This holiday weekend was a weird one, seeing as cataclysmic climate change turned a normally sweltering weekend into a blustery one with temps in the 60s. Yes, in July. EVERYTHING’S FINE. Anyway, out was the planned pool weekend, in was a nostalgia-based binge watching weekend.
All of which is to say, The Challenge is my jam. Originally born as Real World/Road Rules Challenge, it’s morphed over the years to become one part soap opera — complete with a recurring cast of characters with DECADES worth of history, one part professional sports league — complete with the highs of remarkable athletic triumphs and the lows of disturbing, season-ending injuries. Actually, just typing that out puts in stark relief *exactly* why I love it so — I’m the center of that Venn diagram of people that love soap operas (I grew up a Days of Our Lives fan) and sports (New York Giants/Oregon Ducks fan). But I digress. A pandemic gift to myself was a Paramount+ subscription (okay, there were a LOT of gifts to myself over the course of the pandemic… it turns out retail therapy is ALSO my jam), first for Picard then for back catalogue of The Challenge.
Anyway, this weekend I re-watched the classic Challenge season, Rivals. Seriously, making these reality athletes team up with a hated rival is GENIUS. It’s a well the franchise’s gone back to repeatedly (Rivals III gave us the absolutely iconic moment of Johnny Bananas stealing the prize money from his partner, the eminently likable Sarah Rice). And I’d be THERE for it if the show’s producers, in their wisdom, were to give us another installment of Rivals. But, yeah, back to Rivals the first.
The season is a moment of transition for the franchise. It’s the first season without any Road Rules competitors, losing that link to one of the shows that birthed it. It’s also a move towards the more competitive, modern Challenge. Gone are the backyard games that were played for laughs in early seasons, replaced with strenuous competitions, and, for the first time ever, an overnight final. Now the producers, largely through the mouthpiece of host TJ Lavin, seem to delight in torturing participants during the finale. Sleep deprivation? Check. Eating copious amounts of unfamiliar food? Check, check. Puzzle and mental games? Check, check, check. The actual athletic elements — be it kayaking, running, climbing, biking, whatever — are merely the icing on the decadent final. But in 2011, during the first Rivals, the overnight element of the last challenge took the endeavor to new heights. Now it’s de rigueur, but rewatching the shocked competitors take turns staying up all night just to have to hike up a mf mountain the next morning was just classic.
And, from a storyline perspective, the season is also top notch. The aforementioned Johnny Bananas partnered with his Key West roommate Tyler Duckworth to claim the men’s championship on his path to GOAT status — taking out a hulked up CT Tamburello and partner Adam King in a brutal and bloody elimination right before the finals. And it’s the season that took Paula “Walnuts” Meronek from lovable loser to champion on the women’s side. Her partner? Evelyn Smith, who previously won The Inferno 3 and The Island. Ev was always a strong player, considered a threat to win any season she was on, but after Rivals, she disappeared from the franchise.
Now, lots of characters have come and gone from The Challenge over the last 37 seasons of the show. But, except in rare instances, folks don’t announce their retirement from the show, it’s just a few season go by without being cast and then the competitor is mere memory. (And that’s a big lure of The Challenge: All Stars, which is another benefit of Paramount+ — see, I HAD to add the streaming service to my repertoire.) But, after watching Ev and Paula take down the competition on Rivals, I engaged my Google skills to find out what had happened to the former champ.
Ev started on The Challenge right out of high school, foregoing a softball scholarship at the University of Arizona to throw her lot with the Challenge gods. After walking away from The Challenge she earned her degree in history at the University of San Diego. But as nice as that is for her, this is Above the Law, so you’re right to ask yourself WHAT IN THE HELL DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH THE LAW?
Well, after USD, Ev took her talents to Harvard Law School. How did Above the Law miss covering that? After graduating, according to her LinkedIn profile, she’s done human rights work in Cambodia and, more recently, she’s spent time getting Democratic candidates elected, working on Kirsten Gillibrand’s and Pete Buttigieg’s ultimately unsuccessful 2020 presidential campaigns. But all was not lost — in March of this year, Evelyn was a political appointee to the position of Special Assistant to the Office of the Administrator at USAID.
But despite this successful legal and political career, don’t write off Ev’s Challenge career. As I mentioned, The Challenge: All Stars has brought older and wiser former Challengers out of retirement. Though Ev was unavailable for the first installment of All Stars, Challenger competitor and Godfather Mark Long (he was the force behind the online campaign to start All Stars) says Ev just might make some time for future All Stars editions. If that happens expect some breathless coverage from yours truly — Above the Law would love to have the Challenger turned legal eagle take home that prize.
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, host of The Jabot podcast, and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).