Local Amazing Race winners face toughest contest yet
By MIKE McDANIEL
When The Amazing Race returns for its 11th edition Sunday, look for Houston's Joyce and Uchenna Agu and nine other teams to experience the toughest contest in the series' history.
Already millionaire winners from the show, the Agus are the only couple of the 10 with the chance to double their money in the around-the-world race. All of the other teams were standouts for other reasons, said Bertram van Munster, creator and executive producer of the Emmy-winning series.
That means the Agus will face tougher terrains and competitions with a target on their backs.
"That's an understatement," Uchenna Agu said. "Once we found out we were the only ones (who were previous winners), we knew we would be right at the top among the ones to get rid of, alongside Rob and Amber."
Yes, game-show "professionals" Rob and Amber Mariano, the couple the Agus nipped at the finish line in a 2005 Amazing Race, are back. People love them or hate them, either for who they are and how they play and/or for having appeared not only on Race but also on two seasons of Survivor, including an all-star edition that Amber won.
"The fact that no one was a virgin (to The Amazing Race), that everyone except ourselves has experienced the pain of elimination and we haven't, getting rid of us was pretty high on some lists," Uchenna said.
"This is a very competitive group," van Munster said. "Rob and Amber are fine people. What we have done is made it difficult, particularly for veteran reality stars like Rob and Amber. And hard it was. We're going through more difficult terrain and cities and countries. That makes it physically very exhausting and as a result puts more pressure on your psyche."
Van Munster, who produces the show with his wife, Elise Doganieri, said putting together an all-star show that included only previous winners was considered and quickly discarded.
"We were strictly looking for character," he said. "The winner is not necessarily the most exciting person."
Joyce and Uchenna were the only previous winners chosen because "we really thought they deserved another shot," he said. "The way they handled themselves on the first show was just extraordinary and exemplary on many levels, and we really like them very much."Van Munster would not divulge specifics about the new series, which begins unfolding at 7 p.m. Sunday on Channel 11. He did say, though, that this year's race will swing through Ecuador and Chile, including a visit to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world.
"The northern part of Chile is all desert, and the southern is basically like going to Switzerland," he said. "It's very remote and primitive and very hard to get through."
"It was quite a challenge," Agu said. "Let's just say the creators did a good job in putting together a challenging course."
The Agus spoke to the Chronicle taking care not to reveal the outcome or specific details about the race, which has been completed.
Q: Were you surprised you were asked back, especially since you already won?
A: Joyce: I was a little surprised that more winners weren't brought back.
Uchenna: We were really surprised to be the only winning couple brought back. Joyce made such a splash on the first one (she shaved her head to win one of the challenges), so I wasn't really surprised that we were picked for all-stars. We're excited that we get to represent Houston again.
Joyce: I remember after the first edition ended thinking I would never do anything like that again. Then, just like having a baby, you forget about all the pain and think about all the joy and the fun you got out of it.
Uchenna: People always ask us what we did with $1 million. The million helped out with financial things. It saved us from bankruptcy. But it was the experience, the lessons learned on the race, that changed our life.
Q: For the all-star edition, did any of your competitors come out and say they were gunning for you?
A: Uchenna: Some did, depending on their level of frustration.
Joyce: I think we're going to be surprised how many felt that way, because while you're filming you really don't interact with everyone. I'm sure it's going to come to light (as the series, which is still being edited, unfolds).
Q: Did you have a flashback moment when you saw Rob and Amber?
A: Joyce: The flashback moment came stepping into the room and seeing everybody and having the experience of "Oh my God, here we are again." To top it off, Rob and Amber are there, too.
Uchenna: It was just interesting to see all the racers who at one point we had cheered on ourselves (as viewers of the other editions).Q: Were you guys recognized everywhere you went?
A: Joyce: Everywhere.
Uchenna: That's one of the advantages we felt Rob and Amber had in the first race. It was spread out a little more evenly this time.
Q: You guys maintained an even keel in the previous show. Was duplicating the effort a burden to you this time?
A: Joyce: We couldn't have planned to be righteous or good or any of that. As you see on this show so many times, whoever you are comes to light. You can't really avoid it. We just fell back into who we were. You can't act that.
Uchenna: You have so many things that take you out of your element: food deprivation, lack of sleep, the stress of competition, navigating in unfamiliar territory. By the time you get through all those things, you have no time to powder up and think, "I've got to say the right thing for the cameras." You forget about the cameras very quickly.
Joyce: When you're starving, the real you starts to pour out.
Q: Did you lose a lot of weight
A: Both: Yes.
Joyce: You can't help but lose weight. You have no control over when you're going to eat again.
Uchenna: You have a designated amount of money for each leg, and you're hesitant to spend any of it on snacks.Joyce: The average viewer thinks you get a break every 12 hours, but that's not true. You get a break at every pit stop. You might not get to a pit stop for four days, and if you only have $20 or $40, you use most of that for cabs or airport fees. It gets to be a guessing game; do you eat now and hope this food and water are OK?
Q: Does the city of Houston recognize you as ambassadors?
A: Joyce: When we won the last time, we really did not do too much. We did a fundraiser for Casa de Esperanza, which helps young children. We wanted to do more (in Houston) but just didn't.
Uchenna: On Sunday, the city of Houston will give us a proclamation.
Joyce: We're starting to do a lot more.
(Since their win, the Uchennas have become motivational speakers, addressing audiences around the country. They have also invested in real estate projects, including one going up in Rockport. They also plan to participate in next month's Guaranty Bank Tour de Houston cycling event, which promotes exercise and fitness.)
Q: So you're doing both the Tour de Houston and the MS 150? (The latter bike ride, from Houston to Austin, takes place in April.)
A: Uchenna: We're not sure what we're doing to contribute to the MS 150.
Joyce: Oh, we're doing it.
Uchenna: OK, you heard it first.
Joyce: We don't know how far we'll go, but we'll do our best.http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/front/4557454.html
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