TORONTO – The 11 teams of two set to run the second “Amazing Race Canada” were carefully chosen with an eye for eclectic diversity — but nervously huddled by the Toronto airport with mere hours to go until they begin the country-wide sprint, it’s the similarities that stand out.
Almost without exception, the pairs seem to be immersed in a strange combination of plucky optimism, gee-whiz wonder and, to varying degrees, nagging anxiety about the very-public test that awaits. The competitors seem to give the most thought when asked about their weaknesses, or the specific challenges they hoped to avoid — as if those topics were already top-of-mind.
On that note, Canadian Olympic gold medallist hockey players Natalie Spooner and Meaghan Mikkelson worry about being made to shave their heads. Vegetarian married couple Laura Takahashi and Jackie Skinner fret about overcoming eating challenges, though they recently confronted some seafood as preparation (“we cut the head off a fish and stuff,” marvels Skinner, “it was actually kind of fun.”) Vancouver bartender Ryan Steele, paired with co-worker Rob Goddard, nervously admits he isn’t “outdoorsy,” that he doesn’t rock-climb, doesn’t know how to drive a boat, doesn’t “know how to do a lot of that stuff.”
Others possess slightly more, ahem, abnormal fears.
Markham, Ont., occupational therapist Shahla Kara concedes a deep (if bizarre) phobia of Popsicle sticks (“It’s just the wood, I can’t handle it,” she said, to the admirably faint irritation of friend and partner Nabeela Barday). Real estate broker Audrey Tousignant-Maurice, a native of St-Hubert, Que., states a preference to avoid eating anything “chewy,” while actor partner Alain Chanoine (they’re dating) would rather not eat a live spider, though he says any food can be appetizing with a “little hot sauce.”
And laid-back buddies Mickey Henry and Pete Schmalz — who could fill the irreverent role of season 1 fan favourites Jet and Dave, if in a more gently sedated fashion — reel off the lengthiest array of potential stumbling points, including but not limited to wrapping presents, singing, and “sober dancing,” which Schmalz calls “a nightmare.”
Oh, and the opposite sex.
“Love may blind us,” said Henry with a grin. “There’s a lot of cute girls out there.”
“That’s what my mom’s worried about,” replied Schmalz. “‘Don’t just find a hot girl and fall in love with her.’”
“‘No, you guys go ahead. You’re so cute,’” agreed Henry with a shake of his head.
Of course, such admissions of weakness are fleeting during this hopeful, halcyon period where every team believes it has a chance at winning the race’s grand prize package — which this year includes $250,000, a free year of Air Canada flights and a pair of Chevy trucks.
At this early point, teams aren’t allowed to socialize even as they brush shoulders through the promotional process. The forced silence only seems to encourage teams to size up their competition like predators in the wild — albeit predators prone to issuing wacky nicknames.
Kara and Barday have correctly surmised that Spooner and Mikkelson are athletes (“hockey players, lacrosse, rugby?” Kara muses) and have christened hale twins Pierre Forget and Michel Forget “the bobsled brothers.” (In fact, they were professional freestyle skiiers who now co-run a meatpacking company).
The twins also find themselves fixed on the radar of Henry and his friend Schmalz, who points out: “Those French guys are kind of scary.”
Well, even in a group in which self-belief seems in ample supply, the Forgets do stand out. Though they were both talented skiiers, Michel long ago put his own career aside to encourage his brother — and Pierre plans to pay that act of altruism back by passing on his share of the potential award money. When it’s pointed out that season 1 twins Treena and Tennille were eliminated in the first episode, Pierre replies with a smile: “The first twins that is going to win is going to be us.”
The two men certainly share a closeness. At the onset of the interview, Michel pauses to extract something lodged in his brother’s front teeth.
“We touch each other all the time,” explained Pierre. “We can be at a dinner facility, dinner table, (our) foot will cross. We work together. If we have to sleep in the same bed, let’s say, it’s (like a) couple — we’re touching legs and stuff.”
“We can take showers together,” Michel piped in.
“Toothbrush? Whatever,” Pierre added. “It’s my half and I’m his half.”
Still, almost all the teams competing this year possess a timeworn familiarity.
Henry and Schmalz have been inseparable pals since they were two, while Kara and Barday have been friends for 20 years.
Halifax couple Jen and Shawn King have been married 21 years and share a 17-year-old son (he regarded their entry with typical teenage skepticism), decorated ballet dancer Rex Harrington and fiance Bob Hope have been together a decade, and Takahashi and Skinner saw their marriage evolve from a friendship forged over 16 years ago.
Then there are the teams bonded by blood.
Winnipeg’s Nicole Foster will compete with her 19-year-old son, Cormac, whom she had when she was 19. She says they share a closeness rare for mother-son duos.
Similarly, Sukhi Atwal and her younger brother Jinder Atwal have been inseparable since the elder sibling learned growing up in Terrace, B.C., that her parents would let her do pretty much whatever she wanted, so long as she let her athletic little brother tag along.
“I’d be at house parties at age 12,” Jinder smiled.
“No he wasn’t, Dad!” Sukhi replied, laughing.
So most teams are sanguine when asked how they’ll deal with the inevitable intra-pair conflicts that have become a voyeuristic guilty pleasure for longtime “Amazing Race” fanatics. (How many rejoiced in the squabbling between savvy Montreal doctors Brett and Holly last season, and the former’s near-constant “Hol’!” tic?).
But only one pair seems to relish their potential for bickering.
“If he comes at me, I’m getting at him and vice versa. It’s going to be a lot more explosive,” said Tousignant-Maurice. “But we’re going to try not to, right?”
“If it’s going to go down, it’s going to go DOWN,” replies Chanoine enthusiastically.
One area in which all the teams seem to have reached internal agreement is how they might spend the prize money.
Chanoine wants to help his family in Haiti. The Atwals as well as Kara and Barday want to give back to their parents. The Fosters want to pay for Cormac’s education, while Nicole also wants to spend more time on the road, offering support to single moms. Harrington and Hope want to finally pay for a wedding, while Takahashi and Skinner plan to direct any winnings to the pricey adoption process. Steele and Goddard would pay off debt.
Henry and Schmalz don’t seem as sure.
They’re both adventurous, and both have paid the price. Schmalz broke both his arms snowboarding and his knees have thrice failed him, resulting in two surgeries. Henry had a broken humerus and has a “buncha metal inside” as a result — a large scar is visible under his tanktop — and has also endured surgeries on his knees.
So while this duo too has looming debt, they might have grander plans if they were to win.
“We were kind of debating buying a sailboat and sailing around the world,” Schmalz said.
“Freedom 24,” echoed Henry, who is indeed 24. “Just retire and go.”
“Get a couple girls,” replied Schmalz, “and just go for it.”
“Amazing Race Canada” premieres Tuesday on CTV.
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