Entertain, Educate, and Energize : Colin O'Brady Sees BYUtv's Survivalists as an Inspiration to Families

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Colin O'Brady has lived the type of life adventure movies are made of. Whole franchises of movies, in fact. He has climbed the highest mountains in the world, rowed across the most challenging waterways, trekked through the fiercest environments.

From his recovery after a devastating burn injury to winning the Chicago Triathlon, the first Olympic-distance triathlon he ever entered, to founding his not-for-profit organization, which aims to inspire young people to live healthy, active lives, O'Brady reaches every goal he sets for himself and always has another in his sights.

Currently, he also wears the hat of host for the BYUtv competition series, Survivalists, where families go head-to-head in a series of wilderness survival challenges. Season 2 premieres on May 4 (9pm ET/6pm PT) and, in this exclusive phone interview with TV Fanatic, O'Brady was happy to tell us about his experiences.

Colin O'Brady Close Up

So, how does a multiple-world record holder and retired (at age 30!) triathlete find himself hosting a reality TV competition show?

"I got to know Mark Koops, who is the famous unscripted producer behind The Biggest Loser, Masterchef, all large, unscripted franchises. We became friends over the years. He followed some of my big expeditions to Antarctica and whatnot.

"He was always like, 'Hey, we should find a way to work together.' About a year or so ago, he called me, and he says, 'Hey, I'm working on this show, and I think you'd be a great host for it. It's all about bringing families out on adventures and teaching valuable lessons in the outdoors. What do you think?"

"I immediately lit up. My family didn't have a lot of money when we were kids, but my dad was an Eagle Scout. He would take us out camping and things like that. Some really important memories from my childhood were formed around the outdoors and family.

"I also do a lot of work with kids, using my expeditions as a platform to inspire young people to get outside, move their bodies, live active and healthy lives.

Backpack Vertical

"Survivalists just seemed like a great combination of a lot of my different passions, and being the host and guide of those experiences for families has been really, really, really fun."

As each episode takes a week to film, O'Brady gets a lot of time to meet and get to know the families taking part. For him, it's a huge part of the experience. The scenery of their shooting locations is also a big draw.

"Our first season, we filmed in Sun Valley, Idaho, and then Season 2, which premieres on May 4, was filmed in Moab, Utah. Both locations were beautiful, dramatic, amazing landscapes. It's pretty immersive.

"The families are in town for the week. We film each episode over the course of a week. It's great. I get to know the families pretty well.

"Their first day, we do these adventure challenges. We call that our Base Camp area where they compete in a series of survival challenges like knot-tying, or identifying poisonous food, or understanding animals tracks, definite survival skills.

General Store

"The families compete against each other, and that gives them priority into what's called the General Store where they have to shop for their gear, kind of in a Supermarket Sweep-esque style. [They have a] very short amount of time that I give them to take all the gear they're going to need to survive in the wild for the next few days and several nights.

"And then they're out on this adventure, really out there in the wild. I really get to know the families, of course, on-screen, but off-screen as well. I get to know these families and get to know, certainly, some of the younger participants, the kids, they really light me up, and it's really exciting to see just their transformation in a week as young human beings.

"They come in on Monday kind of nervous. Then, they may have rappelled down a rock cliff or spent the night out in the wild and overcome some fears. Win or lose, both families are generally beaming with excitement and confidence at the end, which is really beautiful to see."

The competition requires the competitors to put away their screens for the entirety of the competition. No phones. No tablets. No laptops. How does that experience play out for these modern-day families? 

"In that sense, it's very foreign. They're there, and they're present. We're in some pretty far backcountry.

Harkrider & Pace Families - Rappelling

"Obviously, we have safety protocols and stuff to keep them safe, but there's no cell phone service. They're out there. They're really camping.

"It's not just a made-up show. They're out there surviving and making their way through some pretty rugged terrain.

"We try to match families up against each other that are evenly matched so maybe their children are similar ages, or they have similar backgrounds with camping and stuff like that.

"And we've had a wide range. We've had families who are both active, outdoorsy families, going head-to-head. That's a higher level of competition in terms of survival and speed.

"And we've had families go up against each other, both of whom have never had a night of camping in their entire life.

"We've had families from the South who have never spent time in the West before, and all of a sudden, they're in Idaho or Utah at elevation, walking up these mountains. It presents challenges for them but also, it's beautiful that these inexperienced families have the courage and tenacity to take on the challenge.

"I remember in one of our early episodes, we had a family from Alabama, and they're standing on the top of an 11,000-foot peak in Idaho just with tears in their eyes, like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe we're here.' Just the beauty of the experience, they were so taken by it.

"So, to get them off their phones and to be fully captive is foreign, but despite the initial resistance to that, usually, they say, 'Oh, this was just what my family needed, to disconnect and be present with one another and bond.' "

While all American families are eligible to compete, the show has yet to draw a team from outside the contiguous U.S.

"We do draw from everywhere in the United States. There's no geographical limitation on that. I can't think of a family that we've had yet from Hawaii or Alaska. I don't think we're purposefully discriminating, but we definitely have them from all over.

Colin O'Brady Lean Back

"We get people from smaller, rural communities. We get people who are like, 'Hey, we live in New York City or right outside New Jersey.' We get people from urban, rural settings, the West, the East, the South, all across the board. It's fun. It's a pretty diverse group and backgrounds that these families bring."

The nature of the show made it unusually suited to production during the pandemic.

"Season 1 was filmed in June and July of 2020, so still during COVID. Both [seasons] were filmed in COVID. One of the benefits of this show, and it's just a fortunate coincidence, I suppose, is this show is filmed completely outside. There's no indoor set. They're outside.

"Of course, with myself, with the families, with the crew, we take it very seriously, [observing] all the protocols with mask-wearing and social distancing, etc.

"But when other shows -- certainly shows that are normally shot inside, with big group scenes, and stuff like that -- were pretty shut down, we were able to avoid a lot of that just by virtue of the fact we're outside.

"We keep the families on-set in a space apart from each other. I have a space apart from them. And then, they're taking PCR tests before they arrive, and that kind of a thing.

"We really lucked out. We didn't have any COVID breakouts with the cast or crew or anything, and we took it very seriously. But I think just being able to be outside the whole time was definitely one of the huge benefits in terms of dealing with this in the context of COVID."

While both shooting locations were spectacular examples of untouched backcountry, Season 2's location presented a lot of new elements to challenge the competitors, including a huge swing in temperature from day to night.

"They're really different places. Idaho in the summer [is] a little bit higher altitude but a little bit more green and lush. We were crossing rivers and marshes and things like that.

"Whereas, in Utah, in Moab, that's high desert. It's one of the more unique desert landscapes you'll ever see. Its big, red stone towers.

Serratos & Lutz-Carillo Familes Rafting

"In both seasons, we had contestants out on rivers and river rafting and stuff like that but set against very dramatically different backdrops.

"I think one of the biggest differences in Moab in Utah compared to Idaho for Season 2 was, although the desert is warm during the day, it's also really cold at night, and so we had a pretty wide temperature range.

"Middle of the day, with the sun out, it could've been 70, 75, 80 degrees, that kind of a thing. Warm, sunny days. But it got well below freezing at night several of the weeks when we were filming -- snow on the ground, higher elevation.

"It's always challenging, and part of the show is, 'Hey, you've only got a couple of minutes to pack for three days surviving out there. Hey, by the way, it's going to be both 25 F, below freezing, and then 80 F.' How do you pack for that in a limited amount of time?

"Families having to navigate those big swings in weather was a unique difference with Mowab versus Idaho, which was in the peak of summer and was a little bit more consistent, weather-wise."

Contestants on Survivalists can expect to face three gate-keeper challenges to access their gear. What those challenges are can be a surprise, though.

"We mix it up. It's not always three completely different ones every single episode. We have about six or eight different challenges in rotation, and they do three.

"One thing that was interesting between Season 1 and Season 2 was that, of course, in Season 1, none of the contestants had ever seen the show before because it was a new show.

"And people show up on Season 2, having watched all the episodes from Season 1. So they're like, 'Oh, I was ready for the Water Challenge or the Knot Challenge,' or whatever.

"So we threw a few completely new challenges in on Season 2 that weren't there in Season 1 to keep the contestants guessing as well. We try to mix it up and keep it interesting. That's for sure."

Warren & Yuen Families - Knot-Tying Challenge

As the host and real-life survivalist, O'Brady has some favorite challenges and enjoys being able to demonstrate when he can.

"I demonstrate the ones where it makes sense. For example, the knot-tying challenge. The way that works is I tie one of the several common survival knots that you would use in climbing, mountaineering, survival, etc.

"I demonstrate that, and then they have to race to recreate that knot. And they kind of go head-to-head with several different knots. In that [situation], it makes sense for me to demonstrate it.

"Or we have the slingshot challenge -- it was a new one for Season 2 -- where you take the slingshot, and we're basically shooting bottles off of a fence post with rocks, and I demonstrate that. Fortunately, I was able to show them how that works, knock my own bottle off a couple of times in demonstration.

Jones & Renteria Families - Slingshot Challenge

"But then another one that doesn't really [make sense] for me to demonstrate is when they're guessing animal tracks. I'm obviously not going to tell them the answers before they have to guess.

"One of my favorite challenges is one we've had in both seasons -- but we amped it up in Season 2 to make it even more interesting -- is this Water Challenge.

"Two members of each family [compete]. They get to choose who competes, but if you compete in one challenge, you can't compete in the next, so they're thinking about that as they go through.

"You have these two buckets, and you have to run down, fill up these buckets, come back up, fill up this barrel, and keep doing that until the barrel is filled all the way up. Then you fill up this jar once there's enough water in this barrel.

"In the first season, we did it with these hand-pump reservoirs, which was cool, but our Base Camp was right beside this beautiful lake in Moab on the second season.

Serratos & Lutz-Carillo Families Water Challenge

"So we actually had the contestants running into the frigid Colorado River, filling up their buckets, running back up this hill,  this sandy hill which is pretty tough. It was a physical challenge, and people got wet. It got interesting, but that was always one of my favorites for sure."

While the overarching purpose of Survivalists is to bring families closer through team-building and motivate them to get out in nature and lead active lives, it's still a competition.

"Y'know, they're playing for ten thousand dollars, so that's a meaningful cash prize. And it varies. We see it all.

"In the end, what I think everyone realizes -- and not because we're pushing them in any one direction -- the true value of this experience is the time as a family, is the bonding, is the life experience, is parents seeing their kids overcome obstacles and vice versa.

"Sometimes, it's the kids leading the charge and showing their parents the way. And so it's not always the parents as the leaders.

Armes & Hill Families - Rappelling

"These families, they're out here to win! They're like, 'Hey, I want that backpack full of ten thousand dollars cash when I get to the end of this,' and they're pushing hard.

"As competitive as it has gotten -- and that's exciting, of course -- in the end, both families, I think, usually have a great deal of respect for one another.

"I think almost at every finish line, even [when] they're racing for three days, and it comes down to a photo finish, it's intense when it gets close. And the team that loses is a little bit disappointed.

"But I've never seen an instance where a whole family, a minute later, doesn't go over and hug and congratulate the other family because they both realize and empathize with, 'Man, you just went through all of that too. You just overcame. Here you are at the finish line. You've rappelled down this, you've rafted down this, you climbed up that.'

Colin O'Brady Blue Jacket

"And we've seen some really fun friendships form, even with the kids who are competing against each other. I can think of a few episodes where at the end I remember, just off-set, hearing the kids say, 'Aw, I can't wait to keep in touch!' and like, 'We're gonna come to visit each other when we can travel!' and that kind of stuff.

"It's really fun to see both the competition but also the camaraderie and good sportsmanship that forms between both families."

From his perspective as an experienced adventurer, O'Brady had to hold himself back when he saw contestants made errors out of their inexperience.

"Oh, for sure! There's plenty of mistakes. Sometimes, I'm allowed to point them out afterward, but in the flow of [the moment], I'm not supposed to say, 'Hey, don't do that!'

"I certainly don't want to play favorites, one family over the other, so if I'm giving a tip, I always make sure that I give it to both groups equally as the impartial host.

"But, absolutely, I can think of families who have never seen freeze-dried meals before which is in the General Store. It's a lot lighter weight on your back. But we also stock the General Store with other types of food and even canned food.

"I remember one family who just grabbed a bunch of canned food, and I was like, 'Man, that's going to be real heavy on your back.'

"I remember seeing the father of that episode later on being like, 'Oh, man, why don't we carry that light-weight freeze-dried food? I'm carrying all this weight on my back.'

"So there's stuff like that where people just... they're inexperienced [through] no fault of their own. They just have never been out there like that before.

"But people are usually good sports about it. They realize, 'Oh hey, we made this mistake, but we're gonna keep soldiering on.'

Burrell & Devries Families

"Also, sometimes, they're navigating themselves. We give them a GPS, and we give them waypoints, but they're out in this rugged landscape. And, sometimes, it's obvious, like, 'Hey, walk in a straight line for a mile across this...'

"But other times, as the crow flies, it might be a shorter distance, but you have to go down, across a swamp, all the way back up, up and around, and... OR you could stay high on a ridgeline.

"For me, as an experienced outdoorsman, I notice those things intuitively. 'Oh, this might be a shorter distance, but it's actually going to be way easier if you stay above the treeline and don't get bogged down in that swamp.'

"And, of course, people who haven't been out camping or in the backcountry navigating themselves -- there are no trails in a lot of these places, they're just out there -- they make the mistake of trying to go to the shortest line, the shortest direction.

"Then all of a sudden, they're like, 'Oh my god, why are we all down here? We're stuck, or we got turned around.' But, yeah, that certainly happens, and that's all part of the game."

Colin O'Brady Over the Shoulder Horizontal Crop

Part of O'Grady's enthusiasm for hosting Survivalists is that it educates as well as entertains.

"I think that's a huge part of it. Of course, we have these families who are on the show themselves, learning and competing.

"But I like to think that the real benefit and excitement is, yes, we're entertaining families, but I love to think of families sitting together, watching the show, looking over at one another, and saying, 'We should go on a camping trip!' and 'We learned this, that, and the other thing from watching Survivalists, so we're not going to make that mistake,' or, 'Let's try rafting or paddleboarding,' or something that they never thought about trying and inspires them to skid a little out of their comfort zone and try something new as a family, not just watching but turning that watching of the show into action in their own lives."

While every family is unique, there are archetypal roles within families, and O'Brady observes that the dynamic often shifts as the competition progresses.

"I remember one father coming in and saying, 'I know how to tie all the knots. I was a fireman,' and him getting to the knot-tying challenge, and his mind went blank. He couldn't remember how to tie the knots. That kind of stuff happens.

Harkrider & Pace Families - Mom and Daughter

"On the flip side, I can remember an episode where there was a big family with four kids, and they had a young daughter. She was eight or nine years old, kind of on the lower limit. We don't usually go much younger than that.

"She had some big, strong older brothers, and the mom was kind of like, 'Y'know, we're really worried about [her]. We don't know if she's going to be able to handle it, pull her own weight, or whatever,' and as the episode went on, she was one of the strongest members of the whole family.

"She's running to the top of the mountain and being like, 'Mom! Come on! Catch up!' and she's just this four-foot-tall, nine-year-old girl.

"Honestly, you never can tell who's going to be the stronger or the least strong member of the team. You really can't judge a book by its cover."

It doesn't appear that O'Brady recognizes the term "downtime" as he's currently climbing Everest. AGAIN. At the time of our interview, he was preparing to travel to Nepal.

"I'm going to Everest. This will be my second time. I'll be attempting to climb this time without supplemental oxygen.

"I haven't announced all the details, but there will be a few extra, even increased challenges upon that as well, but I'm excited to return to Nepal, and my wife will be with me. Her first time in Nepal. It'll be fun to be up on the mountain with her as well."

O'Brady and his wife, Jen, are partners in life as well as in their not-for-profit organization.

"My non-profit is called Beyond 7/2, and that's been something we've worked on for six, seven years now.

"All of my expeditions -- I was just on K2 this winter, I rowed a boat across Drake Passage the year before, walked across Antarctica alone the year before that -- all my big expeditions are connected to my non-profit.

"We catalyze large movements of school kids, inspire young people to get outside, move their bodies, live active and healthy lives. This year, of course, in the digital world because most kids aren't back in school in person most of this year.

"We do a lot of work specific to STEM curriculum, so each one of the projects presents different things around Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. And we build curriculums where the students can follow along.

"My project's live, but it's not just as a passive, 'Oh, let's watch this guy on social media climb a mountain, or walk across a continent,' or something like that.

"It's like, 'Hey, now let's learn about ...' [we believe] doing that excites their mind as they can watch this real-life and I'm having a back-and-forth conversation with them. They can ask questions. That's exciting in itself.

"Then, we go a step deeper to say, 'Now, you were going to learn about ocean currents,' or, 'You were going to learn about climate and weather,' or, 'You were going to learn about atmospheric pressure or sustainability,' or things like that that were a part of their curriculum anyway and we can bake that into them while they're learning about this expedition in the outdoors that I'm doing.

"Teachers, through their STEM curriculums that we've helped them create and form, teach in the classroom to that, which is really, really fun to see with the young people.

"So, this Everest expedition will certainly have the same drumbeat of that interspersed as I always do with my expeditions over many years now."

Amazingly, these curriculums are available for free to educators across the United States and globally.

"I work with a woman named Dacia Penley (Jones), but her 'teacher name' is Dr. Drizzle. You can find information about her online, and she is a longtime educator and STEM educator. Now, she's a consultant for teachers.

"She's been an incredible partner for us over the years. It's free to sign up. Any teacher. Any school district. We've had people from pretty much every continent at this point participate in various ways. We put up information every time.

"We're about to launch the website for this specific expedition, but you can look back on the previous one, The Impossible Summit, and read all about what we did. It will be very similar.

"With Dacia, as Dr. Drizzle, and the curriculums we've built and created around that. It's really exciting. It's a big passion of mine. It's fun."

O'Brady's natural leanings toward teaching and sharing knowledge lend themselves well to his hosting duties on Survivalists.

"Yeah, I think that's part of it. Part of being the host of the show is to help mentor and facilitate, both on-camera and off-camera.

Handing Them the Challenge

"I try not to give any favoritism to one family over the other, but part of my role out there is to be an expert, and they ask me questions.

"I try to help them and teach them as best as I can, still within the parameters of the game without giving anyone an advantage."

With everything, he has done already, what could possibly be O'Brady's next goal? The biggest challenge yet, of course.

"My wife and I hope to start a family of our own this year, so that's the top of the bucket list."

Season 2 of Survivalists, hosted by Colin O'Brady, premieres on May 4 at 9pm ET/6pm PT on BYUtv.

You can follow his travels and adventures on Instagram or learn more about the challenges he's set for himself on his current expedition here.

Diana Keng is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.

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