Oakland native keeps climbing in ‘American Ninja Warrior’ competition

Jesse Labreck remembers the first time she showed up for a local “American Ninja Warrior” competition, when she looked around the room and saw faces she recognized from the popular NBC television show.

“I thought to myself, ‘These people are celebrities. I can’t believe they’re here, they’re so awesome,’” Labreck said Tuesday. “Now they’re some of my closest friends. It’s crazy how it evolved so quickly. That’s how Ninja Warrior goes.”

The same can be said of Labreck’s ascension. In the Cleveland city qualifier that aired Monday night, Labreck became the second woman to qualify for the city finals round – completing the entire six-obstacle course and hitting the “buzzer” at the top of the wall climb.

The Cleveland competition was held May 8-9. The city finals episode airs Aug. 21.

“It felt incredible,” said Labreck, an Oakland native and 2008 Messalonskee High School graduate who went on to a record-breaking track and field career at the University of Maine. “It’s like I said when I was on the show, I felt like I couldn’t even believe it happened. You take one obstacle at a time and before you know it, if you don’t hit the water, you’re at the end.”

Last season, in her rookie year of “American Ninja Warrior” competition, Labreck qualified for the national finals in Las Vegas and was part of a movement of women reaching unprecedented levels. They were tagged with the nickname “The Fantastic Four,” a group including the first three women to make the Vegas finals. Labreck made more history in Cleveland, joining Allyssa Beird as the first two women to complete an entire course in the same qualifying round.

Now, the 27-year-old’s name shows up on ESPN headlines and national websites.

“Being a part of the ‘Fantastic Four’ and qualifying for Vegas, I feel like I did have a part in showing that women are capable of doing this, of being able to beat any of these guys, and there don’t have to be any changes (to the courses) for us,” Labreck said. “I hope to continue to be a part of it through my Ninja career. I’m definitely getting stronger, getting better.”

Waterville native Jon Alexis Jr., who also advanced to the 2016 Las Vegas finals, also competed in Cleveland but did not qualify for the city finals.

Labreck lives in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, but she’s preparing to move to Naperville, Illinois, in two weeks. She’s accepted a position as a general manager of a new gym that is opening there – and Labreck is no stranger to gyms. She trains five days a week for “American Ninja Warrior,” three times a week rock climbing and twice more in Ninja-designed activities. As the competitions get closer, she switches the routine to include more gym training and less rock climbing.

She puts in roughly 15 hours per week of training, she said.

The obstacles on the show change on an annual basis, and this season Labreck has had to master some challenging events, including the Rolling Long, Razor’s Edge and I-Beam Jump.

Labreck said she enjoys watching the episodes with family and friends.

“It’s kind of fun to keep people in suspense,” Labreck said. “You work so hard for something – you don’t want to tell people what happened, you want to show it. I enjoy watching it so much. I lived it, but it’s such an overwhelming situation that I honestly don’t remember much from when I was doing it.”

At the rate she’s going, Labreck will likely generate plenty of headlines. Just don’t expect her to get used to the attention.

“It’s strange. It’s not something I feel like you really get used to, especially coming from such a small town,” Labreck said. “It’s weird, but really cool, too. It’s awesome to see your hard work and accomplishments get recognized.”

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