By Steve Nakata, Division of Student Affairs

His hands ached, and his arm and leg muscles trembled from exhaustion. Washington State University Pullman senior Bridger Buckley had to dig deep within himself to find the motivation to keep going.

Buckley is a contestant on a new television show called “The Titan Games,” debuting 8 p.m. Pacific Time on NBC, Thursday, Jan. 3. The show pits competitors against each other in a series of physical challenges that end up testing one’s mental stamina as much as their strength and agility.

Following a rigorous application and screening process, the network selected a total of 64 people to go head‑to‑head with each other over 10 weekly episodes, resulting in the eventual crowning of both a male and a female champion. Each take home a $100,000 prize.

A lot to prove

For Buckley, this was a chance to not only show his family, but the entire nation, how far he has come since his struggles with self‑esteem during childhood, and a bicycle accident that fractured his neck while attending WSU.

“When the competition got really hard, I thought about all the things I’ve overcome in my life and how the pain I was experiencing is nothing compared with terrible things other people are experiencing in their lives,” Buckley said.

He has always been a big fan of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, one of the country’s most recognizable movie stars and the show’s creator. In April, Buckley noticed a social media post made by Johnson inviting people to apply for the new show and he decided to give it a try.

The online application took about two hours to complete and asked about his physical abilities as well as his life experiences and challenges. In addition to sharing a few video clips of his workouts, he was also asked to submit a personalized video providing a glimpse of who he is as a person and his background. In June, show producers let him know they liked what they saw and in July he was on a plane to California to participate in combine testing. This consisted of a series of timed obstacle courses that measured how fast he can run, how far he can jump and how much weight he can lift. He also spent a lot of time doing on‑camera interviews where he described many of his life struggles and achievements.

Fat and angry

While growing up he never imagined being on a show like The Titan Games. “I was always the fat kid, and it made me an angry kid,” explained Buckley. “I remember feeling embarrassed about taking my shirt off to go swimming with friends, and it dawned on me that I could change the way I look.”

Buckley started making better food choices, started exercising, and received valuable encouragement from his mom, who would drop him off at the gym in the morning before school. He spent many evenings there as well. Buckley’s body transformed into a prototype football player, and he became a force to be reckoned with as an outside linebacker on his Snohomish football team.

His desire to play Division I football is what brought him to WSU. He spent his first year on campus training hard and planned to walk‑on the team his sophomore year. It was then that the business finance major suffered an unexpected setback. He was struck by a car one day while riding his bike on Pullman’s Bishop Boulevard.

Fractured neck, broken dream

The accident fractured two vertebrae in his neck and another one in his lower back. He also suffered a severe concussion. After getting out of the hospital, he withdrew from classes and headed home to Snohomish for the long recovery.

Johnson watches as Buckley pulls on rope.
Show host Dwayne Johnson, otherwise known as “The Rock”, cheers on Bridger Buckley during one of his competitions. (Photo by Chris Haston, NBC)

He says he will never forget being bedridden and having to wear a neck brace for months. He always kept a notebook by his side to jot down questions and thoughts, because he couldn’t remember them long enough to ask his parents when they got home from work.

“I lost all of my fitness, and I thought I lost my dream to play football,” he said. “I became really depressed.”

His family, always by his side, encouraged him to view things differently. “They reminded me that things could have turned out a lot worse for me and eventually I realized my goals were still obtainable if I worked hard for them.”

After months of physical therapy he reenrolled at WSU, got back into football shape and made the team. He just started to find his groove in a Cougar uniform when he badly sprained his ankle. Between that injury and some lingering neck pain from his bike accident, he made the difficult decision to hang up his cleats.

Buckley was disappointed, but his passion for fitness only seemed to grow.

A beast in the gym

Tanner Stahl teaches CrossFit for University Recreation and has trained side‑by‑side with him for three years. “He’s an absolute beast in the gym,” remarked Stahl. “He does things that I’ve never seen someone else do, including top level CrossFit games athletes.”

Buckley’s devotion to staying in shape year‑round paid off.  When the show’s casting director called him in August to let him know he made the final cut, he had to be in San Gabriel, Calif., the following month to begin the competition. The show put him up in a hotel room he called home for most of September. He spent long afternoons on the set giving it all he had.

“Competing was intense,” Buckley said. “I had visions of running around, cheering and high‑fiving the crowd when I finished my competitions, but I was so drained I literally could not feel my legs.”

Show rules prevent Bridger from publicly revealing how far he made it in the competition before it airs. In the end, he said his participation was much more than testing his physical and mental limits. It gave him a chance to get a taste of show business, something he would like to pursue after graduating from WSU. He also discovered a lot about himself during the experience.

“I learned that I am probably too competitive, and I get too mad if I don’t perform as well as I think I could have,” he said with a grin.  “But it also gave me confidence that if I want to reach for something badly enough, I can put my head down, grind it out, and reach my goals.”