there. We have nothing on someone like you. You were a college athletics record-setter, stunt woman, American Ninja Warrior, and multidisciplinary martial arts, expert. There’s a level of functional fitness and what I call all-around badassery if that’s even a word. I make up words sometimes in this thing but it earns respect. You demonstrate that each and every day in everything that you do. I thank you so much for coming on the show and taking some time with me, sharing your lessons, and giving us your perspective on elite performance.

Thank you so much for including me in that list of amazing qualities that you look for with guests.

We often talk about dreams, someone’s vision, or the mission for an organization as the drivers of our own personal selves but also our organizations. That vision and mission is the motivating and grounding factor that many times drives performance. It was your dream to be a superhero on TV since you were a young girl. I was a G.I. Joe and Transformer guy. I became a Green Beret. I get it. I totally understand. Can you tell me what was so intriguing about becoming a superhero?

There wasn’t always that specificity of being a superhero on TV. As a little kid, before I had any sense of goals or direction, I was uncomfortable. Little things would bother me and I didn’t know what to do with myself. When I saw the circus when I was four years old and I saw people flying on the flying trapeze, it lit something up where it was like, “I want to do that.” For me, it was flying. I wasn’t sure what form that would take, ideally Peter Pan or Superman-style but I was willing to accept that it’s an unlikely thing to happen in my lifetime. I’m still hoping but it comes surprisingly close.

Once I pegged that that’s what I have in my heart and my core and I want that, it evolved in a lot of ways of, “How do I find that?” Initially, it was circus classes and doing trapeze lessons. It became gymnastics and pole vaulting. Anytime I see something that resembles flying, not in a vehicle or a plane but open-air, wind in your face, floating and flying. Even if it’s falling, just that feeling of the wind in your face and the weightlessness of non-contact with the ground, that’s the thing that drives me.

That was the thing in the Special Forces that drove me out the other door. Jumping out of planes, I swear, was the worst day because the Army had always had a way of making anything fun is not fun. It’s something that should have taken a couple of hours but ended up taking an entire day. Once you jump out of the plane, it was always the landing where you landed like a sack of potatoes. They would tell you, “You have to roll.” There’s no way to roll. If you don’t have the free fall parachute and you have the parachute for static line, the whole thing is designed to drop you at a rate slow enough to not break multiple bones in your body. Maybe one but not too many.

I’ve heard about this. There’s a huge difference than the sports parachutes where you have this nice, smooth descent and then right before you land, you pull on the actual flare cable designed for a nice lift and then step out of it. I’ve heard even if you weren’t wearing 50 pounds of gear or more, those are harsh landings.

It’s terrible. You go onto and became a collegiate athlete. You broke the pole vault record at Georgia Tech and the University of Nebraska. You still hold records at both those schools. You were 1.5 inches away from qualifying for the 2004 Olympic Trials in the sport. You also majored in Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Tech but then moved to Nebraska and studied Theater, which I find super interesting especially in light of the fact that on American Ninja Warrior, it’s so technical. When I watched you and the other athletes perform, you’re seriously defying physics in so much of what you’re doing. Why make the change from Engineering to Theater?

It made perfect sense in hindsight. There are lots of things that I’ve felt drawn to try. Sometimes it feels very scattered like, “Why are you learning Aerospace Engineering and Theater? These things don’t mix or match in any way.” I tend to get very tunnel vision with gymnastics, pole vaulting or even in school. It was like, “You have to get an A. You can’t look up from this book until you have an A.” I would miss all the things going on around me. What I’ve found is that even if it doesn’t seem like it immediately fits into the structure of the goal that I’m currently working on, if I follow that passion to what it’s leading me to, if I’m learning and growing, it comes back later in a weird way.

Don’t focus so hard on something that you don’t even know why you wanted it. What is it that you really want to do? Click To Tweet

I majored in Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Tech for a year because I had gotten it into my head that if I wanted to float and fly, space sounds great. Let’s go float in space. My teachers had told me that I was doing well in Math and Science. They were like, “The circus isn’t a great goal for you. You should come up with something where you can use your brain.” I was a little offended by that at first because I felt like the circus was the greatest thing in the world.

I was like, “If I’m stuck in school and I have to learn all this stuff, what could I apply it to that I would like?” The only thing that popped into my head at the time was like, “I would like to float in space. That’s probably the closest thing to flying.” I buckled down. I studied and I got through AP Physics 1 and 2, all the Chemistry, Calculus 3, and all the stuff. I didn’t like it but I was like, “I’m willing to do the work if it gets me to this amazing goal.”

When I finally got into my first Intro to Aerospace Engineering class, I looked up from the tunnel vision to see like, “Where is this bringing me?” It was building airplanes. Possibly becoming a pilot. I was like, “I don’t like sitting at a steering wheel. I don’t like sitting. I don’t want to build airplanes. I want to get out there and fly.”

It’s like, “You’ve focused so hard on this thing that you didn’t even know why you wanted it. What is it that you really want to do?” I was like, “I want to be a superhero.” That sounds ridiculous. I’m not four years old now. I was like, “What does that mean to me?” I’d always wanted to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Zeena. My mom was an actress so it was like, “That means you act.” I was like, “I’m super shy and that’s terrifying but whatever it takes.”

I transferred to the University of Nebraska which had an amazing pole-vaulting coach. I got into the Theater program. I worked hard at it. I found it so much more challenging than my Calculus classes, learning to let stuff hit me, be vulnerable and cry. It wasn’t anymore about studying, being perfect, planning every little detail, and then executing it. It was about understanding your character, let your walls down, observe what’s going on, and react to it.

There’s a subjectivity to it.

It was terrifying but it was exactly what I needed to help me grow as a person. When I found out later that actors don’t get to do their own stunts very often, it all came together like all the skills that I’ve been desperate to learn and so hooked like gymnastics, pole vaulting, wanting to get into martial arts but I haven’t done it at the time, and circus. I used to practice my beam routine on the roof of the garage, climb the trees, climb my sailboat mast and tip over.

All these things that I’d been drowned to do that I’d spent so much time doing came together perfectly with this new skill that I’d gained of acting into this one career of a stunt performer. As soon as someone said it, it clicked in my head and every part of my being was like, “How did I not know that this is exactly what I wanted to do?” It immediately transferred my nerd skills from school. I kept doing my work.

I still got A in my classes, but transferring that obsessive studying to, “What does it take to be a stunt woman? What skills do I need? What kind of photos do I need? What goes on in my demo reel? Where do I send my demo reel? Once I moved to LA, where am I going to start training? How do I start networking? How do I get around LA? What does the geography look like? Where do I want to live?” All these things had an instant switch on my brain of here’s how I’m going to accomplish the next goal. I was so in love with the idea that it never felt like I had to push to do the hard work. It was like, “What’s the next thing? What can I learn?” That’s the energy that I try to follow wherever it takes me.

That’s taken you to over 80 movies and TV series. You’ve been awarded the Action Icon Award for Stuntwoman of the Year. You’ve been in movies like G.I. Joe, Transformers, Die Hard, and The Dark Knight. You lived your superhero dream in Supergirl. You’ve been in Shield and Leverage. That’s only a couple. That list is long. You’re now a voting member of the Emmys. The Emmys started to recognize the stunt community with two different categories, Outstanding Stunt Coordination, and Outstanding Stunt Performance. When you jumped into this thing, did you think it would blow up like this?

Yes. Initially, I underestimated the career and quality of what a stunt performer is. Once I started researching and meeting people, it grew. I’m like, “These are incredible people. They’re so skilled and hardworking.” All of my friends are national and world champions in different disciplines. You’ll be friends with someone for years and then find out they have a world record that they never talked about. It’s like casually, “Yeah, I broke this record.” It’s so cool. Everyone’s so generous with teaching their skills.

There’s this community of, “If I help you become a better performer, we work together as a better team when we get hired on a job together. If I help you work on your high falls, I know that you’re way less likely to kill me when we’re hired to jump out a window together.” There’s a personal investment in helping others. They have that same investment in you. Even when it comes down to the competition factor of, “Do I want to train with another woman who’s 5 foot 8 and blonde and similar size?” There’s a little bit of instinct of like, “I want to be the best at my size. I want people to hire me.”

If you let go of that, train together and teach each other, you both get better so you’re in higher demand because you’re both better. If someone calls me for a job and I’m busy, I have someone perfect that I can recommend and say, “I’m so sorry I can’t make it but let me introduce you to someone else who can. She’s incredible.” She does the same for me. I have friends that I’ve been able to trade jobs back and forth. We both get more connections and work. We both keep growing. That’s one of the things I love about the stunt community.

That level of teamwork is interesting. I want to expand on it a little bit more. I’m working with an organization where there’s a lot of competition in collegiate sports, especially at the Division-1 level. Within the conversation we have is that there’s competition within the team, outside of the team, and who are you comparing yourself to. At the end of the day, the best way that you succeed at the next level is to compete with each other and have success collectively.

If you have success collectively and you win, then when everybody looks at you to say, “You’re going to go beyond the national team or the Olympics,” they’re still looking at the top tier of folks. If you can come together and create an environment that brings everybody up, as they say, “All boats rise with the tide,” then you’re positioning yourself to be more marketable by operating collectively at a higher level.

It’s always important to evaluate what’s more important to me. Is it to keep my secrets and be the best at what I already do, or to be better overall by gaining more skills and making others around me better by sharing that information and we all get better? I choose that one.

I tell them, “Do you want to be the best at working out or do you want to win medals?” That’s the challenge. Let’s talk about American Ninja Warrior. In 2013, you debut in the Epic Chick Fight which I watched the video. It is in fact epic but you ended up as the first woman to advance to a City Finals. In 2015, you’re the first woman to sit at top of the leaderboard at City Finals and the first woman to advance to the National Finals.

In 2016, you’re one of only two competitors to make it past the wedge in the City Finals, then you become the first woman ever to finish stage one at Las Vegas Nationals. 2017 was the USA versus the World. You’re the first woman to compete and successfully finished stage two, also the only woman representing the US. In 2018, you finished the Miami qualifying course and 1 of only 5 to make it past the Crazy Clocks in the City Finals where you finished fifth.

One of the big things left on my list is I haven’t finished the semifinals course, which normally they only have 1 to 4 guys finish a semifinals course. I’m like, “I’ve got to finish the semifinals course.”

This competition is unlike almost anything in that. It’s one of the few competitions where men and women are on the same course. They face the same obstacles and same time limits. I have a colleague in Talent War Group and she was on an episode. Her name’s Lisa Jaster. She’s the Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserves. She also was the third female to ever graduate US Army Ranger School. In a similar situation, the standards have not been changed.

Before I interviewed Lisa, I did talk to people in her class. I said, “Will the standards changed?” They said, “Absolutely not.” She did it and excelled at such a high level. She did it even at the age of 37 years old. I tell my Ranger School story in there. It was hard on me as a guy at 23. She did it as a woman at 37 and crushed it. This is an opportunity where you go head-to-head with the guys.

You’ve put this in a certain way. I want to read the quote from you and I will ask you about it, “So much of it is mental. If I paid more attention, I can beat most of the guys.” What’s the mental component of this? The physical aspect is certainly I would not make it past the first 10 feet. What is this mental component that you talk about?

The obstacles are designed to be tricky. This is where my engineering background that I was like, “Why did I waste this whole year of studying stuff that I’m never going to use?” Engineering comes straight into so many stunts and Ninja Warrior. You look at your first obstacle. It’s a different obstacle now but it was these steps that are angled 45-ish degrees. They increase angle as they go. You’re jumping up 1 foot higher and 6.5 feet from each one to the next one.

First of all, I love studying the angles and precisely figuring out exactly how far I’m going to have to jump, practicing on the side. Your last step is here. Your platform is out here. Your rope is here. Look at the physics of that. If you jump from here to a rope, you’re going to swing at this angle. How are you going to get to this platform? You’re never going to hit it. It doesn’t matter how strong you are. If you jump to the rope at the wrong angle, you’re going to be stuck on that rope, swinging in circles, trying to build your swing until you can get off the rope.

An obstacle where you should have been hanging from your grip for one second, maybe you’re on there for 30 seconds. Now, you’ve got a bunch of other obstacles that have a much more intensive grip. You’re putting yourself at a huge disadvantage. What’s the next obstacle? Is it going to spin this way? If so, you’re gripping like crazy or you just turn your hands around so your hands are pulling in opposition.

There are all these little details that you can tweak to make things easier that are technical. What I found is that a lot of the guys that are super strong will look at the course and be like, “Yup.” Checking off like, “Am I strong enough to do this?” They dive in and don’t realize these little details of what the producers have thrown in that are going to be tricky. Where are you going to get surprised? I assume that there’s a trick in every obstacle.

If you look at something and you’re like, “I should be able to do that,” you’re missing something. There’s always a trick. I go into it more with the assumption like, “This is going to be hard. I might not be strong enough to do it. How can I do this as perfectly as possible, save as much energy, be as efficient as I can to get as far as possible? If I can calculate all those details and execute them perfectly, I will reach my absolute max potential. Maybe that will be enough to finish.”

Respecting the difficulty of the challenge puts me in a state where I’m willing to focus to my maximum to find all those details. Sometimes I miss one because they’re super tricky. Sometimes I underestimate something because it seemed so straightforward. Because I put in that effort, I find that I’m able to outperform some of the guys who are a lot stronger than me.

When you explain it, I think about the Free Solo climber. He had every move calculated in his mind and he’s memorizing. He could talk to himself through the whole thing. You do a lot in martial arts. There are lots of guys who go into martial arts. They’re big and strong but they wear themselves down. We used to go through it all when we did our martial arts training in the military. It was always about you’ve got to last in the fight. In order to have a chance to win, you’ve got to last. You can’t always go in and muscle in. You have to have an element of technique or you’re going to exhaust yourself.

That is the trick. One of the things that helped me coming into this sport is that I started it before I started training strength. My first time on the course, I could only do six pull-ups. I had to find clever ways to make things easier or more efficient. Over the course of my training for Ninja, I’ve gotten way stronger but always keeping in mind what’s the most efficient way.

Having a specific purpose that you're passionate about is almost a luxury. Not everyone has or feels that purpose. Click To Tweet

I want to ask you about some of what you brought up here, the term challenge and heart. I talked about it with organizations that I work with. We’re going to have an episode come out here right after yours shortly, which is going to be with Kristen Holmes. Kristen Holmes is the VP of Performance Science at WHOOP. Kristen was also the Head Field Hockey Coach at Princeton for thirteen years and they won twelve Ivy League Championships while she was the coach for thirteen years. She knows her stuff. She has a great perspective on something being a challenge or something being hard.

You’ve alluded to it in some of the interviews you’ve given as well where if it’s hard, then there’s a technical solution to that. You can figure it out and train a drill. You can find a way to train a muscle, body or mind to overcome that. If it feels like a challenge, then good. It’s supposed to be because the challenge is what requires you to execute it. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between being a challenge, being hard and how you think about those two things?

I never thought about separating them necessarily. I’ve grown to appreciate both of them as growth opportunities and almost a measure of value. If it’s an extra hard challenge, that sparks my interest level of like, “People might not think that’s possible. That’s hard to overcome. I wonder if I can do it.” The more impossible it is, the more intriguing it is. There’s a max to that where it’s like, “That is clearly impossible. Is this a good use of my time?”

Can you teach yourself to fly?

That one is on hold. I’m looking for ways to do that but I’m not letting go of it. My bigger weakness is if I don’t respect the challenge and I’m like, “That’s easy,” I don’t feel Iike I give it the attention that it deserves and it can surprise me of like, “That’s harder than I thought.” That’s a little discouraging to be beaten by a challenge that you didn’t think was hard, whereas if I give every challenge the respect of being like, “This is going to be hard. It’s going to take hard work,” then I’m willing to pour more into it. I’m prouder of it if I’ve accomplished it. If I fall short, then I’m not upset with myself for falling on something that should have been easy and like, “That was hard.” It’s okay. Sometimes you fall short of things but here’s what I did wrong and how I could have accomplished this challenge that was even bigger than I thought.

You’ve called that purpose too. You got to train with a purpose. If you have a goal, then it’s so much easier to get out there and set a path towards that goal versus going out and saying, “I have to train. What am I training for? How am I training?” That purpose sets all of those little goals that you have to meet to achieve it.

Although I will say that having a specific purpose that you’re passionate about is almost a luxury. Not everyone has or feels that purpose but it is good for everyone to work hard, train hard, become healthier and challenge themselves. Sometimes it’s just getting out there and doing the stuff. I’m extremely grateful that I do have such a strong sense of purpose. When I’m not feeling motivated to go workout, run stairs or push a sled, I know what I’m doing it for. I know why and that will get me out of that feeling of lethargy to go do the stuff to push myself.

There are other days where I’m like, “I’m not sure why I’m doing this but I want to be healthier. I want to get out there and move.” Sometimes I’ll hop on my bike for no reason because it feels good. It can be discouraging for people to be like, “I don’t have a goal or a specific mission.” It’s great to search for one, to find one and to identify that will keep you going. It’s also okay to be like, “I don’t know why I’m doing this but let me follow it,” if you know it’s healthy.

I want to ask you about competition. Competition is something that is important when you talk about purpose and results. I think there’s the objectivity of results, meaning that the scoreboard and your time don’t lie. Many times, when we have a result and we don’t like it, we may find a reason or an excuse or find it hard to accept the fact that that was our performance. Maybe it was a bad day. Maybe we’re not up to it. You spoke about being in competition in American Ninja Warrior and having times where you failed on an event. When you look at the results, whether they’d be good or bad, how do you internalize it? How do you accept them? How do you channel that for the next step?

Especially with Ninja Warrior, there are some obstacles that are so finicky, volatile and unpredictable. You can’t get too upset with yourself for falling. Sometimes it’s a lack of preparation. Sometimes it’s not being strong enough. I’m trying to keep up with men who have been pro rock climbers for 25 years. Can I catch up to that? That seems unrealistic but that’s the kind of challenge that I love taking on.

Most years on Ninja Warrior ends in a fall and a failure because there were only three men who have ever completed the whole thing. You’re likely to end on a fall somewhere. If that’s earlier than I want it to be, that can feel pretty devastating because I do put my whole heart into it. I’ve trained so long and so hard wanting to excel, do my best, inspire women, and show how strong we can be.

When I fall, it can initially feel heartbreaking for all the hopes and dreams. I have to look at what is the purpose of this training. There are multiple purposes. I try to focus on the one that will make me the best in any given moment. When I look at it at the end of the year, part of my head can say like, “What was this year you’re training for anyway? You wasted a whole year and didn’t accomplish anything? Did you get stronger this year? Did you get faster? Did you get healthier? Did you get it more coordinated?” “Maybe.” “Is that a waste?”

It’s like, “I didn’t get the result on the scoreboard. I didn’t go as far as I could, inspire a nation of the fraction of people who watch American Ninja Warrior and take that to heart.” It has been so validating when I have that amazing season and can have an impact on little girls who now want to become strong. If I don’t succeed at doing that, I can still look at the fact that the year wasn’t wasted. I got so much stronger, faster, healthier, more coordinated and had fun training. I love pushing myself. I love growing.

As long as I’ve been doing that all year, it hasn’t been a waste. It’s been positive. I break down, “What else can I learn from this fall?” You can blame a lot of outside sources but does that make me better? I had a disappointing fall. I want to get the most growth out of that that I possibly can. If I say, “It was windy. The obstacle was dusty.” Is that something I have control over in the future? No. Do I want to say it’s the dust’s fault and let the dust have power over me next year? No. I want to know that I took everything from this that I could, so I’m going to break down on every little step. Where could I have done better? How do I have control over this?

My pull-up coach in college, Rick Attig used to say, “The more components of your environment and your performance that you take responsibility for, the more power you have to control it in the future.” If I finish a competition and I had this huge headwind that’s slowing down my sprint speed and I couldn’t get over the pole vault bar, was it the wind’s fault? You could argue that. If there hadn’t been a headwind, I would have done a lot better but I can also say, “I didn’t prepare well for a headwind.”

It can be discouraging for people not to have a goal or a specific mission. So it’s essential to search for that goal, that one thing that will keep you going. Click To Tweet

We had great vaults. We could turn the pit around. We can fall in either direction. If we always choose to vault with the best circumstances that we can possibly have, we’re going to do better in every single practice and be completely unprepared for the worst circumstances. Maybe in that meet where I have a headwind, I don’t get my best vault ever but I can get the best possible vault for a headwind. I can look at the obstacle course and pick out every little thing that I could have done differently.

The course is too dusty. What can I do about that? I can do some research on what kind of shoes stand up to the dust best. I can find out who’s responsible for brushing the dust off the obstacles every five competitors. Check-in and ask, “Are you wiping it down after every competitor?” “No, every couple when it looks bad.” “Would you mind making sure that it’s cleaned off before I go?” Maybe they’ll say yes. Maybe not. Probably not because they try to do it when they can. If I know that that was the problem and I ask about it, then I’ve done something to improve my chances of doing well.

Was it the dust on my shoes? That’s something I can control. How do I make sure my shoes don’t get dusty? Do I remember to wipe them off before I run up the warped wall? Even outside environmental components, you can evaluate what I can do better to be prepared for that. If I look at my disappointing fall and say, “Here are the physical things I could have done to improve my performance. Here are the ways I could’ve been more prepared to interact with an uncomfortable environment.” Was it the timing? Was it too late in the run order? Was I running at 5:00 AM right before the sun came up?

I’m not going to complain about, “I fell because if I didn’t have enough sleep.” I’m going to be more prepared for the possibility that I’ll compete right before sunrise. Recognizing what you do have control over and every way that you can be better prepared to handle anything. At the end of that fall, I can look at this and be like, “Here are all the ways that I have grown from this experience and all the ways that I can continue to grow throughout the year to become a better competitor.”

We call it controlling the uncontrollable. How do you then position your mind and perspective on them? What you can control is your reaction. You can control how you approach it in your preparation. You can control your reaction when you’re faced with those things that you don’t control. I think about Bill Belichick. They trained in the rain. It’s 42 degrees and it’s raining. He’s like, “We’re going outside.” I know you live in LA so you don’t have those things. Here in Connecticut, we have 42 and raining.

We also taught a lot about if you put the work in, it sets you free. When you know you’ve put the work into the event and you leave it all out there, you know that there’s nothing else you could have done. “I faced this challenge and I didn’t get there but that’s okay because I’m free inside. I prepared at the highest level with the most diligence that I could have to be in this situation.”

Let me ask you about these moments. You’re standing there. We’ve had this conversation with Major League Baseball closing pitchers who were there. It’s just them. They’re on the match and they got to win. We spoke with Laura Wilkinson, Olympic diver who won the gold medal in 2000 shortly after breaking her foot. Laura is on the 30-feet high on the 10-meter platform and it’s just her. I see you there in your competition. It’s all about how are you going to perform and execute at this moment. I always see you smiling. You engaging the crowd and you’re smiling. Is that how you internalize these moments? Can you talk about the moment when it’s on you, the world’s watching and you got to figure this thing out?

It’s important to evaluate what situations does that pressure help me and when does that hurt me. Standing on the starting line, getting ready to run through something that’s wobbly and finicky, thinking about the importance and magnitude of this situation, how many people are watching and the news crew that’s been shadowing me for a week leading up to this competition, and this whole story in the LA Times. They’re setting this up for me to break a record. What if I fall on the first obstacle? That’s not super helpful in my head. Evaluating my thought process is going to give me the best result.

In that situation, it’s to focus on the technical details. I’m going to do two steps, right and left. Where am I looking exactly? When am I changing my glance? I’m looking at the first step until my foot is about to touch it. I don’t have to watch my left foot land because I should be spotting the right one. It’s every detail. That’s a lot to think about. That fills up my brain so much that I don’t have space to think about who’s watching me and that’s perfect.

Filling my head with the details that I need to focus on pushes out the unhelpful stuff. It’s too much to think about all at once. I have another friend who helps me with some other things that if you have that anxiety building, think about you can’t feel two different things at once, at least not very well. If you fill yourself up with the feeling of love and for me, I love flying, playing and being on obstacles, fill yourself up with love for that. There’s not enough space for the anxiety to creep in. That’s the feeling that I aim to fill up with. Those are the technical details that I fill my head with. That gets me set.

On other obstacles where it’s gritting it out. I’m on this rolling thunder. It’s a 100-pound wheel with these awkward square grips that poke your hand. It’s the equivalent of 30 pull-ups. It keeps dropping and adding impact. That’s the kind where you need to know, “This is the most important thing in the world and everyone’s watching. If you let go, your life is over.”

Piling on the importance and impact of how desperate it is that you hold on, you can trigger all the adrenaline and get that extra boost. It’s knowing when to bring that in and when not to. On a tricky, technical, precise thing, having so much adrenaline can make you less accurate. It’s like pouncing almost. Knowing where to apply it, where to trigger, and what type of thought is helpful for me.

There’s no success without the pain and the scars that get you there. You’ve suffered a series of devastating injuries and have required some lengthy recoveries. In 2020, season 12 ended with a fall on one of the obstacles. You underwent knee and shoulder surgery within days of each other. I watched the Instagram videos. You had the nerve block and everything. It’s like, “I can’t move my arm but I also can’t walk.” You got to reconstruct the knee. Your shoulder had a torn labrum as various other injuries. There was a chip in the cartilage. You used the stem cells in the shoulder surgery. Can you talk a bit about these injuries? How did they come about and how did you handle them?

It’s easy for me to get stuck in that feeling of injury-prone. I’ve had a lot of injuries even prior. The way I choose to define that that’s most productive for me is to say that I am awesome at bouncing back. Every time I hit the ground, I’m like, “This is where you thrive. You are the best at recovering from injuries.” That boosts my confidence. It allows me to lower my standards or expectations of like, “What qualifies as success for today?”

If you’re on crutches and in a sling, cooking an egg is pretty badass. It allows you to celebrate all the little victories. In my past with sprained ankles, knee or shoulder surgeries, I’ve had all of those before. If I sprained my ankle, my upper body is going to get so strong. If I hurt my shoulder, my legs are going to get strong. I’m going to get better at the mechanics of my jumping. I’m going to learn new kicks. There are many opportunities to learn and grow. If you suddenly don’t have arms, what do you do with your legs? How can you improve here? I’ve been able to grow from almost every injury I’ve had.

It’s important to evaluate situations. When does a pressure help you and when does it hurt you? Click To Tweet

The whole reason I got into Ninja Warrior was my first ACL surgery. I knew that I have trouble staying out of activities until I’m fully healed. I didn’t want to rush back into martial arts after an ACL tear. I wanted it to heal fully and so I had to give myself a new objective, a new goal that I could be passionate about and put my heart and body into while I recovered from the knee surgery. That was upper body and grip training. Ninja Warrior wasn’t something that I was initially passionate about. It was like, “Maybe this is something that I can use as a goal to stay motivated.” Over the course of that year of training, I fell in love with it.

You adjusted what your expectations were. You said, “I couldn’t go into martial arts because of my knee injury so I tackled Ninja Warrior.”

I love impossible goals. Those are the ones that drive me the most. Initially, I was like, “I don’t know if I’m even going to care about this, but let’s put this thing up on a shelf so that when you’re doing a set of pull-ups and you’re struggling with number fifteen, what’s going to help you finish that rep and go for number sixteen?” Usually, obsessive drive is enough to do it but having that extra goal made it extra fun.

ACL surgeries suck but seeing how that became one of the most positive changes in my life. Being a stunt woman is a dream job and I love it, but going into something that’s very similar in terms of what I get to do, how I get to perform, and impacting many little girls and women so that they feel confident, challenging themselves and growing strong is beyond what I had ever imagined for myself.

When I had this ridiculous series of injuries, there was simultaneously this despair of like, “What am I going to do now?” Also, “What am I going to learn? This is going to be life-changing.” In a way, I was excited about it. In the series of events, it was on a Saturday. We’d been competing multiple days in a row. It was a full week of competition but there wasn’t a ton of rest in between. It was the first show back in production during COVID. Everything was shut down for a while.

I already had a little bit of damage in my right shoulder from Ninja Warrior. I’d been recovering so I lost a little bit of strength. I was regaining it. I didn’t feel ready to be competing. I let myself be pressured into competing anyway. After several days of competition, I had a weird fluke landing and heard my ACL pop. I landed and heard it. I was like, “You’re in trouble.”I took a step but it didn’t hurt. I took a few more steps and I was like, “If I’m in a straight line, it seems okay.”

THE TITAN GAMES — Season: 2 — Pictured: Jessie Graff — (Photo by: Art Streiber/NBC)

I ran across the balance obstacle and was still okay. I finished the course, still okay. I stepped off the course and tested it side to side. I was like, “There’s zero stability here.” If my muscles relax for a second, I could topple off of this leg. Not the most brilliant idea but I taped it back together with K tape and went into the next round of competition without an incident. Miraculously, I was fine but on an upper-body obstacle in the next round, my fingers were strong enough to grip this tiny ledge but somehow my shoulders were not. I grabbed the ledge. It dropped and then stopped. This shoulder subluxed.

At the time of the livestream that you watched, I didn’t realize I had also torn the rotator cuff in the left shoulder. The surgeon agreed to do my shoulder surgery as soon as I could get off the crutches, at least mostly off the crutches. Eight days after the knee surgery, I was able to hobble with one leg using one crutch. He went ahead and did the surgery on my shoulder. It was about a month later that I got brave enough to look at the other shoulder. I found the rotator cuff tear. Three months after my right shoulder, when my big challenge was, can I reach across my body to put a seatbelt on and steer? That was the deciding factor that I was ready to do the left shoulder.

It was rough. The thing here is that if I hurt my lower body, I train my upper body. If I hurt my upper body, I train my lower body. What do you do when everything feels broken? When everything is broken and you’re in a sling and on crutches? I was like, “What can you get excited about? What seems interesting?” I made a list and started doing all of them.

I didn’t know what the goal was. I didn’t know where I was going to use any of these things but in my past, I’ve found that by learning something and following that passion, something good will happen. It will come together where if you pick something that you are drawn to, when you work hard, study and grow, someday it’s going to come in handy in a way that you never expected.

I started learning sign language. I practice every Sunday with my friend, Kyle. He’s a Ninja Warrior competitor too. He is mostly deaf. ASL is his first language. He teaches me and we practice. I have another little girl who’s ten. She’s partially deaf. Her whole family is deaf but she loves music and dancing. She signs different songs. She teaches me different songs in sign languages, which helped me practice.

Learning sign language, I got a certification in Nutrition and Personal Training. I finished my corrective exercise specialization, which has been huge because it’s about looking at static and movement assessments, and figuring out where your muscle imbalances that are causing faulty movement patterns that could lead to injury. As I learn all these things, I’m looking at my right foot turns out. The arch is collapsing a little bit and that causes the knee to rotate inwards.

That is the biggest warning sign for ACL tears. I’ve got this shoulder forward posture going like this. Why is that there? The lats that you use for pull-ups attaches to the front of the arm and so it internally rotates. The pec minor also pulls forward. All you’ve got are these tiny little external rotators. I’m strengthening knees and finding that these imbalances caused by my Ninja Warrior training set me up for injuries that are more likely in Ninja. You’re taking huge impacts like these and your shoulder is out of alignment.

If you’re overhead in good alignment, things flow smoothly. If you’re forward in this position, the supraspinatus gets pinched between the bones. You’re taking impact and very likely to sever the tendon. All the Ninjas have supraspinatus issues. I now have the potential. As I’m learning all these things, I didn’t know why I was learning at first but now I’m excited to build an injury prevention program or a strength training program like, how do you prepare your body to be capable of any kind of superhero activity, learning to flip, do ninja or fun martial arts moves and stuff?

What are the exercises you need to do to build the strength to do these things in balanced and perfect alignment so that you’re not set up for injury? This has become a goal that I didn’t know I had. As I started learning, it was like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to make this?” I’m mapping out what that would look like but even more, my focus is on science, learning and making sure that I have the knowledge to make the most amazing program I can.

As leaders and as people, it’s what we do after the challenge. How do we demonstrate resilience and adaptability? How do we define ourselves by bouncing back and coming back stronger? All those things that you talked about are showing that physically, mentally and emotionally. You’re bouncing back from these injuries much stronger than you were. The Signing Sundays is an amazing work that you’re doing there as well.

As we close out, the Jedburghs needed to do three things every day as their core foundational tasks to be successful. They had to be able to shoot, move and communicate. If they did these three things with precision, then when other challenges came their way, they could focus their effort on the other challenges. What are the three things that you do every day to be successful?

There are so much that varies from day to day with overall goals like, “What’s the most important thing I could do now? Where is the inspiration taking me?” The three that are most consistent and essential are sleeping, hydrating and exercise. If I don’t get enough sleep, I don’t feel the same level of passion, joy and drive. If I’ve got a structure, I have to do certain things and I’m sleep deprived, I can’t get through it. I can’t do the stuff and can’t perform decently. If I get the sleep I need, I don’t need a structure at all. It’s like taking on challenges, being so excited, curious, and loving pushing myself. Sleep is such a huge thing for me. One of the things that astounded me most about military training is sleep deprivation. I don’t know how you can function on that. It’s something that I admire but have not intentionally exposed myself to.

The lack of sleep can affect you more than alcohol. You can be cognitively drunk and have not touched alcohol but have not slept for days on end. That was something that you take pride in.

Filling your head with the details that you need to focus on pushes out the unhelpful stuff. Click To Tweet

I’ve had some gnarly long runs of jobs that overlap and don’t have sleep. I’m delirious. I’m much better off in my experience, making sure that I get the rest I need so I can perform at top quality. With exercise, I feel better if I move. If I’m exhausted and lethargic, then I go for a walk. If I’m energized, go take on the world. Go do all the challenges, unless I’m on a nerve block on crutches in a sling, in which case, maybe do arm raises with the other or making eggs. Give yourself a small victory.

We spoke a bit about the nine characteristics of elite performance. We’ve defined them in every episode. We talked about a bunch of them here in the context of your story. I take the nine and then I think about what each one of my guests demonstrates and the one that they exude the most. When I think about you, I think about drive, this need for achievement, a growth mindset, to be better than you were yesterday, and this continuous self-improvement. That’s something that you’ve shown from your early days. It’s something that you’ve shown throughout your entire career.

Even now, as you come off the back end of this injury and you look forward. It’s all about, how do I get better? How do I be better? How do I improve myself and those around me? You said that your superpower is determination. I would 100% agree with that. Your attitude is contagious. Sitting and talking to you, watching you compete, watching the things that you’re doing with Signing Sundays and with your involvement in the community, on how you’re showing girls and women that you can be strong, be beautiful, be all of these things that you achieve and aspire to be. There are no barriers to do that.

Thank you so much for having me. This has been fun and I love what you’re doing here.

Thank you.

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