Jessie Graff: From Chick Fight to American Ninja Warrior

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“Being strong doesn’t make you manly or unfeminine. It just means you can do more things.” — Jessie Graff

At the risk of touting our own hipster cred, we’ve been fans of Ninja Warrior for long before it hit the mainstream on NBC – we first wrote about it here, and the women who competed on the show, back in 2007, when it was screening on the late, lamented cable channel G4. Since then, America has gone from having tryout for the Japanese original, to its own, entirely independent version of the show – on which both men and women compete, with no mercy to the latter. Success has, understandably, been hard to come by. One of the few to have completed the course is Jessie Graff – even after the qualifying course was toughened up for this season, she still was able to make it through, as you can see below:

But Graff is not just a game-show competitor. She’s a stuntwoman, whose credits include everything from The Walking Dead to X-Men: First Class. She’s also a black-belt in taekwondo, and held the women’s pole-vault record during her time at the University of Nebraska, before moving to Hollywood – initially seeking to follow a career in acting, before her physical abilities led her into the stunt world. She first appeared in 2013, as part of the show’s fifth season, wearing a chicken costume, for reasons we’ll get to. Despite not appearing to take the course as seriously as many of the male competitors, she qualified for the regional finals at her first attempt.

A bad knee injury sidelined her for 2014, perhaps preventing her from becoming among the first woman to complete a qualifying course – that prize went to  Kacy Catanzaro. But it allowed Graff to focus on improving her grip strength, a necessity for a number of the obstacles, and in season 7 last year, she became the only female competitor that series to qualify for the national finals in her own right. This season, as the above video shows, she’s seeking to go even further. Now, we sit on the couch, with our Doritos, and cheer on all the women, from Catanzaro through Michelle Warnky and Meagan Martin. But Graff’s sense of fun – most obvious in her choice of attire – is what had particularly endeared her to us.

If you need further evidence of that, I present you the video below, in which she and fellow stunt-woman Tree O’Toole recreate the “chicken fight” sequence from animated series Family Guy, as a live-action fisticuffs extravaganza. Bonus credit: cameo appearance (at around the 2:20 mark) by veteran stunt-woman Jeannie Epper, who mentored Zoë Bell. Watch it, and Graff wearing a chicken dress on her American Ninja Warrior debut later that year, will make a great deal more sense!

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