Eleven teams began season 19 of the reality TV game show "The Amazing Race," and two by two, they were eliminated. Couples ran through the aisles of Panama's largest fish market, raced dragon boats in Taiwan, built underwater coral nurseries in Thailand and traversed four continents. But only three couples made it to the finale — one engaged, one dating, one married.
Tensions ran high. The engaged and dating couples bickered their way around the globe, but the married couple, Marcus and Amani Pollard, modeled teamwork and endurance. Their tenacity even earned them the title of "the comeback kids." But could Marcus and Amani continue to pull together as a team and persevere through obstacles that most couples don't usually face?
From pro football to "The Amazing Race"
Marcus and Amani both grew up in single-parent homes, and each determined at a young age to pursue a marriage that would last.
The couple met in 1995. Amani was in college, and Marcus was beginning his career as a pro football player. They dated for three years, married and soon filled a Georgia home with the hustle and bustle of babies. Today, they celebrate 11 years of marriage and are the proud parents of four children, ages 4 to 10. Now retired from his 14-year NFL career, Marcus is a self-professed stay-at-home dad and part-time high-school football coach. Amani works as a small-business owner and drives carpool for her kids.
This couple learned early in their marriage that if either had an issue about something, they needed to talk about the problem, share their feelings and then move on. They committed to not letting disagreements and differences fester.
These communication skills have helped them foster a deep respect for each other. Marcus explains, "We communicate in a way and a tone that helps us hear each other without being argumentative or combative."
Another key to their successful marriage is a commitment to discussing their future. Before having children, they talked about how many kids they each wanted, which couples often do, but also about different ways to discipline kids, whether the children would get a car from their parents and other future scenarios. So when their first child arrived, they already knew where they would stand on many issues.
More than a TV show
Marcus and Amani were excited about being selected as participants in "The Amazing Race" — an opportunity that was too good for them to pass up. Their relationship was strong, their communication was effective, and they thought a bit of pre-race prep would be great to get them into shape. Besides, there was the enticement of competing as a team and the prospect of winning $1 million.
In their preseason interview, Amani was asked what she wanted to achieve. She answered, "An experience of a lifetime — and time with my husband," and "It will be good to just enjoy each other." Marcus said he looked forward to sharing a lot of quality time with his wife. Of course, quality time usually doesn't include the stress, fatigue, hunger and jet lag that play a big part in this reality show. And it doesn't include millions of viewers watching those "quality" moments through a camera lens.
Because of the large audience, the Pollards realized the show could have an impact that reached far beyond their own marriage. They share a strong belief in God and don't hesitate to admit that faith is essential in their day-to-day lives. Before the race, Amani prayed, "Lord, would You just let something that we do or let something that we say touch someone's life or change someone's life." After the show aired, women stopped Amani on the street and confessed, through tears, that their lives had been changed by Amani's actions and respect for her husband. Her patience had changed how they talked to their own husbands.
The Pollard team
But even a great relationship can be tested to the limit when a relentless camera crew records every movement as you race to plant 300 rice seedlings in a field in Indonesia, assemble a LEGO puzzle on a teacup ride in Denmark, and unload passengers and cargo from a ferryboat on Lake Malawi. Just when Amani thought the challenges could not get worse, she found herself at a bodybuilding competition in Brussels, faced with the prospect of donning a tiny Speedo bikini.
From behind the changing-room curtain, Amani shrieked, "This is horrendous!" She clarified for viewers that she had "never worn a bikini — ever, ever, ever!"
Marcus didn't skip a beat. He remembered something a speaker at a marriage seminar once said. Couples change over time — looks, hair and bodies. But if a husband stays focused on his wife's eyes, they will be the gateway to her soul — and that will never change. So rather than focusing on Amani's comments about her small orange swimsuit, Marcus took one look at his wife and affirmed her by saying: "You look sexy!"
Later, as Amani repeated her frustration, he told her to "just smile," implying that the judges would see her beauty. And he didn't stop smiling, either. Together, Marcus and Amani nailed the bodybuilding competition, finishing first to win that leg of the race.
With the future in mind
For viewers, stress is simply good TV. For Amani and Marcus, it was real life. Near the end of the race, the men were tasked with landing a Learjet in a flight simulator after only a few brief lessons. The women became their co-pilots.
After multiple failed attempts at landing the craft, Marcus fumed over his mistakes, and at one point, even hit the roof of the simulator with his fist. "I was really, really frustrated and bogged down and wanted to just rip something," he says.
Amani realized that the best way to respond to her husband and their loss of race time was through encouragement. When Marcus apologized to Amani, she let him know that what he was doing was a difficult task and that no apology was necessary. "Hey, babe," she said, "we've got this because we're in this thing together."
Later, Marcus acknowledged that Amani's support made the experience a defining moment in the race. "To me, that was the pinnacle of everything we had experienced the whole time we were racing," he says.
After 12 attempts at the simulated runway landing, Marcus finally completed the task. Amani admits that there was another motivation for her level-headed encouragement: She knew her children would be watching the show. "We try to live our life every day in a way that is an example to them," she says.
A family in New York
So did Marcus and Amani pull together as a team and win the race? That was the question on the minds of the Pollards' four children. Although the show was taped months before it aired, Marcus and Amani kept their contract by keeping the outcome a secret. Then week after week, they watched on TV and cheered with their kids as they followed their own race around the world. No doubt, four young Pollards were Marcus and Amani's biggest fans.
For the showing of the finale, the whole family flew to New York City to be with the show's crew and other finalists. The theater was small. The excitement was intense. Someone had won $1 million, and the Pollard kids were convinced that their parents were the winners.
Amani felt panicked about preparing her kids for the race's outcome. At the finale, amid the hype and anticipation, she let them in on the secret and watched as the excitement in their eyes gave way to tears of disbelief.
Soon after, the network showed the Pollards crossing the finish line in third place. Her family was quiet as the onscreen Amani celebrated. They had finished "The Amazing Race"! They had come in third! And they had avoided elimination! Standing at the finish line, Amani said the words she now hopes her children will never forget: "I think the big lesson in this is that you're not going to win at everything, but whatever you do, do not quit. As long as you don't quit, you always win!"
In that moment, Marcus and Amani became true champions. The Pollards had treated each other with love and respect under taxing circumstances. They had not given up. And they had proven that the strength of their marriage was genuine. Amani says, "We still were the same people that we always were, and I loved that nothing changed that."Pam Woody is a freelance writer and the marriage editor of Thriving Family.