The new show premieres Thursday

By Susan Keating
April 14, 2016 10:30 AM
Michael Lavine/FOX

How do you inspire 16 civilians to tackle military grade obstacles designed to break both body and spirit?

Fox’s new competition series American Grit, hosted by John Cena, has the answer: Split them into four teams, offer a $1 million dollar payout and equip each team with a secret weapon – one hardened military veteran who knows how to squeeze the most out of a raw recruit.

According to to Executive Producer David George, the show will resonate with viewers because “it highlights for audiences the thrill of competition and physical endurance, the sacrifices made by the men and women of the American military.”

In an effort to suss out whose team would emerge the victor in the 10-episode series, PEOPLE spoke to American Grit‘s guiding “cadre,” comprised of Navy Seal Commander Rorke Denver, Army Sergeant Noah Galloway, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Tawanda “Tee” Hanible and Army Ranger Nick “The Reaper” Irving.

PEOPLE asked each cadre member: How did your method make your team competitive?

American Grit
Michael Lavine/FOX

Rorke Denver

“The unique part of the SEAL culture and our warrior brotherhood is the absolute premium on not quitting,” says Denver, who aimed to instill in his team the ethos of never giving up.

“That’s a potent force,” Denver adds. “My team 100 percent bought into that concept.”

Most gratifying to Denver was watching the team transition from individuals into a united team.

“They fought with everything they had, and gave everything they had.”

But midway through the competition, the team hit a road block.

“Two of my athletes started fighting. I knew that if I didn’t get that right it would be toxic and a cancer.”

Denver pulled the feuding duo to a quiet spot, where they hashed things out.

“It worked,” he says. “It made them stronger.”

What does Denver hope that ordinary viewers will take from the series?

“People think a lot of our magic in the military stems from technical training and tactical procedures,” the former SEAL leader says. But, he adds, the magic actually is in “the toughness and the grit within military service members.”

“That grit and toughness is in the DNA of anyone who serves,” says Denver. “I hope people see that and realize, they can do that, as well.”

Noah Galloway

For his part, Galloway – who took third place on season 20 of Dancing with the Stars last year – drew on his experiences with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as well as losing two limbs to an IED in Iraq, forcing him to overcome physical pain and depression.

With that experience behind him, learning to adapt and staying motivated were the main lessons Galloway wanted to impart.

“I did a lot of working with my team and keeping them motivated,” he says.

His primary mantra? “No excuses.

“There is no reason why each of them couldn’t go all the way.”

The team members arrived at the competition with varying attitudes, says Galloway: “Some were not prepared to work as a team. Others would click right off.”

So he worked to pull them together because, according to the former paratrooper: “The tighter a team is, the more powerful it is. If a team starts to collapse, you can’t gain ground.”

Galloway worked to help his team congeal and to fight an insidious enemy: self doubt.

“It happens to all of us,” he says. “You worry about, Are you pulling your own weight? I reminded them that each one brought something unique to our team.”

The lessons do not apply just to military operations or competitions, Galloway adds. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from,” he says. “No excuses.”

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As a Marine, Hanible says, “I hold myself to a whole different standard. We are the tip of the spear. We are wrapped, cocked and ready to go.”

With her team, she says: “I instilled that same level of honor, courage and commitment.”

It wasn’t an easy task – at first. “In the beginning, I had more of a rambunctious team,” the 20-year gunnery sergeant says. “They were a little out there.”

Drama inside the team house grew disruptive so, in true Marine fashion, Hanible tackled the problem directly and asked her team to look within.

“It was a matter of having them dig deep and ask, ‘Why are you here? Just for the money?’ ”

The team realized they all were there to prove themselves, she says.

“Once they were able to remember why, it got better.”

There was another low point, when a team member doubted Hanible as his leader. “I told him, I am here for you,” she recalls, “but I can’t do it for you. You need to pull your head out of you ass and do it.”

The doubter apologized. He had wanted to win so badly he lost sight of personal responsibility, says Hanible. “It became a blame game for him instead of ownership. He got over that.”

Hanible hopes viewers will take that lesson to heart: “We all have ownership and responsibility for our lives.”

“In special operations, we’re cut from a different cloth,” says Irving. “It’s a different mindset. You outdo everyone else no matter how much pain you’re in.”

Irving’s team was comprised of many personalities, each with a differing outlook. His challenge was to find a way to inspire all of them to overcome all obstacles and never quit.

With members included a yoga fitness instructor and an officer who pursued the Boston bombers, the disparate team struggled.

“In every competition, we hit a low, where someone was not motivated that day.”

How did the tough-minded mentor approach that? “I reminded them of my own struggles,” explains Irving. “I told them about being awake for five straight days, and the guy next to me getting shot. I swam in a pool of my buddy’s blood.”

Both the experience and the retelling, Irving says, were intense.

“They pulled together.” They bonded into a group mentality of not letting the team down, of not quitting. It was an inspiration to see them do that.”

Irving hopes the inspiration will spread to viewers.

“Just stay tuned to the show,” he says. “It will bring a spark back to America.”

American Grit premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.