‘Wipeout’ is much harder than it looks, reporter discovers

By Derrik J. Lang

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — A row of mechanized, doughnut-shaped hurdles took turns punching my jaw, chest and — oh yeah — my groin.

This was supposed to be an amusing diversion, but I wanted nothing more than to curse like I had never cursed before.

I kept my profanities in check, though, because I wasn’t alone: Twenty video cameras leered at me like a thousand eyes while I tackled the grueling “Wipeout” obstacle course.

There was nothing I could do but let the foam-padded rings toss me around as I attempted to crawl through to the other side of the gantlet. I was exhausted — finishing the course seemed physically impossible. I just wanted it to be over, but I wasn’t going to give up. After all, I had already been banged up by a big red ball and punished by a wall to get to this point.

And the hurdles weren’t the end of my challenge that day. There would be more pain to endure.

The producers of the breakout ABC hit game show had invited me to the outdoor set located on a sprawling ranch 40 miles outside Los Angeles to have a go at the infamous obstacle course on a chilly spring morning. In each episode, 24 contestants engage The Qualifier in hopes of moving forward in the contest and winning the $50,000 grand prize.

Me? I just agreed to do it for fun.

“The advice that I give to all contestants is speed and momentum,” executive producer Matt Kunitz told me beforehand. “You really need to use your body’s momentum to take you across the course. A lot of people come out here and think they’re going to go fast, and then they get to that first obstacle and just look down, think about it and take one step.”

Participants of all shapes and sizes who partake in “Wipeout,” which begins its second season at 8 tonight, are insured by the production and usually sequestered in a compound of trailers behind the course, unaware of their competitors’ progress before taking on The Qualifier themselves. Luckily, I was permitted to roam free around the set and observe everyone else.

The day I visited “Wipeout,” the course was populated with silly food-themed barriers. There were essentially five impasses to overcome: a series of banana-shaped platforms swinging above a vat of mud; a wall of punching boxing gloves; the show’s hallmark inflated floating balls; those torturous doughnut hurdles; and a swing from a platform onto a giant hot dog.

From the vantage point of my sofa, the “Wipeout” obstacle course always seemed akin to a Disneyland attraction or a giant Slip ’n Slide. In person, my perspective completely changed as I witnessed The Qualifier spit out beaten, bruised and — in one instance — vomiting contestants.

It’s nothing like a theme park ride. Oh no. It’s a brightly colored nightmare!

The only safety equipment I was outfitted with was a lifejacket festooned with the splashy “Wipeout” logo and some lace-up ankle covers. That’s it. No helmet. No pads. No cup. After an air horn sounded, I was off.

I shimmed down the hill, across a series of floating platforms to the bananas. Without hesitating, I flew over the first one — success! — then slipped from the second into the mud. This was not like any mud I had ever felt in my life. It was cold and watery, not warm and gooey. It was also, as I learned after leaping with my mouth gaping open, very gritty.

Next was The Sucker Punch, which is basically a sadistic human-sized version of Whack-a-Mole. Caked in mud, I clung to the wall as a series of boxing gloves affixed to hissing air pistons jabbed at my body. I was already so drained that I didn’t really feel the beatings, yet I only made it halfway down the wall before dropping into the frigid drink below.

After a quick dip, I was up and over to the show’s infamous Big Balls, four inflatable red spheres affixed to steel supports above more frigid water. It’s all a rubbery blur in my mind, but I think I firmly planted my face into the second red ball. What followed was the longest, coldest swim of my life — made more embarrassing because dozens of steely eyed crew members were silently gazing at me.

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