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Uh-oh: CT Is Back on ‘The Challenge,’ This Time With Dad Strength

As the actual competition begins on MTV’s ‘The Challenge: Invasion of the Champions,’ young bucks should beware the return of an old intimidator with a new son

(MTV/Ringer illustration)
(MTV/Ringer illustration)

In 2009, a Kansas man named Nick Harris was dropping his 8-year-old daughter off at school when he saw a car accidentally run over a child as it backed out of a nearby driveway. On impulse, the 5-foot-7, 185-pound Harris ran over to help. He grabbed the rear of the Mercury sedan, a car with a base weight of about 3,150 pounds, and lifted. The back tires rose up just enough, and the child escaped without any major injuries. “I don’t know how I did it,” Harris told The Wichita Eagle. “Adrenaline, hand of God, whatever you want to call it.”

The phenomenon of hysterical strength is well known (though not scientifically proven) because of stories like Harris’s, examples of humans exhibiting extreme power in the face of immediate danger. Though the evidence is only anecdotal, many psychologists believe that humans’ gross motor skills (i.e., the ability to jump, run, and lift) peak in the face of immense fear and pressure. According to Psychology Today, the human body instinctively controls the amount of strain put on muscles, but in moments of acute stress, that control is loosened and the brain instead releases two chemicals — endocannabinoids and opioids — that deaden pain. Since hysterical strength is so tied to emotion, it’s no surprise that most reported examples of it involve parents going to great lengths to save children.

This is all to say: Everyone on The Challenge: Invasion of the Champions better pack it in, because CT had a son in the offseason.

“I haven’t had to lift a car up on my own yet,” says Chris “CT” Tamburello, “but my biceps are a lot stronger than they were before [from] carrying around the little meatball.” CT has been on 11 seasons of MTV’s The Challenge, but as he prepares to make his first real appearance on Invasion of the Champions, something’s different: He’s a father now. “He helped me get my life back,” CT told HollywoodLife when he revealed in early February that he recently had a son. “Coming on this show, I like to think that I did it for him.”

This season of The Challenge began with a group of competitors who had never won. For the first four episodes, they were led to believe that this time around, there would be no vets — no Johnny Bananas, no Cara Maria, no CT. The participants were psyched. Toasts to a new era were made. That was all a setup, though, and at the end of Episode 4, the Champions officially “invaded.” “Holy shit!” exclaimed Tony, one of the relative newcomers. “CT just walked up! C-fucking-T!” Imagine what Tony’s reaction is going to be when he hears about the extra edge CT added in the offseason. It might look something like this:

CT has always been strong. Unlike Nick Harris, he’s taller than 6 feet and 205 pounds of (mostly) muscle. He once walked at least 15 feet with another human being — Johnny Bananas, a man who looks very dense — strapped to his back. Though he doesn’t have as many rings as Bananas (mostly because CT’s been kicked off multiple seasons for punching other contestants), he’s without a doubt the most intimidating person to ever compete on The Challenge. That he’s returning to the thunderdome as a father, which exponentially increases his motivation to win the $175,000 prize along with the added psychological advantages of Dad Strength, should be terrifying to everyone else on the show.

Though Dad Strength is a phenomenon that depends on fear and emotional stress to be unlocked, there is evidence that it has a residual, positive effect in competitive sports. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t prove this, but it’s as if Dad Strength is a resource that begins building in parents when their children are born. And though the reserves can’t be fully tapped without a corresponding life-or-death situation, Dad Strength does wind up altering everyday attributes.

Tom Brady, who some say is the CT of the NFL, had his first child in August 2007. A couple weeks later, he and the New England Patriots set the league on fire, going 16–0 in the regular season and setting a record for the most offensive points in a season. Brady’s touchdown total that season increased by over 100 percent, the largest jump from one season to the next that he’s experienced in his career. Now, how much of that was due to Dad Strength, and how much of it was due to the additions of Randy Moss and Wes Welker? Who’s to say?

LeBron James also experienced an uptick in production after the birth of his first child, LeBron Jr., in 2004. That season, James’s points per game increased by almost seven points, and he also saw an uptick in his rebounds and assists per game. Barry Bonds hit 14 more home runs and tallied 56 more RBIs in the 1990 season following the birth of his first child, Nikolai, a jump that we can only attribute to Dad Strength and absolutely no other outside factors. (The effect that Dad Strength has on an athlete appears to be strongest following the firstborn. After the third child or so, stats actually decrease. Which makes sense — a majority of men having their third child are of a certain age. Time is undefeated, even against Dad Strength.)

The Challenge is a less quantifiable sport than football, basketball, or baseball; its players are not measured by stats but by displays of sheer strength, agility, and intelligence. But that may put an even larger emphasis on the effect Dad Strength has on CT’s performance this season — as will the fact that Invasion is a solo competition.

For CT, Dad Strength has been much more about an increase in focus, instinct, and anticipation — a scary thought considering he’s already physically superior to most of the other contestants. “I feel like I see a lot more situations coming before they happen,” he says. (Sounds a lot like Brady reading a defense in 2007.) That new level of perception helps on the Challenge playing field, but it’s also useful off of it, especially for someone who’s let his emotions get the best of him more than once. “If I see a kid in the house about to have a temper tantrum, I can try to defuse that bomb before it explodes.”

The first four episodes of Invasion were a prequel — Day 1 of the actual competition starts Tuesday night. So far, this season has been defined by mediocre performances, a lack of signature moments, and outright quitters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen host TJ Lavin more upset than when Theo refused to bungee jump in an elimination challenge in Episode 3. But as CT and the rest of the Champions officially join the fray, that is going to change. And though every Champion is a threat, the “young bucks, all shredded up with their six-packs,” as CT describes them, would be wise to keep their eyes on him. He’s a new dad now, and there’s no telling when his brain is going to take the governor off his strength threshold and start pumping out pain-killing chemicals. Before Tony knows it, he may be getting carried around on CT’s back.