Ginny MacColl, actor, competitive swimmer and American Ninja Warrior, proves that age is never a barrier to reaching your goals.
We oftentimes convince ourselves that strength and athleticism go hand-in-hand with youth. We think athletes are made from great genes and good fortune, and we assume we ourselves could never rise to such a challenge. Then we meet someone like Southport resident Ginny MacColl, a woman who couldn’t complete a single pull-up at the age of 63 and yet went on three years later to become the oldest female to ever compete on America Ninja Warrior. Then we realize that strength is truly ageless.
Growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, MacColl loved to dance. Her hobby turned into a profession when she moved to New York City at the age of 20 and was soon dancing on Broadway. She scored numerous roles, including the understudy to one of the leads in the hit show Pippin in 1973, before branching into television commercials. Her acting career soon took off, and she found herself in more than 100 national network and regional commercials, print work and even a spot in the 1982 film Annie. MacColl also got married and had two children during her time in the Big Apple; she was living her dream.
In 1991 MacColl’s life changed course, and a divorce led her to give up acting and move to Pennsylvania’s rural Pocono Mountains. A newly single mother, MacColl needed to find a way to make ends meet and took a job in sales at a local radio station. During this time, she met her current husband, Dick Ishler, and the couple decided to move together to Maryland, where MacColl continued her career in radio while Ishler worked in banking and commercial real estate. Once MacColl’s children left for college, she and Ishler started planning for retirement, setting their sights on the Cape Fear area.
“We wanted to go south and be close to the ocean,” MacColl says. “Dick found Wilmington because of Screen Gem Studios, and we knew we wanted to be within commuting distance of it for my dream of getting back into acting.”
In 2014 the couple made their way to St. James Plantation, but retirement didn’t stop them from staying busy. Ishler joined the St. James Service Club and started volunteering with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office and Keep Brunswick County Beautiful. MacColl got to work securing an agent and reestablishing herself as an actress after her 25-year hiatus. She soon scored a commercial for Food Lion, and from there her screen career reignited. Last year MacColl starred in the feature film POMS alongside Diane Keaton and Rhea Perlman, a role she considers a highlight of her career.
While MacColl and Ishler were settling into life in Brunswick County, MacColl’s daughter, Jessie Graff, was busy becoming a star herself. A successful Hollywood stuntwoman, Graff began competing on television’s American Ninja Warrior (ANW) obstacle series. She dominated season after season and made it farther than any other female, becoming a role model for young girls and for her own mother as well.
“I was always cheering for Jessie on the sidelines and thinking she looked so strong, graceful and healthy,” MacColl says. “Growing up, they used to say women shouldn’t get too bulky because it wasn’t feminine, but watching her made me want to get stronger myself, because she looked beautiful out there.”
Inspired, 63-year-old MacColl asked her daughter for advice, and Graff told her to start with pull-ups. Ishler helped his wife install a pull-up bar in a closet doorway, and then watched as she struggled to lift her entire body weight even once.
“Pull-ups have to be about the hardest thing to do, and I thought they were impossible,” MacColl says. “I knew I had no upper body strength, so I decided to get a personal trainer because I didn’t know the first thing about lifting weights.”
After seven months of training, MacColl could see and feel an increase in her strength and tone, and after a year’s work she achieved her first pull-up. She met Oak Island resident Charles Mammay, who in 2015 at age 72 was the oldest competitor to ever compete on ANW. Mammay had built some of the show’s obstacles in his backyard, including the iconic first obstacle, the floating steps.
“These athletes make the first obstacle always look so easy, jumping from side to side over water on an incline step,” MacColl says. “I just had to try it myself, so he invited me over and we worked on it until I got it.”
When Graff learned her mother had mastered the first obstacle, it set the wheels in motion for getting MacColl to try out for the show. With her daughter’s encouragement, MacColl submitted a video application to ANW and soon afterwards got an invitation to compete in Daytona as part of Season 9. Nervous but excited, MacColl headed to Atlanta to get some practice first in a regional competition, then made her way to the Sunshine State for her chance to prove what she could do.
“When I got there I was just bewildered, because there were cameras in my face and everything was just in constant motion,” MacColl says. “All of a sudden I’m up there looking at that first obstacle and wondering why I thought I could possibly do this. Then the countdown begins and I just jump and jump, and then I slip and go right into the water.”
Shocked and devastated, MacColl couldn’t understand what happened or how she fell. She felt embarrassed and worried she’d let down her daughter, husband and everyone else who wanted her to prove what seniors could do.
“Then Dick told me he knew I could do it again, and Jessie told me not to let one fall define me, and that you find strength through failure and have to push past it for success. So I got up and started training again, because I enjoyed it.”
After spending the next year working out and getting stronger, MacColl did get a second chance on Season 10 in Miami. This time she made it almost to the end of the first obstacle before again falling off the steps. Instead of feeling defeated, though, MacColl felt even more motivated to keep going.
“I wasn’t mad at myself because I knew I had worked so hard on the steps,” she says. “What I found was I had one weak leg that wasn’t strong enough to push off. I learned I need to get my legs stronger and just focus on the process, not the outcome.”
MacColl plans to compete in ANW again in 2021 and in the meantime is continuing her training and gets to travel and practice as a course tester for the show’s newest obstacles. Her workout regimen includes two hours of daily strength training and swimming, something she also does competitively. Last year she dominated at the National Senior Games, coming in eighth in the nation for freestyle and fourth for breaststroke. She hopes to compete in the National Senior Games again next year. Other goals include learning to do a handstand, mastering the art of juggling and, of course, continuing to act. If you ask Ishler, his wife will undoubtedly succeed at all three.
“Whatever Ginny does, I know she’s going to do well,” Ishler says. “She’s tenacious, thorough and a good planner. She gets everything done that she sets her mind to, and I think it’s wonderful.”
MacColl hopes her late-life journey into fitness will help others see that strength can be built at any age. Having been diagnosed in 2016 with osteopenia (the precursor to osteoporosis), she has experienced first hand the enormous health benefits that come with exercise. Her bone density has since returned to normal, and MacColl feels stronger now than she did decades ago. Hoping to spread awareness of the importance of strength training, MacColl advises people not to wait until problems exist to start building bone density.
“You don’t know what you can accomplish until you try, as long as you have the motivation and passion,” MacColl says. “As we age, we get comfortable in our routines, and we don’t think we can get into a new sport. Age and inexperience should never be barriers, they’re just part of the journey. I’m living proof you can start at age 65 or even older.”