After a career behind the scenes as a stuntwoman in such films as “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Supergirl” and “X-Men,” Jessie Graff started swinging, climbing and jumping her way into America’s hearts in 2013 by competing on “American Ninja Warrior." As a follow-up, she killed it in the 2016 series finals, going farther on the course than any woman and many of the men and finishing second overall.
Can you put her success secrets to work in your life? We think so, grasshopper. LIVESTRONG.COM caught up with Graff at the espnW Women + Sports Summit to learn about her fitness routine (after a few minutes of fangirling). Whether you’re looking to get promoted, improve your running times or just be more effective at life tomorrow than you were today, follow Graff’s advice.
1. Try new things.
Before she hit our small screens on “American Ninja Warrior,” the hardworking Hollywood stuntwoman says she really didn’t know what it was. “I saw it on the beach about 12 blocks from my house. I tried out on a whim and only got about a week’s notice that I was competing.”
So how did it work out? “Everyone was so nice, and it was a blast. I thought, ‘This would be fun to train for one day.’”
That thought became reality when Graff was sidelined by a serious knee injury during tae kwon do class just prior to “American Ninja Warrior” season six. “I knew I had 12 months of recovery. I could keep studying stunts and watching videos, but it would be so hard to go that long without being able to physically do what I was training for,” she says. “I needed a new goal that would keep me focused.”
Graff set her sights on “American Ninja Warrior” and began training anything she could while protecting her injured leg.
That determination to get better, plus her rendezvous with destiny on the beach, made Graff what she is today — a real-life superhero and role model for women and girls (and men) worldwide.
So be ready for unexpected challenges. It will be up to you to make the most of them.
2. Build up your support group.
When Graff competes, you’ll hear the voices of the female competitors cheering much louder than the men. “We learn so much by training together, and we all have more fun when we’re teaching and learning from each other,” she says.
This camaraderie keeps Graff engaged even when she’s off her game. “When you’ve helped train them and they’ve helped train you, you’re much more invested in seeing them do well,” she says. “Even if I have a bad day, I get to cheer on my friends and watch them do amazing things.”
Cultivate a similar give-and-take attitude among your crew and you may find your performance improving faster than you dreamed possible. In the gym, have a friend lead you through her favorite cooldown. At the office, ask your co-worker how he came up with that great project idea. Share skills and encouragement.
3. Don’t let other people define you.
This is a big one for Graff, who has always wanted to be a strong, Xena Warrior Princess-type. But she’s received pressure from Hollywood and social media to be thinner.
“When I get strong enough to do bigger things, I get bigger muscles. I feel great, but then I show up for work and the wardrobe department will be like, ‘You are so much bigger than the actress,’” Graff says. “It can be a blow to your self-confidence to have these people comparing you. Seeing so much positive response from ‘Ninja Warrior’ and learning to be like, ‘This is how I look’ has been so liberating.”
Graff also deals with potentially damaging comments on social media. One man commented, “That’s great, just don’t get too bulky. Women shouldn’t be bulky.”
“It’s really very hard for women to get bulky,” Graff says. “Do you know how many women have shied away from strength training and been weaker just because they were afraid of bulking up? I told him I’m OK hearing that, but to please not ever say it again, because I don’t want anyone feeling stifled because they think they have to look a certain way.”
4. Push yourself to do better — even if it’s just a little.
You may get the sense Graff’s not lacking in self-motivation, and you would be right. But some days, particularly during her recovery from her knee injury, moving forward didn’t mean scaling walls or setting records. It just meant trying hard and being a little bit better each day.
“I set benchmarks. How many pull-ups can I do? Six. OK, next week I have to do seven,” Graff explains. “I just kept pushing myself to beat these benchmarks in every little random challenge I made up for myself, whether it was pistol squats on my healthy leg or balancing on my toes. That just kept me so entertained and feeling accomplished through this period where I felt so weak.”
How many pull-ups did Graff do yesterday? Thirty-one, she says.
5. Don’t push all the time.
Graff says she used to train extremely hard consistently, but with experience she’s learned that backing off here and there and fully resting on her “off” days makes all the difference in the world.
Follow her lead: Take a pause and come back to the challenge refreshed. Because even superheroes need a break every now and then.
What Do YOU Think?
Who is your role model? Do you watch “American Ninja Warrior”? Have you ever wanted to be a stuntman or stuntwoman? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Additional reporting by Amy Rushlow.