How a Naperville gym manager stays motived for ‘American Ninja Warrior’

To Jesse Labreck, there’s no better feeling than setting and achieving a goal, no greater joy than sharing her passion with a community of young and elite athletes.

The North Aurora resident has always loved competing. It’s why she underwent a year of intense training before applying for the eighth season of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.” And it’s why she has returned for six consecutive seasons, the latest of which is airing now.

But the show is more than just a competition to the heralded contestant, more than a series of extreme obstacle courses constantly testing her strength, skill, speed and stamina. It has become a way of life.

“That mix of goals and fun and this awesome camaraderie with all these different ninjas in the community is just amazing,” said Labreck, who also manages an Ultimate Ninjas gym in Naperville. “It just keeps it really enjoyable to continue competing.”

Nicknamed “Flex,” the 31-year-old competitor is set to appear on Monday’s episode of “American Ninja Warrior” alongside her fiance, nine-time show veteran Chris DiGangi. They each face up to six obstacles -- some new and surprising, Labreck said -- during the prerecorded Season 13 qualifying round for a chance to advance to the semifinals.

This year’s goal? Make it back to Las Vegas for the national finals, for which Labreck has qualified every possible year.

Last season, held in St. Louis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she made it to the top eight before losing in the Power Tower playoffs to champion Daniel Gil. She has hit six total buzzers during her tenure -- more than any other female on the show.

“I’ve felt very lucky that with the obstacles I’ve come across, I’ve either been strong enough to do it or I’ve gotten a little lucky,” Labreck said. “Each season is more and more fun because you put a little bit more pressure on yourself, so when you do succeed, it feels even better. I feel like it’s been going pretty well.”

A former track and field star, Labreck led an active lifestyle long before she started ninja training. She attempted to race professionally after college but quickly realized she loved the team atmosphere and the feeling of competition more than she enjoyed the sport itself.

Originally from a small town in Maine, Labreck was weighing her next move when a friend tried out for “American Ninja Warrior” and -- much to her surprise -- made it on the show, where the grand prize is $1 million. She decided to shoot her shot, too.

Labreck moved to Massachusetts and was a nanny for a young girl with cerebral palsy while training at the nearest ninja gym. When she applied for the show the following spring, she was told her strength, training tactics and nannying experience made her stand out.

She had a successful initial run, becoming the first rookie woman to qualify for the Vegas finals. “From then on, I’ve been invited back every time,” she said.

It was at a Ninja Warrior event soon after that Labreck met DiGangi, a 31-year-old software developer for Deloitte and an athletic coach at Metea Valley High School in Aurora. Engaged since 2018, the couple recently bought a house in North Aurora and plans to get married next year.

They frequently match each other’s performance on the show, though Labreck surpassed her fiance last year. And they share a passion for facing challenges head-on and encouraging others to do the same.

Labreck moved from the East Coast to the Chicago suburbs nearly four years ago to run the kids’ program at the new Ultimate Ninjas Naperville. The job opportunity presented itself while she was talking with the gym owner during a “pro camp” event in Chicago featuring Ninja Warrior contestants.

With a degree in elementary education, Labreck enjoys working with children -- but she realized she’d rather teach on an obstacle course than in a classroom.

“I love seeing the kids getting stronger and becoming more confident in themselves,” Labreck said. “Seeing them just kind of grow up in the sport is really awesome. It’s very rewarding.”