'The Challenge: Battle of the Exes II' : And the Winners Are ...

Season 26 winners reflect on victory amid the loss of their friends Diem Brown and Ryan Knight

Photo: Ian Spanier/MTV

Though MTV’s The Challenge is a reality competition known for putting its competitors through insane physical tests, Battle of the Exes II was, without a doubt, the most emotionally taxing installment of the game in series history.

Very early in the show’s 26th season, which began filming in Panama last August, fan favorite Diem Brown had to be medically evacuated to New York City, where she ultimately lost her third bout with cancer on Nov. 14 at the age of 34.

Less than two weeks later, Brown’s castmate Ryan Knight was found dead on Thanksgiving morning after a night of partying.

Though both Brown and Knight died after the series wrapped filming, the show’s winners – who spoke exclusively to PEOPLE after they were revealed on Tuesday night – couldn’t help but acknowledge how their friends’ deaths shed new light on their own victory and the season as a whole.

For those who haven’t watched the Battle of the Exes II finale, be warned there are spoilers ahead.

And the winners of The Challenge are …

Jordan Wiseley and Sarah Rice

“We both had relationships with Diem and Knight outside the show,” says Wiseley, so “it made it a pretty big season for me. The sheer fact of winning and then, right after that, you go from a moment so high to [seeing how] everything can be taken so quickly. That resonated with me.”

Adds Rice, “It really drove home the lesson of gratitude – which I think is the most important thing we can do is just be grateful in every single aspect of our lives – being able to see Diem and Knight have so much fun … in their very last moments.”

She continues, “They made the most of life, both of them. Oh my gosh, is that not the truth? They made the most of every single moment – in very different ways, but they lived for the moment. They’re great examples of how to be, how to enjoy life and how to get the most out of life. And that’s what both of them did, and you saw that in The Challenge.”

She admits, “Oh God, it makes me sad talking about it.”

But the actual victory for Wiseley and Rice – former hookups who were considered the biggest underdogs in a finale stacked with unlikely finalists – was a much happier occasion, starting with the moment they saw the course ahead of them in Norway (where the show relocated for its conclusion).

“There could not have been a better [final Challenge],” says Rice. “This was my playground. Everything we did on that final, I would have paid to do if I had gone there on vacation.”

Wiseley even acknowledged that, in the final stretch, when they had clearly sealed their $250,000 win, “there were a couple of times when Sarah had to grab me like, ‘Hey! Pay attention.’ Because I would just be looking up [all around us at the landscape].”

It was a hard-fought victory, to be sure. Nia Moore, one of Wiseley’s former Real World: Portland roommates, was ejected after inappropriately touching him during an 11th-hour altercation, and Rice unwittingly severed a long-term friendship by strategically chose to throw her pal Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio into the final elimination round – a move he has loudly proclaimed was a betrayal.

“She made the right call,” insists Wiseley. “I [nearly] had a moment of weakness, but … afterward I was like, ‘I didn’t have the guts to make that call, Sarah, but I stand by you 100 percent.’ I hope that that brought us closer together. I hope it showed her that she can trust me. We took it home pretty well. They talked a lot of smack.”

More than trust or individual accomplishment, Wiseley – who was born without fingers on his left hand – says the victory symbolizes something greater: “I’m representing a group of people that have always been looked down on … it’s almost like an ‘I am here, hear me roar’-type thing.”

He continues, “This year I’ve recognized a lot with all of the underdog talk that Sarah and I are representing a different type of Challenger.”

Next up, Wiseley plans to focus his energies on an acting career, though he’s open to the idea of another stint on the show. Eight-time competitor Rice, however, plans to retire and use the money for a graduate degree in marriage and family therapy so that “the only time that I will ever see these crazies again is when they’re in my office in need of serious therapy.”

Ultimately, she says she doesn’t regret any of the means that got her to this end – “I mean, besides drinking the fish guts.” Then again, “I will say that my hair and skin afterwards, because of all the fish oil, was good for, like, a month. Glowing!”

Agreed Wiseley: “Flawless.”

RELATED: Diem Brown’s Touching Final Words on The Challenge

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