Merrick resident Chris Edom recently took a six-week break from his role as a substitute teacher to learn how to box, do military obstacle courses and receive one-on-one advice from pro wrestler and actor John Cena.
Edom, 48, who teaches at Fayette and Camp Avenue elementary schools, finished fifth place in season two of Cena’s reality show, “American Grit,” the finale of which aired on Aug. 6.
The military-themed game show pits teams against one another in a series of challenges to help contestants “find their grit.” For Edom, this meant boosting his self-confidence and overcoming his attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The show kicked off with a team selection process where military professionals chose contestants to mentor. Edom said it reminded him of playing sports as a child. He was picked last.
“Growing up, I was constantly bullied,” Edom said. He recalled being physically abused, having his bike tires slashed and being the butt of even his teacher’s jokes. Edom said that by becoming a teacher he hoped to combat bullying and create a sense of community that he felt was absent when he was in school.
“That was a big reason I went on the show,” he added, “to prove that the bullies didn’t win.”
Growing up, Edom said that his peers viewed him as an outcast because of his ADHD; he was constantly energized, but did not have the athletic ability to channel it. His OCD, he added, tormented him as much as his peers. He would spend nights awake ruminating over his day-to-day choices. In his adult life, he was in and out of therapy and on and off of antidepressants.
Edom said competing on the show helped him establish an exercise routine to channel his energy. The experience taught him to think on his feet and calm his mind when his thoughts became overwhelming.
“It was so cathartic and so healing,” he said. “It did a better job than 40 years of medication.”
The competition consisted of physical and mental challenges that Edom said shaped the learning experience. He added that his mentor on the show, John Burk, an infantry drill sergeant, encouraged him to put pressure on himself when completing athletic challenges.
Edom said that the mental challenges taught him about sacrifice and charity. He recalled an obstacle course where contestants completed tasks, one of which included shaving a fellow player’s head. Edom’s teammate Melanie Mahanna agreed to do so if her hair could be donated to Wigs for Kids, a hair replacement charity for children undergoing chemotherapy.
Mahanna and Cena, who has helpted to grant 500 wishes through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, went to a Wigs for Kids donation center on the show. Mahanna met a young girl named Toraya Garvin, who later died from leukemia. With help from her “American Grit” team, Mahanna began fundraising to find a cure for childhood cancer and has raised roughly $6,000. Donations can be made at bit.ly/gritforcure.
Inspired by Mahanna, Edom said he used his experience on the show to help others. Edom spent screen time talking about bullying, ADHD and OCD to “[showcase] these issues for those who are suffering in silence,” he said. Social media users around the world have messaged him with their own stories about overcoming bullying, developmental disabilities and mental illness.
At the end of the ninth episode, Edom and his teammate Hannah Koen competed in an elimination challenge to progress to the last episode by balancing a weighted ball on a shelf using two attached ropes. Edom lost and had to go home. Contestants signify the end of their run on “American Grit” by ringing a giant, symbolic bell. Edom made Cena laugh by ringing the bell so hard it broke off of its bearings.
“I knew if and when I was gonna ring out, I was gonna ring loud and proud because I found my grit,” Edom said.