By Connie Wardman

Mark your calendars for August 14! It’s not only the worldwide debut of the “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji” on Amazon Prime Video, it’s also the debut of Team Onyx, the first entirely African American adventure racing team representing the U.S. while competing on an international stage. The five-person team includes both gay and straight competitors from the east and west coasts and from middle America.

Team Onyx from the United States (team members Clifton Lyles, Corree Aussem-Woltering, Samantha Scipio, Chriss Smith and Mikayla Lyles) during the 2019 Eco-Challenge adventure race in Fiji on Tuesday, September 10, 2019. (Idris Solomon/Amazon)

MEET TEAM ONYX
Here’s the Team Onyx lineup, wearing the No. 55 patch:
Clifton Lyles, age 48 – Team Captain
VP of a food company, he’s from Oakland, California
• Competed in Montana MARA & Primal Quest 2004, 2006
• Didn’t finish Primal Quest as a team; wants to finish that at Eco-Challenge
• Started adventure racing in 1999 after seeing Primal Quest
• His dream was to put together an all African American team
• His daughter is Mikayla
• He’s a retired Marine

Coree Aussem-Woltering, age 29
Ultra Runner, he’s from Ottawa, Illinois
• Has run 23 ultra marathons and eight half Ironman Triathlons
• Started competing in triathlons right out of college and has done about 15-20
• Most recently achieved overall “Fastest Known Time” record on Ice Age National Scenic Trail, completing entire 1,200 miles in 21 days, 13 hours and 35 minutes
• Part of the LGBTQ+ community; describes himself as sassy – races in a speedo and crop top and likes to find his inner Beyonce

Sam Scipio, age 29
Designer, part-time bike mechanic, she’s from Chicago, Illinois
• Ultra-endurance bikepacker, cyclocrosser, road racer and mountain biker
• Competed the Tour Divide 2,799 -mile mountain bike race
• Completed The Trans North Georgia – 375 miles
• Placed fourth overall in Intelligentsia Cup – 10-day road race series
• Was on Star Search at age 12

Chriss Smith, age 53
Crossfit Gym Owner in Alexandria, Virginia
• Competed in Primal Quest 2015, GodZone and Arrowhead 135-miler
• Done multiple 50-mile races; walked 250 miles across Greece
• Former Navy Seal, served 12 years in the traditional team and additional time in a special mission unit
• Winner of TV show “1 Man Army”

Mikayla Lyles, age 27 – Assistant Crewmember
Film Maker, she’s from Pleasanton, California
• Played basketball for UC Berkley and made it to Final Four when she was on the team
• Part of the LGBTQ+ community
• Daughter of Clifton

Fun Fact: Out of the three African Americans who have competed in Primal Quest, two of them are on this team.

If you’ve been depressed over the lack of sports due to Covid-19, this 10-episode series definitely will be a welcome respite from sports reruns. Filmed in the fall of 2019 prior to onset of the pandemic, the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji is hosted and co-produced by celebrity survival expert Bear Grylls, famous through his survival series, “Man vs. Wild” and “Running Wild with Bear Grylls.”

Team Onyx from the United States (team members Clifton Lyles, Corree Aussem-Woltering, Samantha Scipio, Chriss Smith and Mikayla Lyles) during the 2019 Eco-Challenge adventure race in Fiji on Tuesday, September 10, 2019. (Poby/Amazon)

Sixty-six teams will race non-stop, 24-hours-a-day for 11 days across some of the most beautiful but rugged, unforgiving terrain Fiji has to offer. They’ll race 417 miles through dense jungles, steep mountains, winding rivers, treacherous oceans and dangerous swamps. And while the teams are racing against each other for prize money of $100,000, $50,000 and $25,000 for first, second and third finishers, their biggest competitor is actually Mother Nature!

Skills each team member is required to have include outrigger paddling, mountain biking, rappelling, climbing, whitewater rafting, paddle boarding and canyoneering. Team members receive a list of certifications they’re required to have prior to arriving in Fiji. And once there, they all must pass assessment tests before beginning the race to ensure they’re fit for the challenge.

As far as the racers are concerned, wheeled transportation doesn’t exist for this competition. All navigation is done only by map and compass, and teams are required to use expedition problem-solving skills to reach the finish line. If for any reason a team member quits the race or is unable to complete it, the entire team is disqualified. Testing the limits of their physical and mental endurance, the only hope a team has of finishing this latter-day quest to become a Super Hero is to be able to work together under absolute extreme stress and fatigue.

Each team, racing under a single country flag, is made up of four competitors that includes at least one member of the opposite sex as well as an assistant crewmember who helps their team from base camp. With a total of 330 elite men and women athletes, they represent 30 countries that include the U.S., Australia, U.K., Japan, Russia, Mexico, France, South Africa, New Zealand, Turkey and Canada.

The camera work is as stunning as the scenery. In order to adequately capture this constant movement, the Biggest Adventure Race Production team consists of almost 700 people from 21 different countries. That includes a technical crew of 109 (zone/embedded ops, field producers, sound, etc.) from all backgrounds, including adventure racing.

Grylls mentioned the diversity of the competitor field, including Team Onyx as the first fully African American team competing internationally. Noting how difficult it is to see racers dropping out after spending so much time and energy in preparing for it, “I unashamedly wept at times,” he said, “ seeing the effort and what it meant to these people.”

The executive producer of “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji” is Emmy Award-winning producer Mark Burnett of “Survivor” and “The Voice” fame.

So, did Team Onyx survive to the finish line? I’ll never tell – you need to watch it on Amazon Prime!