Jessie Graff did a joyful cartwheel to press the final buzzer, then nearly broke down in tears after her latest “American Ninja Warrior” triumph.
It was another classic Graff run Monday night on NBC — from the 2002 Urbana graduate’s shimmering self-designed costume, to her intense concentration, intermittent smiles and, ultimately, her powerful completion of six obstacles on the hit TV show.
She advanced to the city finals of the Seattle-Tacoma qualifier, which will air later in Season 11 of the series.
“I feel like I’m going to cry,” a glowing Graff said in response to one of the show’s hyperbolic hosts at the Tacoma Dome after she completed her run, which was filmed on May 12.
Graff, 35, missed last year’s “American Ninja Warrior” National Finals in what was a suitable example of how in-demand she has become as a professional and how high her star has risen thanks largely to fame garnered through NBC’s obstacle-course competition. Despite qualifying for the show’s prestigious Las Vegas round, she couldn’t participate there in 2018 due to a conflict with her job as a Hollywood stunt woman.
Graff made her televised return to the series Monday night to fanfare that’s become typical for her — producers teased her appearance in the qualifier to entice viewers ahead of the telecast and keep them glued to the screen once it aired at 8 p.m.
The former Maryland state-champion pole vaulter has become one of the most popular and successful ninjas in the show’s history, as evidenced by her 481,000 Instagram followers. Her muscular likeness is often plastered on ANW promos, and her inspiring runs — she became the first female competitor to complete Stage 1 at nationals in 2016 — have spurred many into ninjahood.
“So excited and so nervous to be back,” Graff said in advertisements that appeared on TV and across social media leading up to Monday night. “It’s like my family.”
Last year, she missed the big family gathering — Las Vegas National Finals — because the dates coincided with her work on the movie set of “Wonder Woman.”
“It’s just hard to miss something that means so much to you,” Graff said in the snippet shown prior to her run on Monday’s telecast. “I’m going to have to be smart and efficient just to get through it.”
Once on the course, she breezed through the Shrinking Steps, Lunatic Ledges, Barrel Roll and Broken Bridge with nary a slip-up before reaching the Lightning Bolts, an obstacle that had doomed numerous ninjas earlier in the episode. Graff had a brief hangup after swinging several feet through the air with a bar to the second phase of the obstacle. But she calmly corrected herself and dismounted safely.
Not everyone else was so calm: “This crowd is about to blow the roof off this place!” co-host Akbar Gbajabiamila boomed.
Graff then scaled the 14½-foot Warped Wall to mash the buzzer, which seemed to please her greatly considering Graff said she’d only been in a ninja gym twice in the past year due to her busy schedule.
Graff lives in Calabasas, California. Next Monday, however, a Frederick County resident — Middletown’s Tristan Poffenberger — could appear on “American Ninja Warrior.” (Not all competitors are shown on ANW’s two-hour episodes.) The 19-year-old, who works at Jump Climb Extreme in Frederick, made his inaugural qualifying run with more than 100 others in Baltimore on April 28.