This article previously appeared on Advocate.com, read the original here.
Will Jardell and James Wallington weren’t expected to win The Amazing Race. Although the gay couple had made it to the final three in season 32, they were behind the front-runners, the volleyball-playing bearded brothers Riley and Maddison McKibbin, until the brothers’ cabbie got lost.
Suddenly the boyfriends took the lead, putting them right where Wallington had dreamed of being since he was a kid. He had already tried out for The Amazing Race numerous times before he met Jardell.
Jardell brought reality TV experience to the relationship, having finished as runner-up in cycle 21 of America’s Next Top Model with Tyra Banks, behind the competition’s first male winner, Keith Carlos. Jardell says Top Model benefited him in “the learning curve of realizing that a camera’s in your face 24/7.” Otherwise, he jokes, “to be honest, all the time on Top Model, all we did was hang out in a house and have people take our photos. It’s definitely not as challenging as The Amazing Race, when you’re literally doing the hardest things you could ever imagine.”
Jardell and Wallington have been traveling together almost since the moment they met in 2014. “Our very first trip together was to New York City, and it was probably the worst trip I think either of us ever had,” Jardell recalls. “Everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong. We had to move to three different locations to spend the night, it was 17 degrees, we had three massive suitcases going around New York City in the snow! [But] we worked really well together.”
Despite that inauspicious start, the couple kept traveling, becoming known as the “Backpacking Boyfriends” as they covered their adventures around the globe. And they tried out for The Amazing Race. Together they made the cut in 2018 (production delays postponed the airing until last year). And that’s when the real effort began.
The couple dove deeper into the show, deconstructing every episode. They credit their ultimate win to their training. “We learned seven different languages and six key phrases in each of those,” Jardell says. “And we ran up to seven miles at night after working.”
Preparation is also something that Jardell thinks is critical for LGBTQ+ travelers in general. He recommends researching destinations’ laws and says, “It’s very important to be culturally competent, because if you go to a country and you’re displaying affection ... granted, yes, it’s beautiful, but there’s a lot of people in those countries who aren’t able to do that. And so your vibe needs to be respectful and safe.”
Long before they made it on to the show, the boyfriends say The Amazing Race made a big difference in their lives. “Unscripted TV was where we saw our first representation of gay people or people in the LGBT community,” Jardell notes. “Growing up in a small town, for me, that was huge because it was seeing people who were real and not scripted live out their truth. I think that was a massive step in my formation as a young adult.”
They’ve heard from parents, queer teens, and other adults discussing the importance of them being on the competition. Jardell and Wallington weren’t the first gay couple to be on The Amazing Race. They aren’t even the first to win. That honor goes to season 4’s then-couple Reichen Lehmkuhl and Chip Arndt. But that was back in 2003, before today’s queer kids were even born.
“I think a huge leap forward for unscripted TV is the fact that not once during the show did they ever have to refer to us as ‘gay,’” Jardell muses now. “They only referred to us as ‘dating’ or ‘boyfriends,’ and I think that was massive. A different demographic watches The Amazing Race, and so they’re able to see a loving couple who they might not normally see in their day-to-day lives.”
“In Bogotá, it was an extremely stressful [challenge] … but when we finally figured it out together, we shared a kiss,” Wallington says. He remembers a castmate asking, “‘Do you realize how huge that kiss was? For me watching it? Because that’s something you wouldn’t have seen years ago on television.’”
Jardell recounts something his mom said to him: “‘You are changing lives one at a time.’ It may not be like this vast, ‘The world has changed because you were on The Amazing Race,’ but if you’re able to change one life, that’s the goal of every human on earth.”
If reliving those moments — and seeing other people respond to them — was joyful for Jardell and Wallington, other moments were not. After building an initial alliance of five teams, the boyfriends, the beards, and the parents (Chee Lee and Hung Nguyen) split off in episode 11 in order to oust former NFL stars DeAngelo Williams and Gary Barnidge. Although the strategy earned the three teams spots in the finale, it also came with some criticism.
“It definitely surprised us a little bit,” Wallington says. “Just because alliances aren’t a foreign concept to The Amazing Race. It was a strategy we had seen in previous seasons. I think the only difference is those types of alliances weren’t long-term or successful, and for us on season 32, it ultimately ended up being successful and very long-term.”
Of course, that alliance was particularly valuable for the couple who won the million-dollar prize. But Jardell and Wallington say it’s what came after they crossed the finish line that was the most meaningful. Jardell dropped to one knee and asked Wallington to marry him. They are planning to wed in New Orleans, returning to the city that celebrated their win.
Wallington admits, “I don’t think at the time we understood that this [win] was bigger than us … until [The Amazing Race’s host] Phil [Keoghan] at the finish line looked at us and said, ‘I want to make sure you both have said everything you’ve wanted to say, because this is a huge moment for your community.’ When Phil like kind of laid that out for us, it hit us. And I just really appreciated how … [he made] sure that we said everything we should have in that moment.”
Asked about their plans for the prize money, Wallington says they’ll invest in growing their family. “We’re really looking forward to adopting,” he explains. “I’m adopted too. So that’s why it’s so important for Will and I to start going down that path together.”
The boyfriends say they are itching to get back on the road. But after their Amazing Race appearance, they no longer want to travel alone. “Will and I had such an incredible experience bonding and connecting with all of the other teams,” Wallington says. “There’s a sense of community that comes with travel. So the idea of now expanding our adventures and bringing people with us is exciting.”
“We’re planning a couple of trips in 2021, and anybody can come join us,” Jardell continues. After the pace of The Amazing Race, though, the two say they are prepping for longer trips. “Even seven days [can be] like barely skimming the surface of these amazing places around the world,” Jardell says.
Wallington adds that having time to get to know a different culture is “so important and super exciting.”
“Because you really learn so much about each other,” Jardell says. “And at the end of the day, we’re all human.”
Photography by Luke Fontana. Styling by Benjamin Holtrop.