EXCLUSIVE: Race to Survive: New Zealand’s Emilio Navarro and Heather Sischo Discuss ‘Big Lessons’ Learned After Early Elimination

Heather Sischo and Emilio Navarro posing together for Race to Survive: New Zealand
Photo Credit: Patrik Giardino/USA Network via Getty Images

On Race to Survive: New Zealand, crossing the finish line is a victory in itself. So, when the Rhode Island “gym rats,” Heather Sischo and Emilio Navarro wound up being the first team eliminated after coming in last place in Race 1, it never really felt like a defeat. Instead, it felt more like a bittersweet celebration.

Reality Tea had the chance to speak with Rhode Island’s dynamic duo, and it became very clear that the word “defeat” has never really been in their vocabulary. They adapt and they push forward, all while busting each other’s chops along the way.

Of course, no one wants to go home first, but the duo opened up about how they wound up participating in one of reality TV’s most intense competitions in the first place and the lessons they learned along the way. Plus, they shared whether or not they’d take another shot at the race.

A six-week crash course

Emilio Navarro running through the forest on Race to Survive: New Zealand
Photo Credit: Daniel Allen/USA Network

Surprisingly, Emilio and Heather’s journey to Race to Survive: New Zealand actually started a while ago. According to Emilio, he was originally in the running for a spot on Race to Survive: Alaska with another friend. That fell through, and they went on with their lives.

A year later, Emilio said he didn’t even know the show had come to fruition on USA Network. Then, he randomly got a call from a casting team about Season 2. Within a few weeks of that phone call, he and his gym buddy Heather were confirmed for the race.

Although they didn’t know where the race would take place, the two athletes knew they had the physical prowess to climb, hike, paddle, and fight their way through any course. However, the Rhode Island urbanites weren’t necessarily well-versed on the whole outdoorsy thing. There’s no shame in that! But, once they knew they were going to be a part of the race, they had a measly six weeks to prepare. They spent that time learning all of the skills they’d need to survive in the wilderness, all while continuing to go about their normal lives.

“We really started from scratch,” Emilio recalled. “As far as reading with a map, I do everything with GPS on my phone, so we had to start from scratch there. We started from scratch by building shelter.”

Emilio continued, “I took the map/compass piece. [Heather] took the shelter piece. We had a friend that’s an expert camper, so we crash-coursed for six weeks on how to have at least a fighting chance.”

Although Heather and Emilio were doing their homework for the race, there’s no better way to learn about surviving outside than to just go outside and try it. With only a few weeks to prepare, Heather and Emilio never got a chance to practice roughing it overnight. Race 1 was the first time they put all of the skills to use at once, but you’d never know that watching from home.

Heather explained, “We mastered it pretty quickly even when we were on the race. Every day, we got better.”

Sizing up the competition

The cast of Race to Survive: New Zealand standing next to a wooden crate in the middle of a field
Photo Credit: Daniel Allen/USA Network

Once Heather and Emilio arrived in New Zealand, a welcome change from Season 1’s Alaska, they immediately started sizing up their competition. Who wouldn’t? When they learned they’d be facing off against ultramarathoners, muscled-up hunters, and people who jump out of airplanes for a living, they had mixed thoughts. With over two decades of personal training experience, Heather said she could easily assess the athleticism of the other teams.

“I saw them and right away, and I was like, ‘Whoa, we’re in for it,'” Heather recalled.

On the other hand, Emilio looked around and didn’t feel too worried. Despite being the oldest racer in the game, he felt confident that he and Heather had the muscle and the willpower to roll with the toughest competitors. He had a hard time imagining some of the teams tackling these courses, all while carrying 40-pound backpacks. By the end of the race, Emilio said he learned a valuable lesson about judging people on first impressions. One of many lessons learned throughout this ordeal.

“I learned a big lesson on that because I couldn’t believe how incredible these humans were,” Emilio reflected. “Their backgrounds didn’t matter. They all had that drive and that attitude that they weren’t giving up, and it was incredible to watch.”

Quitting wasn’t an option

Emilio Navarro climbing the side of a cliff in Race to Survive: New Zealand
Photo Credit: Tim Williams/USA Network

Throughout Race 1, we watched the Rhode Islanders go head-to-head with the Brooklyn Climbers in a fight to stay out of last place. That went on for days, but the Rhode Islanders never let up. They knew that finishing the course was their number one priority — regardless of who got there before they did.

“Instead of being like ‘Oh, we’re in last,’ we were more amped up,” Heather recalled.

The Rhode Islanders both noted that at multiple times in the race, there were instances where they gained a lead on some of the other teams. The sheer magnitude of the race makes that hard to see on TV. However, they explained that they started to lose their lead once they got into the winding forests and prioritized going after food caches. On top of that, Emilio suffered a nasty spill that cost them more time on the course. Regardless, quitting wasn’t an option, and they had hope in their hearts that they would earn a medallion once they reached the End Crate.

“If you watched Season 1, left and right people were getting taken off, quitting, and you didn’t find that out until you got to the crate,” Heather explained. “You just keep saying, ‘Keep going, keep going. There’s always that chance.'”

Once they made it to Survival Camp and learned there wasn’t a medallion waiting for them, they had a huge showing of support from their fellow racers. However, what we didn’t see on the show is just how much support they had before reaching the finish line.

“We’re going down that river, and it was so emotional. They all came out of their camps,” Emilio recalled. “They started running alongside the river, cheering us on.”

Heather shared how there was a sense of camaraderie amongst the teams because they all had a shared experience of enduring the multi-day course. She said everyone was calling them “warriors” as they pushed to the end.

“All of a sudden, we were part of this fraternity. They joined us. It was amazing,” Emilio added.

Would Heather and Emilio do another season of Race to Survive?

Emilio Navarro and Heather Sishco on Race to Survive: New Zealand
Photo Credit: Brian Finestone/USA Network

After their elimination from Race to Survive, Emilio said the experience was the “hardest thing” he had ever done in his life. Still, that wouldn’t stop him from signing up again. When asked about the possibility of returning for another race, neither of them had to think twice about it.

“Yes, Y-E-S. We’re going. Pack the bag. Let’s go,” Heather enthusiastically replied. “I would go in a heartbeat. I would pack my bag today.”

With a laugh, Emilio added, “And right off the rip, my bag will be half the size. We thought we were gonna be on a vacation.”

He continued, “When you have to survive, you realize you really don’t need much to survive. You really can get away with barely anything.”

This interview was edited for conciseness and clarity.

Race to Survive: New Zealand airs on Monday nights at 11/10c on USA Network.