Jessie Graff is breathing a sigh of relief after her "American Ninja Warrior" qualifying run in Daytona Beach. For the third consecutive season, she finished in the top 30 in the city qualifying course and moved on to the city finals.
This time she even wore an outfit inspired by Spider-Man.
The fifth obstacle, Rolling Thunder, took her out. The same obstacle was in the Philadelphia region last year and gave ninjas fits. Jesse Labreck was the only woman to get past it.
"I didn't warm up properly," Graff said in a phone interview. "Normally, I take an hour to warm up my shoulders, but that night they were already feeling good, so I did not do a full warm-up."
Graff pointed out that Rolling Thunder is a lot like doing 35 consecutive pullups. That is a max pullup set for her but something she is capable of doing. Her fingers slipped off the obstacle, and Graff felt the disappointment hit her as soon as she hit the water.
"It's a hard obstacle," Graff said of Rolling Thunder. "But it's disappointing to think you can do something and then fall short of it."
Graff continues to find success because of her dedication to training. After her successful season last year, she made an effort to address the gaps she identified in her skill set. Deeply worried about the Log Runner from Oklahoma City last year, she called up ninja gyms looking to see if any had the obstacle so she could train on it.
"No women got through it last season," Graff said. "A lot of men my height or shorter also fell on it, and I had never seen anything like it. It was that and the Spinning Log that most concerned me."
In Season 8, Graff made history. As the first woman to complete Stage 1 in the ANW finals in Las Vegas, then Stage 2 in the "USA vs. The World" special (where she was also the first woman to compete), the stuntwoman seemed to have a historic run every time she set foot on a course.
It raised the pressure on Graff significantly.
To be consistently successful on ANW is not a simple task. Every ninja falls, but not every ninja carries the weight of their gender on their shoulders while feeling a spotlight. In February 2016, Graff had fewer than 30,000 Instagram followers. A year and a half later, she has over 250,000, making her the most followed ninja.
"One of the things that I'm best at is when I come up to the starting line, no matter how nervous I've been for the last day or week or last couple of months, I can shove all of that to the side and focus on the details, and that is enough to block out all the nerves," Graff said.
Before completing Stage 1, Graff was consistently good. She finished the city qualifying course in Season 8 and made it to the back half of the city finals courses in Seasons 7 and 8. She has always made it to at least the fifth obstacle in each of her four seasons that she's competed. Finishing in the top 30 was important.
"I knew I had done well enough to have placed in the top 30," Graff said. "I'm hugely relieved to say that I've done that every year now."
Having a run that would have failed to qualify her in the top 30 would simply mean more now. In past seasons, it would have stung for Graff personally, but now there are numerous children and women looking up to her, dressing like her and imitating her.
"I try as much as possible to stay focused on the fact that regardless of how I perform on an obstacle course, the more important thing is the training is giving me greater strength, confidence and ability," Graff said. "Knowing that even if I fail early, I'm still stronger than I was last year takes a little bit of that off."