Last season may have featured familiar faces on The Amazing Race but season 19’s contestants bring something else to the competition. “I’m not sure we’ve ever had a season like this where there are so many proven athletes,” host Phil Keoghan tells PEOPLE of the teams, which include Olympians, a former NFL player, ocean lifeguards and even Survivor champs.
But even if these seasoned players are used to competition, they’ve never had to face the challenges of a race around the world.
“There is also a lot of effort put forth to make athletes’ lives easier so they can perform,” Keoghan explains. “But on The Amazing Race all those things are not taken care of. They’re not going to eat what they want, sleep when they want – and they are doing it with someone else.”
Just before they began filming, PEOPLE met the new teams to find out why they think they have what it takes to win $1 million. Meet the contestants:
The Survivors: Reality show fans will recognize Ethan Zohn, 37, and girlfriend Jenna Morasca, 30, as past Survivor winners. But the couple is looking to pull from more than just their time in the wild to finish first. “What we have been through the past two years has not been the greatest,” Zohn said of surviving cancer. “To be able to come out on top and then go away and travel the world – it’s a celebration.” But Morasca clarified: “A stressful celebration.”
The Yachters: Abby Sunderland was famously lost at sea in 2010. Now her father Laurence, 48, and her brother Zach, 19 – the youngest American yachter to circumvent the globe – will hopefully find their way around the world. “We’ve had to work together in the yachting arena,” Laurence says of helping his son achieve his record. “[There] you don’t play for points or money – you play for life.”
The Snowboarders: As members of the United States Olympic Snowboarding team in 2002 and 2006 respectively, Tommy Szechin, 31, and Andy Finch, 30, have “years of experience knowing how to be focused and get in our zone,” Finch says. But they know their weaknesses. “Typical snowboarder – the book smarts part of it is probably going to be the hardest for us,” Szechin says.
The NFL Couple: Retired NFL tight end Marcus Pollard, 39, and his wife Amani, 36, are planning to rely on their relationship more than Marcus’s athletic prowess. “We’ve been a team for a lot longer than the four weeks we will be here,” he says of being married for ten years. “This will be like a Super Bowl for us because we’ve already played the games before.”
The Twins: Liz and Marie Canavan, both 23, are former ocean lifeguards and recent University of Kentucky graduates who hope to use their twin powers to their advantage. “We are pretty much the same person. Don’t even bother saying which of us said what,” one Canavan told PEOPLE. “We work better together,” said the other. “It’s like a marriage – but we didn’t get to choose.”
The Flight Attendants: Ron Zeitz, 43, and Bill Smith, 48, met on a plane before falling “madly in love” and becoming “best friends,” according to Zeitz. Smith is calling the race a chance to “celebrate” after three years of various family medical issues. “Instead of being so focused on them we can celebrate their health and spend some time together,” he said.
These seasoned competitors and travelers shouldn’t count out the other contestants, who’ve also come to win:
• Bill Alden, 63, and his wife Cathi, 62 – who begin the race on the week of their 41st wedding anniversary – are the oldest team this season. But they still compete in triathlons.
• Jeremy Cline, 35, and Sandy Draghi, 33, just made the “slow transition from friends to dating,” according to Cline. The new couple is looking forward to spending time together away from their “really busy careers.”
• Justin Young, 30, and his sister Jennifer, 26, are hoping their sibling bond will get them to the finish line. “It’s not going to be a cakewalk,” Jennifer said. “But we’re siblings – you can’t divorce them, you can’t leave them.”
• Ernie Halvorsen, 29, knows who will be in charge on the race – his fiancée Cindy Chiang, 30. “A normal day is Cindy planning my day and me executing that plan,” says Halvorsen, who has been doing team-building exercises with Chiang to prepare for the race.
• As best friends, roommates and co-workers, Las Vegas cocktail waitresses Kaylani Paliotta, 33, and Lisa Tilley, 31, look at the race as “an opportunity to push yourself to the ultimate limit,” according to Paliotta, who is a mom to a pre-schooler.