The Heart of a Warrior

by Oct 23, 2023People, Southport Oak Island

For 71-year-old Southport resident Ginny MacColl, life’s greatest goal is redefining what aging looks like — and so far she’s crushing it.

Having a warrior mindset means never giving up or accepting defeat. When confronted with a challenge, warriors will do whatever it takes to persevere and come out on top. And that’s exactly what 71-year-old Southport resident, swimmer, American Ninja Warrior competitor and actress Ginny MacColl is doing.

After competing on Seasons 9 and 10 of the fitness-based reality show American Ninja Warrior, MacColl has dedicated the past four years to setting even more aggressive goals and pushing new limits. Having fallen off the first obstacle on both of those seasons, MacColl set her sights on redemption and never lost focus, despite the delays and training limitations brought on by the pandemic. She finally got her chance to conquer the course again in the spring of 2023, when her appearance on Season 15 set a new milestone for both herself and the show — MacColl is now the oldest competitor to ever complete an obstacle.

“I didn’t actually know I was the oldest until I watched the episode playback on TV, which I think is kind of funny,” she says. “I was delighted to get through the first obstacle because that was my goal. I would have loved to get farther, but my goal was accomplished.”

American Ninja Warrior Ginny McColl

MacColl’s return to America Ninja Warrior began when she applied for the show in December 2022. After getting the acceptance call in early January 2023, MacColl amped up the workout routine she had been maintaining while competing in a variety of regional Ninja-style competitions in both North Carolina and South Carolina. In addition to doubling up on strength training, she also increased the outdoor coursework she had started before Season 9 at the Oak Island home of her friend and former American Ninja Warrior competitor, 80-year-old Charles Mammay.

“I also started driving back and forth to Raleigh once a week to take a Ninja class and work out at a Ninja gym, and I did that for ten weeks leading up to the show’s filming on March 23,” she says.

MacColl also prepped for the competition with the help of her daughter and fellow Ninja Warrior Jessie Graff.

One of the show’s most notable competitors, Graff helped her mother prepare by studying each episode of Season 14, then discussing the contestants’ course attempts together (Graff lives in Los Angeles) and breaking them down to analyze what worked and what did not.

“Jessie has such a great eye and can help me visualize what I’m going to do, so I gain a lot of information from her for sure,” MacColl says. “She’s my coach from afar.  Growing up she was a mini-me for everything, and now I think I’m becoming a mini-her.”

As the competition date approached, MacColl says word started circulating from previously filmed competitors about a new obstacle at the start of the course. After having practiced for years for what she thought would be the first obstacle, the Shrinking Steps, MacColl realized she would have to face a brand-new challenge: Pole Vault, a pole the competitors must jump onto from a mini-trampoline and swing over water to a landing platform.

“You don’t get to go on an obstacle beforehand, you only get to look at it and go over the rules, and then they have a course tester go through it so you have an idea of how everything moves,” MacColl explains. “It’s much more nerve-wracking when you don’t know what to practice for a new obstacle and don’t know if you’ll be able to do it.”

Ninja Warriors Mother Daughter

American Ninja Warrior films outdoors late at night, something MacColl says makes the competition more challenging.

“We filmed in LA in March and it was quite cold, and I think I was number 27 that night to go,” she says. “After they walked us through the obstacles and went over the rules, the waiting started. With delays and crew breaks I didn’t get to go until after 1 am, and the longer it took, the more nervous and excited I got.”

MacColl says her primary goal was just getting through the first obstacle. When her turn finally came, she turned for the camera in order to make sure viewers at home could see her shirt, with the words “Strength is Ageless” on the front and “Never Too Old, Never Too Late” printed across the back.

“That’s when I saw Jessie on the sidelines, and she was telling me to breathe,” MacColl remembers. “So I jumped on the mini trampoline, grabbed the pole, held on tight and just kept climbing until I got to the platform.”

Although she didn’t know it at the time, MacColl in that moment became the oldest American Ninja Warrior competitor to ever complete an obstacle. Her focus had shifted to the next new obstacle in her path, Greased Lightning, a grip strength-testing metal track that requires competitors to hold onto a pair of nunchucks and ride over two drops before before swinging their body onto a platform at the opposite end.

“I knew I had to hold on as tight as possible because those nunchucks are slippery, so that’s what I was concentrating on,” she says. “I curled into a ball to absorb the two drops, but what I didn’t do was have time to do a big swing and dismount. If I had seen people doing that obstacle, I may have understood you needed to pull your legs back so you could swing forward immediately after that second bump, but it happened all so fast.”

Having missed her landing opportunity, MacColl tried to swing her body back to gain momentum, but she soon realized she did not have the power to get herself where she needed to be. After hanging in a lock off for more than a minute and smiling wide at the crowd, she ultimately dropped into the water below, but not before deciding to show her fans and America what she could do.

“I just thought ‘What the heck?’ and did a pull-up,” she says with a chuckle. “I honestly think it almost turned out better that way, because I was able to show people that I had strength. If I had just fallen immediately, it would have still been great, but this way I was up there hanging for a long time, and when I knew I had lost momentum and there was no way I could do anything, I just did another pull-up.”

Ginny McColl

Although MacColl did not make it any farther in the competition that day, she says she is far from done with her American Ninja Warrior journey. She plans to continue training for a future season of the show as well as further her other athletic passion of swimming. This summer she will compete in the National Senior Games in Pittsburgh, hoping to better her performance at the Games in 2022, where she placed third in the 50-yard breaststroke, third in the 100-yard individual medley and fourth in the 50-yard freestyle. As impressive as those statistics might be, MacColl is even more proud of her performance in the North Carolina Senior Games in the fall of 2022, where she broke four records, two of which had stood since 1995.

“Swimming is a great all-around sport, and I love having goals and something to work toward,” MacColl says. “Plus, I do it for the cardio. I think getting your blood flow going is so important for your quality of life.”

When she’s not busy keeping fit, MacColl also continues her work as an actress. Her newest role in the upcoming film You’re Cordially Invited, starring Reese Witherspoon and Will Farrell, allowed her to even use her Ninja skills by performing her own stunts. Although stunt work might be a new experience MacColl can now check off her bucket list, it certainly will not be the last.

“I’ve got a goal in this whole thing, and that’s redefining what aging looks like, for my granddaughter’s sake, for seniors and for everybody in between,” she says. “The decisions you make today will determine how you age, and you can do a lot more than you think you can. In my case I’d say that one fall doesn’t define you, the thing is to get up and train harder and do it again, especially if you love what you’re doing, like I do. Maybe I’ll become the first 80-year-old American Ninja Warrior, how about that?”

Photography by Megan Deitz