HACKENSACK, NJ — Within the sunny, rugged oasis of Bear Mountain, Utah, a 1,400-pound Grizzly Bear named Bart yanks on a rope which is fastened to Hackensack resident Chrissi Shewchuk’s 5’3,” 138-pound body. With her long brown hair swept off her face in two braids, Shewchuk digs her heels into an elevated wooden platform upon which she stands a few yards from the grizzly — a shallow pool of water separates them. She groans, grits her teeth, and holds on for dear life.
While this scenario is far from the typical day in the life of the average 32-year-old woman, for Shewchuk — a daredevil by nature and obstacle course racer who is always on the hunt for her next challenge — it was a prime adventure she felt she needed to take on next: snatching the coveted title of “The Ultimate Superhuman” on the Discovery Channel’s spine-tingling new series, “Man Vs. Bear.”
The hour-long show is hosted by Brandon Tierney, host of CBS Sports Radio's nationally syndicated show "Tiki and Tierney" who provides a blow-by-blow commentary with wildlife expert Casey Anderson, who has lived with bears for most of his life. This season, 21 competitors from around the country tested their Herculean strength against Bart (who appeared on Season 3 of "Game of Thrones") and two other grizzlies — his sister Honey Bump and their pal, Tank — in a series of competitions where strength, speed and stamina are put to the test. On the December 11 episode of the eight-week series, Shewchuk was the only woman out of three in her heat and six who appear on the show.
“You can’t train for something like this, you wouldn’t know how to begin to train,” recalls Shewchuk in a recent phone interview before the series premiered on December 4. “I had no delusions. For me, it wasn’t a matter of, ‘Can I beat a bear?’ It was a matter of, ‘Can I hang on longer than my competitors?”
During the Tug-Of-War challenge, Shewchuk held a firm grasp on the rope for 29 seconds before she was ejected from the platform and into the water. Her effort set a new season high, tying for first place on the Superhuman Leader Board with her male competitor Mike, a bodybuilder who weighed close to 200 pounds. While the thought of interacting with a grizzly bear would naturally terrify her, being on a TV show made the idea less daunting.
“I think seeing Bart in the wild, I would have probably peed my pants, but it was definitely overwhelming being that close to a bear,” she said of the experience. “You see a bear in the zoo and it’s not the same thing. It’s hard to describe. There was a part of me that knew there were safety measures in place.”
A lifelong athlete, Shewchuk learned of the show while Internet surfing earlier this year and came across the casting call. Needless to say, she fit the bill. She’s a regular competitor in the Spartan Race, a global leader in obstacle course races with varying distance and difficulty held in the U.S. and franchised to 30 countries. She recently returned from San Francisco where she competed in the Spartan Race Elite Championship for which she finished 12th in the nation out of a few hundred runners. She’s also an avid skydiver and a self-professed motorcycle-riding tomboy and adrenaline junkie who derived great pleasure in roughhousing with the guys as a teenager while at Hackensack High School in the first half of the 2000s. There, she had been the only girl on her ice hockey team at one point, and a drum major in the marching band. At 19, she made the ultimate sacrifice when she served in the U.S. Army as a Black Hawk Helicopter Mechanic.
“In the army, I went into that thinking I’m going to be the best soldier I can,” she recalled.
During her stint, she earned an army commendation medal for having achieved a perfect score in marksmanship and served as a leader in basic training. While Shewchuk’s disposition is every bit fearless (she’ll try anything that deliberately scares her), if there’s one fear that does loom over her, it’s failure.
“Failure is not an option,” she says, matter-of-factly.
But as the greatest glory is in rising every time you fall, Shewchuk can attest. She experienced the ultimate test of character when a succession of negative life events came crashing down on her in fall 2016: a crippling knee injury where she tore her meniscus and ACL (a major ligament in the knee), losing her job, and then her mother to cancer.
“I suffered financially, emotionally and physically at once,” she recalled of the devastation. “I couldn’t walk, work, or cope with the passing of my mom, so coming back and doing a show like this facing a grizzly bear is an ultimate comeback story … having that opportunity to do that, regardless of what the outcomes are, it was amazing to get to that place. From where I came from, I didn’t know if I was going to make it out alive.”
In the spirit of true winners, she did, and re-emerged stronger than ever. On the show in another challenge called “Human Prey,” Shewchuk was face to face with Bart whom she had to fight from inside a caged sphere to stand her ground until he pushed it hard enough to where she went tumbling backwards. Though the scariest challenge, (she even muttered how “insane” the challenge was when she first stepped inside the ball), she managed to stand her ground for 38 seconds. By the end of that episode show, after having engaged in an obstacle course with Honey Bump and challenged Tank to an eating contest during which she devoured a smorgasbord of apples, fish and bugs, and used her brute force to roll a massive log against Bart, she led her heat with the highest number of points.
“I pushed myself past my limit,” she said of being on the show. “I learned a lot about myself. I have a fear of failure, and I’m very hard on myself and a bit of a perfectionist in a show like this. It was hard because sometimes the challenge was completely up to the bear and that made it difficult. There was an element of luck to it, too. This is a situation where you can give your 100 percent best and still get humbled by a 1,400-pound grizzly.”
She continued, “Learning how to celebrate the things I was good at and forgiving myself for the things I wasn’t as good at was something I learned and took from this experience.”
Nowadays, Shewchuk is back working as a pediatric homecare nurse, where she is licensed in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and tunes in to watch herself on television conquer the impossible. That’s if she’s not living it up at karaoke belting out “Flashdance… What A Feeling.”
“I want people to fall in love with the grizzly bears,” she says. “There’s been a lot of mixed emotions from people watching the show. There’s an element of silliness to this and that’s part of the fun.”
Tune into “Man Vs. Bear” on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.