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Saturday, September 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Bug-filled "Endurance" ordeal

By Gary Dretzka
Special to The Seattle Times

Willa Zhou is a sophomore at Seattle's Garfield High.
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After beating out thousands of other talented teenagers for the right to flex their muscles on national television, the 20 finalists for Discovery Kids' "Endurance: Hawaii" must have been tempted to think the hardest part of their ordeal already had passed.

After all, how bad could three weeks on Kauai get?

"We expected to be on the beach, but they took us to the rain forest instead," recalled Willa Zhou, the Garfield High sophomore who represented Seattle on the show, which debuts today. "The mosquitoes were the biggest problem — I came back with more than 33 bites — but there also were these annoying water bugs and frogs the size of my foot."

This being the third edition of "Endurance," Zhou probably should have known that the producers would throw the contestants a curve. Not for nothing was the show, part of NBC's block of children's programming every Saturday (with repeats on cable's Discovery Channel, on Mondays), nicknamed "Survivor for Kids."

Like that hugely popular CBS series, "Endurance" requires contestants to push themselves to the limit, physically and emotionally. Beyond the obstacles during daily competitions, though, team-building probably is the skill most necessary for success.

Unlike "Survivor," the kids aren't required to stab their fellow contestants in the back.

"It wasn't our intention to pit a cheerleader against someone who hates cheerleaders and see what happens," explains the show's co-creator and host, J.D. Roth. "We wanted people who were tolerant of each other's differences, could work together and never took 'no' for an answer."

ON TV

"Endurance: Hawaii," at 11 a.m. today on KING-TV, although airtimes can vary depending on sports programming and location. The show repeats at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Mondays on Discovery Kids, and again on Fridays.

This being a made-for-television event, not all interpersonal discord was discouraged. Alliances shifted throughout the course of the taping, strategies changed, loyalties and friendships were put to the test. During the 21-episode arc of "Endurance: Hawaii," contestants are shown not only competing against each other in sudden-elimination face-offs, but also interacting in and around their makeshift huts during the downtime and preparation sessions. The weather's obstinacy — torrential rains and extreme heat — contributes mightily to the drama, as well.

Each week, the kids compete in either an Endurance Mission or a Temple Mission game. Winners of Endurance Missions receive pieces of the Pyramid of Endurance, while the winners of Temple Missions get to choose two teams to send to Temple of Fate, from which only one will return.

To be awarded the grand-prize trip to the Galapagos Islands, the surviving team will have had to collect pyramid pieces representing 12 essential inner qualities: Strength, Heart, Courage, Perseverance, Luck, Trust, Leadership, Discipline, Knowledge, Commitment, Teamwork and Ingenuity. The team that does this first wins the game.

Zhou credits her best friend, Tessa Wickersham-Sarles, for encouraging her to consider auditioning for "Endurance." Not a devout follower of the show, she decided after watching a pitch for entries, "Man, I can totally do that."

Under her friend's direction, Zhou — who participates in diving, tennis and gymnastics — created a tape that was "full of stupid, crazy stuff." Zhou's mother and father, Jay and Xiao-cun, are research scientists at the University of Washington ("They, like, cut up mice ... to study their DNA ... "). At first, mom was the person who needed the most convincing because she had no idea what "Endurance," or "Survivor," were all about.

As the series has begun airing, though, tapes are being made — and headlines collected — to be sent to China, where most of Zhou's extended family still lives.

Roth admits that liability issues are of concern not only to the parents but the show's producers, as well. When the parents were told they'd be going along to Hawaii free, many of those fears disappeared.

"The longer their kid stayed alive in the competition, the more time the parents got to spend on vacation," Roth said. "I could have done a separate series on what happened in Hawaii with them."

Gary Dretzka covers TV and other entertainment trends from Los Angeles: gdretzka@aol.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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