Colo. wildland firefighter appears on survival show 'Naked and Afraid'
U.S Forest Service Firefighter Alex Manard competed in a 21-day challenge to survive in the wilderness sans clothing
The Denver Post
GUNNISON, Colo. — Alex Manard was confident that if he auditioned, he would be cast as one of the stars of the new season of Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid,” the reality-TV show that drops contestants into harsh environments and chronicles their fight to survive in the wilderness, sans clothing, for 21 days.
“I don’t want to say that I knew I was going to be on it, but I had very high hopes,” said Manard, 27, a wildland firefighter and whitewater rafting instructor who has lived in Gunnison for the last five years. “There’s always a series of auditions and you’ve got to interview with producers to see if you’re a good fit. But in the end, my dwarfism and my love of outdoors is a unique story.”
At 4 feet 11 inches tall, Manard is less than a foot shorter than the average adult man in the U.S. (the National Center for Health Statistics pegs it at 5 feet 9 inches), but it’s been enough to invite lifelong jokes and general misunderstanding into his world.
“Having challenges all throughout my life — being picked on, being bullied, having a lot of people tell me all the stuff I can’t do — motivated me,” Manard said over the phone from his hometown of Champaign, Ill., where he watched the episode with friends, family and fans of the show when it premiered on March 1. “That was one of my big things with coming on the challenge: to show people who have been told their whole lives that a disability defines them. It doesn’t. You have to chase your dreams.”
One of Manard’s dreams growing up in the Midwest was to move to Colorado and become an outdoorsman. He fulfilled that five years ago when he attended Gunnison’s Western Colorado University, where he earned his recreation and outdoor education degree, with an outdoor leadership emphasis and psychology minor (a combo he admits makes him an ideal candidate for “Naked and Afraid”).
Since graduating in 2018, he’s worked as a wildland firefighter and river guide, moving around the country where he’s needed. This summer he’ll be at Lake Isabelle in the Indian Peaks Wilderness; last summer he taught rafting along Utah’s Green River.
“Gunnison was the smallest town I’d ever lived in, and it took a little bit to get used to,” Manard said. “But it got easier once I started making friends. I picked up snowboarding, I started backpacking more and I got into whitewater rafting. Now it’s the reason I call Colorado home.”
Manard also counts several friends who have appeared on “Naked and Afraid.”
“They kept bugging me to do a challenge,” he said. “So as soon as I graduated, I sent an online application to the casting company and it all went from there.”
For many viewers, and especially Colorado residents, it’s more than just bee-sting and bad-tattoo schadenfreude. Reality TV contestants from Colorado’s fit, high-altitude climes dominate on “American Ninja Warrior,” and have been finalists on shows like “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race” and other strength-and-endurance-based series.
Last year, Colorado contestants Molly Jansen and Matt Wright appeared on a particularly perilous episode of the show, with Jansen almost choking to death while eating a warthog her companions killed in South Africa’s Limpopo Basin. (Wright administered the Heimlich maneuver; Jansen said at the time of the show’s premiere that producers were seconds away from stepping in.)
The show dropped Manard into the Amazon jungle, where his skills navigating natural bodies of water would quickly come into play.
“I’d never seen the Amazon but always wanted to,” he said. “Coming from a small mountain town to the jungle was completely different. I was sweating quite a bit out there.”
Fortunately (or unfortunately?), there were no clothes to soak through. Manard echoed other Colorado contestants’ sentiments about the bracing realness of the show — the life-or-death immediacy, the genuine peril — and said the difficulty level was on par with his first backcountry backpacking or whitewater rafting trips.
“I think adaptation is one of my strengths,” he said. “Being this height my whole life, I’ve had to adapt to things and find ways to do stuff a normal person can do easily.”
Manard is looking forward to continuing his nomadic Western lifestyle. He said that any notoriety he gains from the show — “I’m already getting a ton of interest on Facebook” — will be used to raise money for charities.
“I’m really excited about this summer (in Colorado) because of the high water lines,” he said. “The rapids are going to be popping this year. But I’m hoping that also means fewer fires. California’s always burning down, but I hope Colorado is (spared) this season. We do a lot of prescribed burns so controlling those is huge for forest health. But I’ll go wherever they send me.”
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