Updated 2 hours ago
As soon as Jen Hudak and Western Pennsylvania’s Kristi Leskinen gathered the parts for their mock airplane — a task the duo called Team Extreme got to before the other two remaining teams on “The Amazing Race” — they thought, this is it. They were going to win the $1 million grand prize and come in first.
But then, Hudak’s mechanically oriented mind focused on the sensible assembly of an airplane, and missed the hidden puzzle in the maddening final challenge that one member of each team had to try repeatedly until they figured it out. Meanwhile, their partners watched and cheered them on as they endured the final task aboard the USS Hornet in San Francisco.
Without knowing it, Hudak — of Park City, Utah — came within one piece of finishing the plane on her first try, but she didn’t put a wing on backward, as the puzzle full of symbols from the journey of the CBS show’s 30th season required. Alas, Team Extreme — leaders all season — came in third place, and felt heartbroken initially.
Jen Hudak races to complete a model plane in the final challenge of this season’s “The Amazing Race.”
Photo by CBS
“I love puzzles and was looking forward to the final memory challenge,” Hudak says. “It was our life experience that caused us to look at it the way we did … of course, we can’t have a wing on backwards.”
Leskinen and Hudak, both retired champion skiers, say their backgrounds in extreme sports gave them a good foundation for the many challenges contestants face on “The Amazing Race,” but you never know what those will be.
“You just have to hope that your life experience up to that point is varied enough to help you get through those things,” says Leskinen, a native of Hopwood, Fayette County. “Jen and I both have quite mechanical minds, especially for women. It’s our life experience that kind of got us to the finals, but it’s also our life experience that gave us mechanical minds.
“It is what it is,” she says. “We all were dealt the same cards and dealt with the same obstacles.”
Kristi Leskinen (left) gets encouragement from her team partner Jen Hudak before climbing the center anchorage of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and jumping with a bungee cord on “The Amazing Race.”
Photo by CBS
Leskinen and Hudak — who are enjoying watching skiing events on the Winter Olympics with pride -— and their fellow competitors faced many unpleasant and taxing challenges over the season, including one where Hudak had to eat cooked scorpions and a frog while live scorpions crawled on Leskinen’s shirt. But the most difficult challenges all came in Wednesday night’s final episode, starting with the task of tying up a few dozen hairy crabs on a fishing boat in the rain. Then, Leskinen had to smash into old electronics with a baseball bat.
“It was extremely painful,” says Leskinen, whose hands hurt for several months after filming ended and required an X-ray. “I was literally swinging those bats as hard as I possibly could, and some of those screens weren’t cracking.”
Jen Hudak (left) and Kristi Leskinen had to tie up a few dozen hairy crabs in Hong Kong.
Photo by CBS
Undeniably, Leskinen and Hudak have been kicking themselves for coming so close to winning $1 million, then watching it slip through their fingers. Still, they said, the race experience — which brought contestants to places including Iceland, Africa, France and Hong Kong — indeed was amazing, and they would be thrilled to join an all-star season of “The Amazing Race” if invited. Team Extreme was the only team in the show’s history that made the top three in every single episode.
“We have a feeling of immense gratitude and pride in the way we raced,” Hudak says. “We wanted to set an example for women … and show them that they can do anything that they set their minds to, and they can compete against anyone.”
The encouraging messages she and Leskinen have received, Hudak says, bring her to tears.
“It’s a really special opportunity to have a platform,” she says. “Yes, we’re disappointed that the final challenge didn’t work out a little bit differently, but we can’t let that one moment define everything else we achieved in that race.”
Leskinen agrees, and loved the adventure of being able “to wake up in random countries around the world … and not know where we’re going.”
“We loved every minute of it,” says Leskinen, who divides her time between her Western Pennsylvania hometown and Scottsdale, Ariz.
Both women thank all of their fans from home and around the country for their support.
Kellie B. Gormly is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.