As the director of USC Orientation Programs, Tom Studdert is used to helping incoming freshmen and transfer students overcome obstacles. But when he and USC Dornsife creative writing student Matt Schaefer became contestants on an episode of the ABC game show Wipeout, airing Tuesday, July 10 at 8 p.m., the word “obstacle” took on a much bigger meaning.
In each Wipeout, 24 contestants try to navigate outlandish obstacle courses, attempting physical feats, such as using a series of 6-foot-tall red rubber balls as “stepping stones” to traverse a pool. Other obstacles include a wall of boxing gloves that spring out to punch contestants as they navigate a narrow ledge, trapezes, ziplines, slides, swings, hurdles, treadmills, unstable platforms, giant hammers and more.
Studdert, who was a competitive swimmer as an undergraduate at Arizona State University, called his first run through a Wipeout course “the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done in my life.” He added, “It was only five minutes, but it just takes it all out of you because of the adrenaline and the excitement and the physicality of it all.”
The show didn’t look that hard to Studdert when he watched several episodes while visiting his parents in Arizona over winter break 2011.
“I thought, I could totally do that. I’m athletic. I’m physically fit. I should try out for that,” he recalled.
After sending in his application, he received a call encouraging him to audition for one of the episodes featuring three kinds of teams: families, couples on blind dates and boss-employee pairs.
“Matt was an orientation adviser and a special project assistant,” Studdert said. “I asked, ‘Hey, would you be interested in doing this?’ Of course, I told him that the grand prize was $50,000, and immediately, he said yes.”
A yo-yo champion and quick-witted creative writing major, Schaefer proved to be a natural entertainer at the audition. Studdert credited his teammate’s hidden talents and their USC pedigree with landing them a spot on the show — even though Wipeout received a whopping 84,000 applications for its fifth season.
“A lot of it had to do with the fact that we work at USC,” he said. “We were told in the contestant trailer to say on the show that we worked in orientation at USC. We were asked specifically to wear cardinal colors. There were a lot of people on the set that clearly had gone to USC because they kept telling us, ‘Fight On!’ And one of the tents that the cameramen were under actually was a USC tent. When the photographer took our photos, he said, ‘Fellow Trojans, come over this way, I need to take your photos.’ And so there was this kinship on the set with other USC people.”
Studdert and Schaefer had to remind themselves to “Fight On” after the grueling qualifying course.
“Matt and I looked at each other, and we were both on the ground,” Studdert said. “I thought I was going to throw up. He could barely catch his breath; he was coughing pretty badly. And we looked at each other and said, ‘You know what? It’s totally fine if we don’t make it. We’re good. We’re ready to go home.’ ”
Instead, they advanced to the next course, leaping over obstacles, hanging from trapezes and enduring their share of spectacular wipeouts — often falling as far as 25 feet into the pools of ice water that surrounded the course.
Studdert sustained two injuries — a torn ligament in his shoulder and a bone bruise on his leg — but still feels that it was worth it. For him, it was more than a zany obstacle course; it was also a one-of-a-kind experience with a student he enjoyed working with for several years.
“One of the things that was really cool was when we were getting all taped up, the trainers were asking us what we do,” he said. “Matt said that he works in orientation, but he was graduating, and that he had gotten this great job as a supervisor of a literacy program in neighborhood schools around USC. He was talking about working with kids and getting them an early jump start on reading, and I just beamed with pride. I thought, it doesn’t matter how we do on Wipeout. What matters is that hopefully I’ve had some type of an impact on this kid’s life, that he’s going out there and doing these amazing things in the world. That’s really the takeaway.”