Alaska man tries hand at Zulu stick fighting on show

Reality program pits Anchorage athlete against tribal warrior

Posted: Tuesday, October 02, 2007

ANCHORAGE - In Zulu stick fighting, there are three ways to win. Force your opponent to quit. Knock him unconscious. Or draw blood.

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The dirt ring was already splattered with red when Corey Rennell of Anchorage faced off with a Zulu warrior. The ginger-haired Westerner was armed with two wooden sticks, a shield the size of a dinner plate, and two weeks of stick-fighting practice.

As far as unfair match-ups go, this is like asking Tom Cruise to shut down Yao Ming.

"I was actually scared for my own life," Rennell said into the TV camera. "We were actually seeing people bleed out of their brains. ... I didn't want any part of that."

For this, Rennell skipped his senior year at Harvard University.

In a new Discovery Channel reality show called "Last One Standing," Rennell and five other athletes were dumped in 12 remote tribal locations to learn sports from the local champions. He kickboxed in India, wrestled in Brazil and ran a 51-kilometer mountain race in Mexico wearing sandals he made himself.

Contestants lived with the villagers, so Rennell also ate bat eye soup, slept in huts and "basically had diarrhea for 14 months straight."

Since the show doesn't offer cash or prizes, Rennell returned to the United States with intellectual souvenirs: enhanced confidence in his physical and mental strength, and a permanently altered worldview.

"I have nothing bad to say about this experience or the amazing things I learned from it," said Rennell, 22.

"Talk to me nine days into Brazil, and you might have gotten a different story."

"Last One Standing" premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday.

A joke video

All six of the show's male competitors have a different athletic specialty, ranging from competitive weightlifting to kickboxing. Rennell is listed as the outdoorsman. He's a PADI Divemaster, NCAA Division I Academic All-American Skier and American Alpine Club mountaineer.

Rennell has made headlines in Alaska several times for his mountaineering exploits and political ambition. While still in high school, the 2003 graduate of Stellar Secondary School led a campaign to lower the municipal voting age. It didn't work, but he ended up on CNN.

At that time, his goals were to attend Harvard, then return to Alaska and become a politician.

After three years studying natural science in the Ivy League, Rennell was fed up by what he calls a "fast-paced, selfish and task-based lifestyle."

"This place was just turning me into an old man," he said.

A week after confiding his frustration and wanderlust to friends, his roommate e-mailed an ad for a reality TV show. "It promised everything I'd told him I wanted, so naturally I thought it was a prank," he said. "The only way to beat a prank is with another prank."

Rennell mailed in what he thought was a joke video, where he rappelled out of his window and goofed around in his scuba gear. Five days later, an Amtrak ticket to New York City showed up.

"I went down to this casting session with the most intense athlete dudes I've ever been around in my life," he said. "I met Brad (Johnson, a fellow competitor) for the first time, and his bicep was the size of my thigh. I was totally intimidated."

The show's application process included a three-hour boot camp. "I was like 'If I just make it through three hours of hell, I'll have the best year of my life,' " he said. "It didn't cross my mind that the things they were testing in that session might be things we'd actually be doing. I underestimated the whole experience."

Rennell's mother, Elayne Hunter, said, like any parents, she and Corey's father, Steve Rennell, were wary of any plans that involved leaving college. "But Corey lives his life very creatively," she said. "All his life he's always taken risks and seized opportunities. So, I felt like if that's what he wants to do, then that's the right thing for him."

A nonviolent life

"Last One Standing" was filmed over a period of 14 months starting in June 2006. Contestants spent about two weeks in each location. Because their bodies deteriorated so rapidly on tribal diets and constant exertion, they would get up to a month off to recuperate before flying to the next village.

The contestants' first stop was with the Kalapalo tribe of Brazil. Going in, Rennell said, he had this stereotype of tribal people living peacefully with each other and the land. "When we got there, they were practically breaking each others' spines in this wrestling competition," he said.

Wrestling wasn't Rennell's forte. The tribe's chief only chose three men to compete in the dauntingly named inter-tribal wrestling tournament: The Festival of Death. At first, Rennell was disappointed he didn't make the cut. But he soon realized he was the lucky one. Villagers prepped the chosen wrestlers by scraping their limbs with piranha teeth until they bled, then rubbing the wounds with salt and lime juice.

Rennell said it was morally difficult for him to execute the violent sports and the more gruesome village work, such as killing animals with his bare hands. But he said it's important for viewers to understand that these athletic competitions all enhance survival skills.

Although the TV cameras focused on athletics, Rennell said he most valued the cultural experience.

He was so inspired by this lifestyle that he isn't sure any more where his career path will lead. For the moment, the overachiever has given up all his extracurricular commitments so he has more time to hone a new compassionate and nonviolent life.

"I felt like I was losing in life on the East Coast," Rennell said. "Finding my life again was a whole lot more important than any monetary prizes or pride."

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