Jesse Labreck missed competing but has filled the void by doing so on a national TV show, “American Ninja Warrior.”
Labreck had a remarkable track career at the University of Maine and Messalonskee High School in her native Oakland, but she graduated from Maine in 2013 and was looking for a competitive activity.
She was watching television and saw the “American Ninja Warrior” show, which involved people trying to negotiate a grueling obstacle course.
“The show was really cool. It was fun. And I had a friend, Jon Alexis Jr. from Waterville, who was also trying out for the show,” said Labreck. “I had a need to compete again after track.”
Alexis and his father, Jon Sr., had competed on “American Ninja Warrior” in Orlando the previous year.
Labreck, who owns 11 UMaine records and was ranked 25th in the country in the seven-event heptathlon in her final year at Maine, began working out with much more of a focus on her upper body.
“I was doing a lot more upper body training than I had ever done before,” she said. “I didn’t need to do much upper body training in track. It was lower body training.”
She had been working out at a local gym but decided to move to a Ninja Warrior gym in Newton, Massachusetts, to hone in on the skillset it would require if she received the opportunity to be on the show.
“I did rock climbing, which helped out a lot,” said Labreck, who actually got a part-time job at the gym, as did Alexis.
They were required to put together a three-minute tape in which they had to exhibit to the show’s producers that they deserved an opportunity to participate.
“They wanted to see your personality, to know what you did for fun, they wanted you to do something that would be inspirational or motivational and you had to show them you were strong enough to do the show as well,” explained Labreck.
“I wasn’t sure I’d get a call or not. I waited patiently — I don’t know if it was patiently,” she chuckled.
She got the call she wanted on May 10, informing her she had been chosen for the competition in Philadelphia.
“Five hundred were chosen from 70,000 applicants,” said Labreck.
The competition was held on May 26-27 and the first day’s action was televised on Monday night on NBC.
There were 30 men and women who qualified and she was 28th. Alexis Jr. also qualified.
The course consisted of the the Floating Steps, the Log Grip, where competitors cling on to a barrel and plummet down a 25-foot slide with jolting bumps; the Paddle Boards, which is a run of swiftly tilting paddles; the Wall Drop, in which they mount a suspended wall, jump off a trampoline, grab onto a pendulous tube and swing to safety; the Rolling Thunder, a heavy metal wheel on a rack that you have to rotate with your arms to get across a pool with water in it, and the Warped Wall.
Just eight completed the course.
Labreck made it halfway through the Rolling Thunder before dropping into the water below. She hung on with one hand on two occasions but her strength gave out.
“Everything was great up until the wheel,” said Labreck Tuesday. “I saw a lot of guys not make it through the wheel. I said, ‘Oh man, this is going to be bad.’ The wheel was really heavy. I got too tired hanging there.
“I gave it my best shot but it wasn’t quite enough,” said the 26-year-old Labreck.
Still, she advanced.
“I can’t tell you how I did the next night [because of its Aug. 22 airdate]. I can tell you out of the 30, 15 made it to the finals in Las Vegas,” she said.
The finals have also already been filmed.
She watched the show and was pleased with it. It showed her relationship with 20-year-old Emeline Sterpe, who suffers from cerebral palsy. Her full-time job is taking care of Emeline and she lives with Sterpe’s family in Newton.
“They did a real nice job showing what I do with Em and the love we have for each other,” said Labreck. “Emeline was really happy with it, too.”
“American Ninja Warrior” announcers Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbajabiamila praised Labreck, saying things like it was a “breakthrough performance”; Labreck was a “rookie who looked like a veteran”; and calling her a “strong woman.”
“It was definitely life-changing,” said Labreck. “It was more than I expected. The American Wounded Warrior people and everyone there was super supportive. The producers were awesome, as were the announcers.”
She admitted that she was “really careful about what I said” on the air.
“I didn’t want to come off as arrogant or say something corny that I normally wouldn’t say,” she said.
She said all of the attention can be “overwhelming” and she can do without the fame.
But she loved the competition and is hoping to get a call to participate in a show called “Team Ninja Warrior,” which involves competition among three-member teams, two men and a woman.
“I have a hard time being on teams because I get real nervous. I don’t want to let people down,” said the 5-foot-7 Labreck. “But I’ve heard it is more relaxed than ‘American Ninja Warrior.’”
Labreck will continue to train two to three hours a day, although she does take a couple of days off every week to recover.
“You need to stay mentally strong and get enough rest so you can stay healthy,” said Labreck, who learned about the importance of mental strength from former University of Maine assistant track coach Dave Cusano.
She also said she needs to keep getting physically stronger.
“I’m young and I’m inexperienced [compared to some of the other athletes],” said Labreck, who now knows what to expect and intends to keep trying out for future “American Ninja Warrior” shows.