One look on Jessie Graff’s face kind of said it all during Monday night’s airing of NBC’s “The Titan Games.”
Making her debut as a Pro Titan on the extreme obstacle course competition, Graff had reached the second-to-last facet during her attempt to “defend Mount Olympus” — in the words of host Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — when she realized she was in a mountain of trouble.
With opponent Kelly Valdez progressing on an obstacle called Ball and Chain, Graff had taken her first pull on the chain connected to a 200-pound concrete sphere before pausing. The camera caught her wide-eyed expression.
Even though she figured this would be her biggest challenge considering the ball outweighed her by about 60 pounds, she still thought something was wrong.
She thought “that they’d made a mistake, and they’d forgotten to unbolt it from the ground,” Graff said with a laugh Monday night on the phone.
It basically signaled doom for the 2002 Urbana High grad, tapped late last year to fill this special role due to her ability as a Hollywood stuntwoman and inspiring “American Ninja Warrior” star who “sets the bar at incredible and repeatedly exceeds it,” Johnson said during the telecast.
Graff, 36, entered this latest star turn knowing she was “way out of my league,” she said last month, when she also detailed her recovery from stem cell treatment on her neck and shoulders. After all, on “The Titans Games,” she needed to call on her dexterity and stunt background in a much different manner than she typically exhibits in ninja warrior competition.
“I had a very clear and real sense of what type of strength it takes to do those obstacles,” said Graff, who watched the first season of the show and trained accordingly as best she could in the lead up to her Titan taping. She said the only question was: “Do you have the brute strength to do it or not — and I hoped I would.”
Regardless, there was another factor. Unlike her solo runs on Ninja Warrior, she had to go head-to-head with Valdez, a California firefighter and Crossfit junkie who was shown powerlifting heavy weights in an introductory segment Monday.
Valdez, who is contending for a $100,000 grand prize, made it through two preliminary events for the right to challenge the handpicked Graff on Mount Olympus — a formidable series of 10 obstacles the contestants race through while The Rock commentates and cheers before a studio audience.
The episode, billed as the West Region, Part One, was filmed in mid-February in Atlanta. So, with much of the country thirsting for sports entertainment of any sort due to the coronavirus shutdown, Graff did her best to swoop to the rescue in her newest reality role.
It started out well for Graff, who quickly made it through the first three obstacles in front before entering Log Lift — in which contestants must carry a 100-pound pillar up an incline and latch it on a hook at the top. Graff struggled. She fell behind Valdez.
“When I saw how close behind me she was,” Graff said, “I rushed to pick [the pillar] up, and it was crooked, which made a huge difference.”
Two obstacles later, she was moving considerably slower than Valdez as they stood side-by-side and turned a crank that released a bridge to the next part.
That’s where it got somewhat wacky. Valdez had taken a considerable lead entering Cage Crawl, two enclosed mazes that participants must navigate up and down. Trailing, Graff entered the same cage as Valdez, and the two nearly made contact at one point — not against the rules, but maybe not the ideal approach either.
Valdez made it out first and was still ahead through Drop Zone, a series of four angled ledges that fall under a contestant’s weight — the last of which Graff dismounted with a front somersault.
Then, it was on to Ball and Chain.
Valdez was already on the move. Graff grabbed the chain, pulled once with her arms extended in front of her, and the ball barely budged.
She said she even took a quick trip around the ball to make sure it wasn’t somehow connected to the ground.
Meanwhile, Valdez powered on, using the sledgehammer attached to that chain to break through the final obstacle, Titan Tomb. She smashed the concrete layer that housed the Titan Seal, which she carried to a pedestal and put in place, finishing her victory.
Graff was coated in sweat.
“It was every bit as hard as I expected,” she said on screen, which moments earlier flashed a triumphant Valdez with her arms raised and Graff on the ground, out of focus in the background.
Graff did finish the course, though. She wanted that to be known, because she was proud she didn’t give up — even as producers urged her to save her energy. “Which was unacceptable to me,” Graff said in another example of her will.
It wasn’t shown on TV, but she said it took her another three minutes, and about five falls, before she dragged the ball the required distance.
As one of six Pro Titans (Super Bowl-winning former Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz was the other one featured Monday), Graff will make at least one more appearance on the show this season in the regional final, where she’ll get a chance at redemption.