The blusterer was Frank Ryan, an ex-Syracuse decathlete who drove three hours from Binghamton, N.Y., with his buddy Steve Fabian. To help pass the time on the drive down, they thought up Gladiator-like nicknames for themselves.
"Today, I am Tiberius," said Ryan.
"Please call me Lithium," said Fabian.
I had learned about the chin-up requirement in early February, at which time I could do 10 in 30 seconds. I phoned my brother Mark, the person I know who's closest to being a biceps specialist—he's the kind of guy who does 10 sets of curls on Friday if he knows he'll be on a beach Saturday—and explained my situation: I had six weeks to increase my chin-up capacity by 150%.
"You need to go to the gun shop," said Mark, using weight-room slang for biceps. He designed an accelerated chin-up course for me, and so four times a 5 week at my Brooklyn health club, I had been chinning myself to exhaustion. By tryout time I was up to 16 chin-ups. My "guns" were still Derringer-sized. The crash course had failed.
Salvation dawned the day before the tryouts during a breakfast interview with Fetrick, who was in New York to promote the show. "Cheat," she said. "Don't go all the way down."
Cheat I did. I knocked out about 14 tainted chins before I started struggling, at which point my official counter, an affable young man named Craig, began counting by threes. Despite Craig's best efforts, I officially washed out in the very next phase, the 40-yard dash. Men had to run it in under five seconds. In high school and college, I had run 4.8's. That morning, a decade or so since my last 4.8, I assumed a three-point stance and spun my wheels on the slick concrete like a cartoon character trying to "scram." Some moments later, I commenced making forward progress.
"You didn't make it," said a stern young woman with a stopwatch. I asked how close I had come. "Not very," she said. Could she be more specific? "Five-six," she bellowed.
"Sssshh!" I hissed, mortified. Five-point-six seconds to run the 40? Self-loathing welled up in me.
By the time I recovered, the field was being further whittled down in a modified version of Powerball. Only 100 of the original 3,000 hopefuls made it to this event, wherein producers determine which candidates have the necessary appetite for collisions. Two candidates stand facing each other on a swatch of indoor/ outdoor rug. The offensive player tries to get three inflatable balls into a cylinder; the defender's job is to prevent his opponent from doing so. The rules say no tackling or body slamming, but no one was bothering to enforce them.