It’s kind of funny how our lives can change in a split second, in a seemingly innocuous moment. For me, that moment came when I was flipping channels on a rainy day in 2004 and decided to stop on a show I’d never seen before: Endurance.
I soon discovered that it’s a bit Survivor-like. Twenty kids ages 12 to 15 are taken to a remote location, paired up, and compete in challenges. Within minutes, I was hooked and hunkering down to watch the all-day marathon.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the game. The competitors are sent to a remote location where they immediately compete in a Right to Stay challenge, where three boys and three girls are eliminated. From there, teams are formed (one boy and one girl on each team) and compete against each other. The object of the game is to collect all thirteen Pyramid Pieces; some challenges win you a piece and the ability to handicap another team in the next challenge, and some win you the right to send two teams to compete to avoid elimination. Eliminations happen at the Temple of Fate, and the teams that are sent there play water, fire, wood (basically rock, paper, scissors). The team that wins two out of three returns to the game, while the losing team is eliminated. This continues until one team is left standing.
Fast-forward a few months. What had begun as a product of my boredom had exploded into a full-blown obsession. I was watching old episodes, chatting with other fans on message boards, buying clothes that were the color of my favorite team. One day—one fateful, fateful day—I was watching the latest episode to air, and one of the contestants who’d made it to the final four teams was complaining that she wanted to go home.
I was furious. Furious that there were deserving teams sent home before she was, and furious that thousands of kids were sitting at home and wishing they were in her position. And that’s when it hit me. Well, someone had to be on the show, right? Why not me? When I presented the idea to my parents, they shrugged and let me have at it.
My dream was born. I began researching how to audition and when the time came, I filmed an audition tape with nothing but my brother, a video camera, and some serious enthusiasm. I sent it off to California with high hopes but low expectations. I mean, what would they want with a skinny, soft-spoken girl with no previous TV experience?
A month and a half later, the phone rang. Caller ID logged it as an unknown number, so nobody answered. I’m watching TV in the basement as my mom sprints downstairs. “You need to listen to the message on the machine,” she said breathlessly. “Right now.”
It was a producer of the show telling me they liked my tape and wanted to see more of me. After slapping myself a couple of times to make sure I was awake, I returned the call, got some details, and filmed a second tape.
Unfortunately, that’s where it ended. I didn’t hear from them again and watched Endurance season four from my couch.
However, I was just turning 15; I had one season of eligibility left. I repeated the process the following year and, lo and behold, got another callback after my first tape. But this time, I was ready. I pulled out all the stops for tape number two, enlisting the help of my entire family and filming a masterpiece that culminated with a sprint up a giant staircase to the Rocky theme song. I sent in my tape feeling truly sorry for the kids I was up against.
My confidence was well founded; a month later, I got another callback. I was in the top 40, a 50/50 chance of making it onto the show. All I had to do was fill out some paperwork and wait.
The next time an unknown number called my house, I answered.
“Hi Darci, this is Mark from 3Ball Productions. Congratulations, you’re on Endurance 5!”
I promptly burst out laughing.
I don’t remember the rest of that phone call at all. My mom was squealing, my hands were shaking, and as soon as I hung up, we screamed and hugged and jumped around the kitchen for a while. I had done it! Out of 10,000 applicants, I was one of the final 20!
This was at the beginning of May, and filming didn’t start until the last day of July. These few months were some of the most exciting, bizarre, and downright difficult of my life. I was constantly getting contracts to sign and informational emails, yet confidentiality agreements meant I couldn’t tell a soul (though I may have assigned special meaning to the sentence “I’m going on vacation this summer,” so some of my best friends had an inkling!). I went to sleep-away camp carrying the biggest secret of my life. My parents printed out the producers’ emails and mailed them to me with the show’s name blacked out in case anyone else got their hands on them. I felt like a secret agent!
When I came home, I had about a week before I was off to California! The twenty competitors (plus all the chaperones—we were underage, after all) were brought to a hotel in tiny Clovis, California for several days before filming began. Those days were spent having one-on-one meetings with the story producers, executive producers, and wardrobe department… and, of course, competitively eyeing every teenager I ran into!
On the first morning of filming, everyone gathered together for the first time in the lobby of the hotel. We technically weren’t allowed to speak to each other, since they wanted to catch our first interactions on camera, but that didn’t really stop us. Despite the fact that we were about to become bitter rivals, everyone was chatty and nice and eager to make friends. We were all loaded onto a bus to be taken up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains; the chaperones went to have a look at our future home (TREEHOUSES!) while we filmed some intro bits, hiking through the mountains.
It was a long, hot, rather grueling day, but it ended on a flat expanse of rock and an introduction from the host, JD Roth. He did his scripted speech for the cameras, and when that was finished, he gathered us all around him. “From now on,” he said, “your life will be broken up into ‘before Endurance’ and ‘after Endurance.’”
From here, it becomes incredibly difficult to describe my experience without doing a play-by-play. I learned very rapidly that the mountains get really freaking cold at night and, when I was voted by the 9 other girls to get a free pass through the Right to Stay Challenge, I learned that even the skinny, soft-spoken girl can come out on top sometimes. I was then partnered with a great guy and, wow, I couldn’t believe how well things were turning out! However, I also quickly learned that life could turn on a dime. My Endurance experience was far from the fairytale I’d always imagined it would be. Reality TV can be cruel, and after several brutal twists (including having my partner switched) and a healthy dose of backstabbing (by, interestingly enough, my first partner), my partner and I were sent home. Confused? Yeah, I was too. Still am, actually.
On one of my last days in the mountains, one of the producers came up to me; the parents were getting nightly briefings, and my mom was worried about whether or not I was handling the drama okay. I shrugged and told him, “I’m fine because I have to be.” And it was true. All I wanted to do every night was curl up in my sleeping bag and cry, but I taught myself how to slap a smile on my face and put the game behind me so I could enjoy myself, one day at a time.
Even though we didn’t win, nor did we come close to winning, what I came away with was far more rewarding than I could’ve hoped. How many kids ever get to spend an extended period of time living in treehouses with their peers? Or live in a dog-eat-dog environment while simultaneously genuinely liking the people trying to (metaphorically) rip your throat out? It’s a bizarre experience hanging out with, hugging, bonding and trading clothes with a girl who you know would eliminate you in a heartbeat. Even weirder was the fact that we had to put the game on hold when the weekend rolled around due to child labor laws. We swam in the lake, ate junk food, enjoyed the lack of mic packs burning our backs all day, and tried to ignore the fact that there was a (metaphorical) guillotine looming over one team the very next day. Alternate universe much? And THEN get to watch it all on TV a few months later! So. Weird.
Before Endurance, I was extremely trusting and naïve. My experience with reality TV (because, oh yes, it was ALL real; editing is a necessary evil on TV, but we kids were completely unscripted and left to our own devices) helped me grow up speedily, showed me just how tough and badass I can be, and gave me some serious trust issues. (I mean, seriously, if you can’t trust your teammate or your friends, who CAN you trust?) But interestingly enough, I also gained some lifelong friends in the process. I spent three weeks of the following summer visiting one of them; half the cast came to my sweet 16 party; and I even met up with one of them when we were both abroad in Europe last semester!
And even today, six years later, if the going gets tough, I take a breath and think, “you’re an Endurance kid. You can do this.” And I know I’m capable of anything.