Gretchen Evans of Brunswick competed as part of “Team Unbroken” in the “World’s Toughest Race: Eco Challenge Fiji,” the first episode of which airs on Amazon Prime Aug. 14. Evans is a retired U.S. Army command sergeant major who lost her hearing, and sustained a brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder, after a 2006 rocket attack in Afghanistan. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

BRUNSWICK — When she first applied to compete in an 11-day, nearly 417-mile peril-packed adventure race in Fiji, Gretchen Evans got an immediate “no.”

The application for the Brunswick woman’s all-disabled team to participate in the event – the basis for the Amazon Prime Video TV show “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji” – had inquired about underlying physical issues. Evans is a retired U.S. Army command sergeant major who, after a 2006 rocket attack in Afghanistan, lost her hearing and sustained a brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other members of her proposed team, which included another wounded veteran, were fellow athletes with disabilities, too.

“We had a litany,” Evans said. “Just mine alone took up a page.”

“They wrote back and said, ‘I don’t think you understand that this is the most elite race in the world,'” Evans recalled. “I said, ‘yeah, I get that.’ They said, ‘we’re afraid you’re going to get hurt.'”

“I said, ‘we’ve already been hurt. We’ve already been hurt.'”

Hurt, but not broken. Hence the team’s name: Unbroken.

Out of 66 teams to compete in the September 2019 race, out of 200 to apply, Unbroken is one of just 10 to be featured in the 10-episode series, hosted by Mark Burnett, executive producer of “Survivor,” and Bear Grylls, host of “Man Vs. Wild.”

A comment from Amazon Studios about Evans or the show wasn’t available by The Forecaster’s deadline.

After back-and-forth conversations between Evans and the event organizers, she finally got a “yes” from Kevin Hodder, the race director. But not without first explaining to him how she and others would compensate for issues like lack of hearing or diabetes; after all, the World’s Toughest Race had never had a disabled team, he told her. The elite athletes had experienced injuries before, “but nothing as severe as ours,” Evans said.

Gretchen Evans shows off the mountain bike she rode in Fiji for the event. She named it “Sgt. Reckless,” after a horse that served during the Korean War. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

How would a deaf person travel through the jungle late at night? Or climb a waterfall on a rope, where she wouldn’t have line-of-sight of people, rendering sign language moot?

“These were reasonable concerns,” Evans said.

She told Hodder how her team would find ways to work around their disabilities. On the waterfall, where she couldn’t see or hear her teammates, two tugs of the rope would mean “stop.” Blue lights were wrapped around Evans to illuminate her at night.

“I fought like hell to get on that race,” said the 59-year-old, whose strength and resilience far outshadows her 5-foot, 3-inch, 100-pound frame.

The green light from Hodder led to eight months of training and securing certifications in areas such as whitewater rafting, wilderness first aid, jungle training, stand-up paddle boating in the ocean, and learning how to ascend a 140-foot cliff beneath a waterfall.

“This is the closest we ever get to being superheroes,” one contestant said in the series’ trailer, posted on YouTube.

Each team had five members, one of them handling logistics such as having supplies and equipment ready for the team as it passed from one leg of the race to the next. Equipment for the team cost $85,000, of which Amazon funded $50,000, with most of the rest coming from donations.

“People laughed at us, because this was like the grandfather of all adventure races,” Evans said. “Nobody goes into this race who’s not an elite athlete. These people, they do this for a living, some of them.”

But as the race progressed, the other teams and crew members “fell in love with us,” she said. “We were the Cinderella team.”

Unbroken not only had grit, but also generosity.

If a team lost a piece of equipment like an ascender – “and you get to the ropes and you can’t ascend, you’re out of the race” – Evans explained. “Being in the military, I had extras of everything, because this is not my first rodeo. … So we would willingly give up our equipment to another team, and they would always ask us, what happens if you lose yours? And I’d say, ‘you know what, we’ll cross that bridge when we have to. But right now you’re out of the race unless we give you this piece of equipment.'”

“This is the way we live. This is what Team Unbroken is,” Evans said.

Its motivation wasn’t so much to surpass other teams, but rather to stifle the stigma that disabled or injured people can’t compete on the same playing field. “We wanted to open a door that had previously been shut. Just getting into the race was almost a victory for us, after all that work. Now whatever happens is beautiful.”

Evans isn’t allowed to comment on how her team finished, but did concede that “we competed well. … We are completely satisfied with our race.”

Anne Bailey, a pharmacologist who works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Asheville, North Carolina, is another member of Unbroken. She met Evans as the latter was getting care there, prior to her move to Brunswick.

“Anyone who’s met Gretchen knows that you’re never the same after you meet her,” said Bailey, who is a type 1 diabetic. “She has an ability to see strength in people, and then call that out and help those people realize what they didn’t know they could accomplish.”

Upon getting the invite from Evans about participating in “this seemingly insurmountable thing,” Bailey said, “because we know her, and we know her ability to lead and empower and overcome, we all were like, ‘absolutely.'”

The arduous nature of the race reminded Evans at times of life in the Army. “But there wasn’t anyone with a gun, hunting you down, so I didn’t have to worry about that,” she said.

Of the occasional camera drone that would buzz by as her team trudged through the jungle, Evans said with a smile, “in the military we would have shot that thing down.”

Evans has been on camera many times before, having appeared on “Megyn Kelly Today” and “Courage in Sports,” a TV documentary that profiled badly-injured veterans. She authored “Leading from the Front,” which covers her time in the Army, and her trained hearing service dog, Aura, is a semifinalist in the national 2020 American Humane Hero Dog Awards.

But this time is unique.

“We’re nervous, because we hope … that they will portray us truthfully, that they get it,” Evans said. “That they get the heart and soul of Team Unbroken. That we went in there on a wing and a prayer, and we did the best we could.”

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