Another woman has claimed her ticket to the "American Ninja Warrior" national finals in Las Vegas.
Four women took to the course in Philadelphia on Monday night, more than any other city finals in "American Ninja Warrior" history. Jesse "Flex" Labreck, the new kid on the block, watched hopefuls Michelle Warnky, Rachel Goldstein and Allyssa Beird buckle under the pressure of Rolling Thunder, the course's dreaded fifth obstacle. But Labreck -- a former University of Maine track star -- defeated the beast. Later, she became the first newcomer to make it to the Stair Hooper, the ninth obstacle in Monday night's episode. She will join ANW powerhouses Jessie Graff and Meagan Martin in Vegas.
Labreck is relatively unknown, and her success is a bit of a surprise.
Well, kind of.
The 25-year-old is 5-foot-7½ and 145 pounds, and her size mirrors that of Graff, another successful female competitor. While size isn't everything in ANW, it certainly helps. It also doesn't hurt that Labreck simply excels athletically, despite having a relatively unorthodox background compared to other top female ANW competitors.
Typically, the elite women of "American Ninja Warrior" have a background in gymnastics, pole vaulting and rock climbing. In contrast, Labreck was a hurdler and competed in heptathlons, and she has no formal training in tumbling. "I can't do any of that," she said when comparing her skills to those of her comrades.
However, she has since learned how to do a standing back tuck.
Labreck's road to ANW was a rocky one. While preparing for competition, she lined up a gig coaching track and field at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, alongside her former University of Maine coach, Dave Cusano. But when Cusano left Wheaton to work at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, she was left without a job.
"I came here for ninja [training], but I also had no job," she said. "I was a lost kid."
With the support of the ninja community, Labreck got back on her feet. She moved in with a fellow ninja enthusiast and began working part time at Action Athletics gym in Newton, Massachusetts. There, Labreck added rock climbing to her skill set.
Seeking a steadier gig, Labreck became a live-in caretaker for a 20-year-old woman with cerebral palsy. The position gave Labreck a sense of purpose, direction and stability.
"I just wanted to make a difference," Labreck noted.
Always bouncing around and climbing on things, Labreck is very high-energy and doesn't sit very often. Her effervescence has shaped her training. She doesn't take herself too seriously. But her drive and ambition keep her focused.
Heading into the Las Vegas finals, her confidence will be key. In the past, Labreck downplayed her achievements and skill level. For example, in high school she doubted her track and field abilities because the competition was so fierce in her home state of Maine. It wasn't until she started placing at larger meets that Labreck realized she was actually pretty good.
"Sometimes I rely more heavily on my friends and family to give me that confidence," Labreck said. "But -- that's something I'm working on."
Philadelphia city finals specs:
Female finishers: 0
Women moving on: 1
New or modified obstacles on second half of course: 1 out of 4
We're well into the city final episodes of ANW; the first six obstacles remain the same as in each of the qualifiers (except for a couple of tweaks). Four additional obstacles were added to the second portion (which we'll review below), bringing the total to 10 obstacles.
The first obstacle on the second part of each city finals course (i.e., the seventh obstacle overall) has been the Salmon Ladder thus far. Ninjas hang from a bar and propel themselves upward, climbing the bar on a series of rungs.
The eighth obstacle in Philadelphia was the Flying Shelf Grab. Competitors hung from a bar and latched on, or alternatively, jumped to a suspended shelf. After swinging to gain momentum, ninjas grabbed onto the next shelf and then dismounted.
The Stair Hopper is new this year. Ninjas hang from a bar and, using the upper body, hop it down a series of steps, and back up. Then they swing to the dismount.
The Invisible Ladder returns as the 10th obstacle. So far, that's been the case for each of the city finals courses. Ninjas grab rings suspended from a hole in a platform and pull up. When their movement stops, the ring catches their weight, making it appear as if they are pulling themselves up a ladder and through the hole at the top of the finishing platform.
Vegas is finally here! Next week is the first of three episodes featuring the Las Vegas finals. With such a historic season for women thus far, hopefully the trend continues with some amazing runs from our faves in Vegas.