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‘Amazing Race’ Winners James Wallington and Will Jardell on Being the First LGBTQ Couple to Get Engaged on the Show: ‘This Was Bigger Than Us’ (Exclusive)

The Amazing Race Winners James Wallington Will Jardell Wedding Details
Sonja Flemming/CBS

A dream come true. That’s how longtime loves James Wallington and Will Jardell describe their winning journey on The Amazing Race, which not only ended in a $1 million dollar prize, but also in a surprise proposal.

Will, 30, tearfully got down on one knee on the mat at the finish line to a shocked James, 31, after coming in first place – and becoming the first LGBTQ couple to get engaged on the CBS reality series.

Related: Couples Who Survived the Reality TV Curse (So Far)

“Growing up, for us, watching reality TV was our first exposure to LGBTQ people in the real setting that weren’t actors or weren’t portraying some story in a movie or a television show,” Will tells Us exclusively. “That became our outlet as young people to see real people living out their truth. So for us be able to run the race as a gay couple – for the show to never mention that we’re gay, to just refer to us as a dating couple – was huge. And then to end the season with us winning and then also getting engaged was massive for the show to showcase that.”

The Amazing Race Winners James Wallington Will Jardell Wedding Details
Sam Lothridge/CBS

James adds, “I don’t think we realized the gravity of that in the moment until after we wiped our tears away and hugged it out, kissed it out, whatever. [Host] Phil [Koeghan], in that downtime, looked at us and even said, ‘This is a big moment for you guys and for your community that I want to make sure you guys have said everything you want to say.’ I think that’s when it slowly started to hit us. We didn’t realize that this was bigger than us. So I just really appreciated Phil taking that moment to point that out to us. That was really cool.”

Related: Shocking Reality TV Exits

The couple, who were huge fans of the show and auditioned several times before being cast for season 32, then had to wait two years for the show to even air after filming due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, all while trying to keep the details of their engagement under wraps.

“That whole time, we’re trying to plan our wedding and maneuver around the show,” Will says. “We never felt like we needed to have the show air beforehand, but if [costar] DeAngelo Williams showed up to our wedding without the race airing, I think our parents would be like, ‘Why is this professional football player at your wedding?'”

The Amazing Race Winners James Wallington Will Jardell Wedding Details

James and Will are still in the midst of planning those upcoming nuptials – yes, the entire cast is getting invites – after postponing the big day for a third time. “It was supposed to be October 2020 and then we pushed it to March 2021. And now we’re pushing it to December,” James tells Us. “We feel like that’s more than enough time to get everything under control and hopefully have a really good time.”

Related: Meet the Athlete-Filled Cast of 'The Amazing Race' Season 32

The duo met back in 2014 while attending the same events (Will was runner-up on cycle 21 of America’s Next Top Model and James competed in the 2013 CW series Capture alongside his sister Rebecca) and “hit it off right away” after bonding over their love for reality television.

That passion means the now-fiancés would have no doubt in their response if called to run the race again. “Absolutely,” James says without hesitation. “We would totally be down, in a heartbeat. You can’t say no to a once in a lifetime opportunity happening twice. … We would absolutely postpone on our wedding again.”

“For the fourth time,” adds Will.

Check out more of our interview with James and Will below!

The Amazing Race Winners James Wallington Will Jardell Wedding Details
Sam Lothridge/CBS

Us Weekly: How are you feeling a few weeks after your big win?

James Wallington: I think it’s slowly starting to really sink in that it’s all over. The two-year wait, it’s no longer a waiting period. It’s real. It’s happened. It’s no longer a dream. And here we are.

Will Jardell: I think it’s been really fun these past couple of weeks to talk to family and friends and fans of the show, and share a little bit more insight into the experience after everything has aired. I think people have been really excited to learn more about our experience from the behind-the-scenes, or what really happened. And that’s been fun these past couple of weeks.

Us: Looking back on the experience, was it everything you wanted? Did it live up to the hype?

JW: I think it’s so easy to sit on the couch and yell at your TV at teams to be like, “Why are they doing this? Why aren’t they reading their clue? Why did they make this mistake?” And I was one of those people for so long. And going into the race, it was so much harder than I think we ever anticipated.

WJ: It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done physically, emotionally, spiritually (laughs). You really have no concept of how much adrenaline is going for the entire race – 21 days of running around the world, your adrenaline never stops. So coming back from that and coming back to L.A., we slept for three days because our bodies were just so overwhelmed. I lost 15 pounds.

JW: I lost 11.

WJ: In three weeks. You can’t really prep for The Amazing Race. I mean, you can do so many little things like learn languages and run and stuff, but when you’re actually doing it, it’s an entirely different monster than what you would ever expect. And I think that first day we were running around in Trinidad and Tobago, and rolling those oil barrels down the street, we both were like, “Oh, this is intense.”

JW: “This is happening.” And it definitely lived up to the hype though. I mean, I loved every experience and every moment we had together. We never took any of it for granted. And we would totally do it again in a heartbeat. If they told us that we were going to race another two weeks after the finish line, we would have been like, “Game on. We’re ready.”

WJ: I also think for us, we were really living in every single moment. After each leg, we would sit in the hotel and decompress and talk through the experience and step out of race mode and just be very grateful for everything that was happening around us. I think it really grounded us in knowing that this experience is once in a lifetime. Yes, we’re competing and racing against people, but also, we would never have the opportunity to do a lot of these things that we’re being able to do. So [we were] trying to remain grateful and soak everything in.

Us: You maintained a positive attitude throughout the race. We rarely saw you guys argue or get too flustered. Did you talk about that before the race or is that just how you are anyway?

WJ: In these past two years, we’ve forgotten the negative moments or stressful moments. We literally remember … honestly, only positive, and that’s pretty much how life is anyway. You forget about those difficult moments and you remember everything with really good, fond memories. And I think the two years helped a lot with us to decompress after the show and get excited about it again to watch it.

JW: At that time, when the show filmed, we were together for four years. And we knew going into the race that it would be a test of our relationship, but more so, if we were ready to take that next step, which was marriage. And leading up to it, communication was something we definitely wanted to make sure we were always open and honest with each other in situations that were stressful. And I think because we had travel experience prior to the race, we always knew how to tackle any problems that did arise, and know when to step in and when to step back.

WJ: I think for us – from the very beginning, even before going on the race – it was trying to constantly remind ourselves that we are a team where we’re not against each other. We’re trying to accomplish the same goal. And so we just have to communicate when we’re frustrated and work through any situation, and always remember that we’re a team working together. I think after the race, coming back, we both clicked that, “Oh, these little bickering arguments are nothing.” If we’re arguing about who’s doing the dishes, cleaning, you know, taking the dog for a walk … if that’s all that we argue about, I think we’re OK.

Us: As superfans, what was the biggest surprise to you about the show, the production, anything behind the scenes that we as viewers might not know?

WJ: Obviously it’s way harder than you could ever think. That physical and mental exhaustion is something that you can’t prepare for. Berlin is kind of when we finally got into a groove of being OK with being exhausted all the time. The other part is just how well the show is run. It’s such a well-oiled machine. They are on top of it. They are prepared. There was one moment where James, his hand started bleeding from a task in the Amazon, and the paramedic who was with us at all times came over and James didn’t even know that he was bleeding. And he was like, “Hey, we need to stop and check this out.” So they’re just on top of every situation whether that’s filming or tasks or whatever. It’s just such a well-produced show.

JW: Which I think going into it, you’re aware of it. I mean, it’s been on for 32 seasons and going into its 20th year. But when you’re thrown into that environment, it’s just one of those moments where you’re like, “Wow, you’re in the thick of it.” And we’re just so grateful to everyone that was involved.

Us: The casting also seems to be well above other reality shows. Would you agree with that?

JW: We knew at the starting line that this cast was truly special just by the energy everyone gave off. And then the moment we all got to LAX and we had about six hours before our flight left to Trinidad and Tobago, we all instantly hit off right from the start. And I think that translated well because all the teams were so rootable in some aspect. I think they did a really stellar job.

JW: For each of the partnerships, there wasn’t a ton of in-team conflict. That’s partly because everyone around you was so supportive of what you were doing. And so it just became a family environment, literally on the very first day, which I don’t think that casting was prepared for. But to me, it was just a beautiful thing to be a part of.

The Amazing Race Winners James Wallington Will Jardell Wedding Details
Sam Lothridge/CBS

Us: I know you guys have talked this alliance thing to death, so we won’t spend a ton of time on it. But had you planned on forming a core group from the beginning?

WJ: It’s interesting because for us, while we were running the race, this “Mine Five” alliance was never something that we thought about often. It wasn’t something that we were super committed to or thought was like a long-term situation. We thought it was just that one leg in Bogota, where in actuality, none of us even helped each other. So it wasn’t even like an alliance. But I do think that the three-team alliance that made it to the finals was just a really strong bond that we all formed very early on in the race. We just really enjoyed racing with each other. The competitive nature of the three teams was exciting to be around. And so it started more so as like a close friendship and then just turned into this alliance that honestly helped all three of us make it to the finals.

JW: And as far as what Will was saying with the Five, it was only supposed to be short-term. It was never in our mind going into the race, like “Let’s form this massive alliance of all these teams.” That was never the plan. It was more so to find two teams that felt very like-minded in their approach to the competition. And that, to us, was always in the forefront. But again, I think people loosely clung to the Five because you’re not going to say no to someone when they come to you. There’s a U-turn and now Yields at play. So you have to maneuver the social politics, especially whenever it’s an equalizer, which happened almost every leg on our season.

WJ: Yeah, when we realized that there was going to be a ton of equalizers and that there were Yields and that all these other different social aspects needed to come into play, I think it became very prominent for all of the teams to utilize each other to get further because the goal at the end of the day, is to just not be last. And so if you have tools at your advantage, which is the people around you, and also the yields or whatever, you have to use them to make sure that you don’t go home. I think it’s just all the teams recognized that social strategy was important relatively early.

Us: Right. Is it true that you had less rest time than most seasons?

WJ: The first four or five days were non-stop and I think a little overwhelming for us because we left the Hollywood Bowl, slept in the airport, went to Trinidad and Tobago, slept in the airport. Then we went to Columbia, slept in a salt mine. And then after the whole entire Bogata leg is finally when we were able to have a moment of rest. So those first couple of days, I think all of us were just super overwhelmed. I genuinely thought my body was going to give up after a couple of days because it was non-stop. I think we had a couple of breaks and really nice long periods of time to break throughout the race. But for the most part, it was go, go, go.

Us: Wow. So tell me a little more about the proposal itself!

WJ: So there was two moments where I would have proposed and that was if we got eliminated, I would have obviously proposed just like as a springboard to the next chapter of our lives. The other moment would have been when we visited a country that we had been to together just for sentimental reasons. And that country was the Philippines. And like you were saying, it was not a great day. It was a very exhausting and mentally draining day. Only in the end was it positive. So it just didn’t feel right. And then going into the final leg, I had the ring ready to go and it just felt great the entire time that we were in New Orleans. And if we would’ve gotten second or third, I think I still would’ve proposed, obviously not trying to take away from anyone, whoever won, and their experiences as winners, but, it definitely would have been like a springboard into the next chapter of our lives. Like yes, we did this entire experience. It’s over. Now we can look ahead to our relationship in the future.

Us: Any advice for other couples running the race together?

JW: I think my advice would be to definitely rewatch seasons together because the conversations that you have while watching are conversations you’ll have while racing. So to already know what each other’s mindsets are, when it comes to which Detour you choose, what your strengths would be for which Roadblocks, are all very important. So I definitely recommend from the fan side to rewatch seasons.

WJ: And I think for a communication piece, one thing that we did and we did really well was when we approach a task or anything, delegate to somebody to be in charge because if you’re both trying to take control, it can go down this terrible spiral very quickly. So if there was a task that one of us felt that we were really good at and that we could manage really well, we would step up and take charge and delegate whatever needed to be done. That helped us a lot not bicker about trying to do it your way or my way. We made sure that that was something that we did for every single task that we got.

Us: Finally, I have to ask! Any interest in Survivor or Big Brother?

JW: We love adventure. We love those once in a lifetime opportunities that if anything like that presented itself to us, we would just have a hard time saying no. I think Survivor’s more my forte. I don’t know if I could ever handle Big Brother. Will’s more the Big Brother one.

WJ: Just because we love reality TV. That’s how we bonded as a couple at the very start of our relationship. We watch all those shows together. We even did our own miniseries of different spoofs of reality TV with our friends. It’s a huge part of our relationship. And so if we were able to do anything else, it would be very hard to say no.

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