Each member of Team SuperFighters has faced some kind of obstacle in their lives over the past few years, whether it be cancer, a knee replacement or the loss of a patella.
Despite the challenges they have already faced, they continue to push themselves to the extreme, going as far as to audition for the Amazon Prime Video reboot of “Eco Challenge,” an adventure race TV show.
The show first aired on the Discovery Channel in 1995, featuring international teams of men and women who would race nonstop across various parts of the world, such as British Columbia, Argentina and Morocco.
“Eco Challenge” was canceled in 2002, but is now set to make its Prime debut in early 2020, with 66 teams trekking 417 miles across the islands of Fiji over the course of two weeks.
Teams are only allowed to use a map and compass to navigate this expedition race, traveling in numerous ways across the islands, including rock climbing, canoeing, jungle trekking, mountain biking, white water rafting and more, to complete the race.
Team SuperFighters is made up of five — four racers and a support crew teammate — all of which used to watch the show.
“We were all adventure racing at the time,” said Heather Flebbe, a kinesiology and exercise physiology professor and the owner of Kaia FIT. “We were in awe of all these athletes, thinking one day maybe we could do something like that.”
So, when the group of friends found out about the reboot of the show, they knew they had to audition.
Heather’s husband, Cary Flebbe, a firefighter at Station 76, and Sean Martin, a Ventura County sheriff’s deputy, have been good friends for more than 20 years.
Martin was diagnosed with tongue cancer five years ago, and still has some permanent paralysis. Then, just last year while at the fire academy, Cary found out he had a melanoma tumor on his lung, and had to have part of his lung removed.
“It’s crazy,” Cary said. “I didn’t think that I would be doing something like this so soon.”
Teammate Michael Nicolaides, or Nico, a firefighter at Station 150 and former professional mountain biker, was hit by a car and lost his patella years ago.
“They didn’t think he was going to walk normal, and next thing you know, he turns into a pro cycle beast,” Heather said.
Support crew Danny Trudeau, a retired auto technician who just had his knee replaced in June, has seen his wife battle cancer twice.
“We’re the team that has just overcome obstacles,” Heather added. “It’s been a hard last few years of our lives … we’ve been fighting … but it’s been training our mindset for this race.”
After finding out they had been selected to compete back in February, the team then had six months to kick it into high gear and begin training.
“It felt really nice to look forward to something fun and positive,” Heather said. “I mean it’s going to be really, really hard, but it’s actually been fun training again.”
First, the team was required to get certified in certain disciplines, such as rappelling and ascending, white water rafting, and jungle navigation.
“I’m excited that I’m doing things I’ve never done before and about all the things I’ve learned,” Nico said, “rappelling, stand up paddleboarding, white water rafting, outrigger canoeing — I had never done any of those things before.”
While Heather and Nico were afraid of heights, they were both able to conquer that fear during training.
“It’s night and day from where they were when we first started to now,” Cary said. “I would say other than the two of them mentally, I don’t think we have a really weak area … we’re pretty even on all the disciplines. There’s going to be teams that are better than us, but we have a good base on everything.”
“I think collectively we’re probably better cyclists than most people that will be at the race,” Martin added, explaining that all four team members have cycled quite a bit.
Throughout their friendship, Martin and Cary would always go on lengthy bike rides, sometimes traveling up to 60 miles, so training like “this is no different,” Martin said.
Though the team wasn’t always able to train together, they’ve given themselves a few endurance challenges, including a 30-mile trek up to the Sequoias after a day of hiking, climbing more than 6,000 feet in elevation.
“We didn’t sleep and went all through the night,” Martin said, adding, “It was fun though — we really enjoyed ourselves … We’re pretty decent at standing on our feet and moving.”
On top of training, the team was given a hefty list of gear they needed to purchase for the trip.
“It’s been a huge amount of preparation to get here,” Heather said. “All the gear, the certifications, the training, getting over some mental obstacles — it’s been a long haul.”
As part of his duties as support crew, Trudeau said he has also done hours of research in preparation, watching YouTube videos, doing cooking experiments, learning some of the language and customs, and even reading a book about how to take care of feet.
“There’s certain things you do to show them respect,” added Nico, who has also done some research. “When you go in their home, you take your shoes off — it’s an insult if you don’t. You take your hat and sunglasses off if you walk through town … those kinds of things.”
Trudeau has also done quite a few similar races before, and has a lot of experience with navigation, so he was also instrumental in passing along that knowledge to his teammates.
“He is our fifth racer,” Cary added. “And if he didn’t just have a new knee put in, he probably would be racing, too.”
The team doesn’t know much about the details of the race, as most of that information is kept hidden from them until they arrive.
“We don’t even know the whole course at the beginning of the race,” Heather said. “At the beginning of the race, they hand us the map for the first section. Then we get another section later.”
“There are also some time cut-offs you have to make along the way,” Nico added, explaining that there will be various checkpoints along the route.
“The logistics of this thing are just immense,” Trudeau said.
What they do know is that they’ll be racing against some professional adventure racers and quite a few returning teams.
“The crazy thing about this race is every time they do it, thousands of people want to join, but if you go back and look at the statistics, 80% of the teams that start the race don’t finish,” Cary said. “But people still keep coming back to want to do the race.”
As the support crew, Trudeau will be traveling alone with the gear, setting up camp for the racers and taking care of them during their breaks.
“He has to navigate himself there, he’s got to get all our gear there, he’s got to set up the tents and the camp area, he’s got to cook, he’s got to know what’s going on mentally and physically with us, help us with what we need, be a mechanic on the bike,” Cary said.
Throughout the race, the racers and even the support crew are welcome to interact with the villagers.
“We get to go, be part of the village and experience their culture,” Trudeau said. “You can get directions from them. They can take you into their homes and you can sleep there. They can feed you. It’s pretty cool.”
Trudeau has even already connected with a local whose uncle is a village chief and wants the team to visit for a traditional Fiji Kava blessing ceremony before the race.
“The people that are from there really encourage outsiders to participate in these things that they do,” Trudeau said. “They’re very very friendly people and they love their culture. It’s going to be a great experience.”
In addition, Mark Burnett, the show’s producer, commissioned some of the villagers to make 66 traditional Fiji outrigger canoes, made of traditional supplies from the islands, which will then be donated back to the villages after the race.
“We have to paddle and sail that thing out on the ocean somewhere,” Cary said. “It’s going to be an adventure.”
“Maybe at night,” Martin added.
More than just a race
For many of the team, the race is just a small portion of this experience for them.
“To even think that three years ago we would be here,” Cary said. “Believe me, I’m pretty positive about saying, ‘I can do anything’ my whole life, but when you go through cancer — and I had a hard time walking upstairs — there’s just no way. (That feeling) never goes away. I think about it every day.”
Over the past two years, Martin has begun racing again as part of his “treatment.”
“Part of the reason of getting on my bike is for that moment in time to forget about that voice going ‘What if?’” Martin said. “It never leaves me, except when I ride my bike … I never thought I would have to battle those voices in my head.”
For Martin, it hasn’t just been all about the race — it’s been the build-up.
“It’ll be a success for us just to be on the starting line, because it’s been a process for us to get to that point,” Martin said. “No matter what happens at the race, those are the moments that I’ll take with me.”
“That’s how I’ve thought about this race,” Heather added. “When they cross the finish line, they will feel like they are still themselves, and they can still do anything.”
To get updates on their journey, follow Team SuperFighters on Instagram at @teamsuperfighters.