Sept. 16, 2022

Olympian swaps kinesiology classes for The Amazing Race Canada

With 1.7 million viewers tuning into his adventures this summer, here's how alumnus Jesse Cockney has been dealing with the fame
Jesse and Marika, of Canmore, on The Amazing Race
Siblings Jesse and Marika compete in The Amazing Race

We’re sitting on a very public patio in Canmore when I ask recent kinesiology grad Jesse Cockney, BKin’22, how fame has flipped his world; from relatively anonymous student to cult-following stardom.

Since early July, a record number of fans have been tuning in on Tuesdays to watch 10 two-person teams tussle it out on The Amazing Race Canada, a competition that’s zipped across the country. From whipping up crowds in a 1980s-like aerobic dance-off in Fernie, B.C., and whizzing down Alberta’s Kananaskis River in inflatable canoes, to a tandem paraglide swoop over the Okanagan and a build-a-bath-bomb session in Picton, Ont. — audiences have been laughing, weeping and whooping it up for their favourite duos since the suspended series (COVID-19 forced the teams to wait two years to shoot the 11 episodes) returned.

Marika coaxing "her" dog at the agility centre

Marika coaxing "her" dog at the agility centre.

Glancing around Main Street, the ever-humble Cockney says he gets recognized, “tops,” two or three times a week. “But it’s really nothing,” dismisses the Olympian, who had a 15-year career in cross-country skiing (sprint events) by the time he was 28.

By then, he’d competed in two Olympic Games (2014 and 2018), so perhaps the 32-year-old was already comfortable with notoriety when he found a camera focused on him and his younger sister, actress and hoop dancer Marika Sila, for five to six hours every day during the month-long shoot in May.  

Unflappable, Cockney, of all 20 participants, is the one to always appear calm, focused and measured, no matter if he’s having to perform a burlesque number (leg one) or learning to hoot like an owl (leg two).

“That’s what sport has taught me,” explains the retired sprint racer, who has just begun his Master of Management at the Haskayne School of Business. “To stay calm and trust your process. Our mantra was . . . ‘slow is smooth and smooth is fast.’”

With less than a week to go — the finale airs Sept. 20 — will the brother/sister Inuvialut duo be the lucky ones to skip away with two around-the-world tickets, $250,000 in cash and two Chevrolet Silverado ZR2s?

Even though he obviously knows the outcome, Cockney is giving nothing away. Not a smirk, not a grin or wink — nada.

With barely time to debrief after every day’s adventures (some exhausting days had the teams flying between two or three destinations), what lesson did the siblings learn that allowed them to claw their way back from eighth place to becoming contenders to win the top prize?

“We learned we were better off choosing the more objective challenge,” explains Cockney, using their experience during a visit to London, Ont., as an example. Competitors in The Amazing Race Canada are often given a choice of tasks to complete. In London, they had to choose between an “Animate” challenge (which required one of them to don a motion-capture suit to recreate moves from an animated movie, with the other acting as “director”) and one dubbed “Aviate” (where the challenge was for the two to reattach a propeller to a Cessna 150 plane).

Initially, they chose Animate and Marika put on the suit. It didn’t work so, stumped, desperate and stuck on repeat, the siblings eventually opted to bail out of Animate by cashing in a precious “Express Pass,” which allowed them to skip it and move on.

“As the race continued, we learned to trust each other more,” says Cockney. “We hadn’t lived under the same roof for 15 years, so learning to rely on each other again, and our skills, took a while.”

Of all the challenges — from learning to sign at the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf to guiding dogs at an agility school — the toughest one for Cockney was, indeed, Animate.

“What you don’t see on TV are all the parking hassles and the trouble we had navigating London’s one-way streets, plus, that was the day that the two COVID teams got reintroduced (several participants had to leave the show due to COVID, only to rejoin the competition later), which threw us a bit,” says Cockney.

“And, that challenge relied on me being able to communicate every move to Marika and to remain patient . . . which, frankly, I failed to do.”

Even though he obviously knows the outcome, Cockney is giving nothing away.

As for the easiest challenge? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was one that returned Cockney to his element.

“The biathlon at the Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre (near Vernon, B.C.) — no doubt about it,” he says. “I was having so much fun, I just wanted to keep skiing.” 

If sport taught Cockney how to harness focus and a calm demeanour, his studies at UCalgary have shown him the power of reading a question correctly.

“In the Race, you have to read the clue so carefully to know what you can and cannot do,” he explains. “All the directions you need to get through a challenge are in your clue, so you can’t be careful enough. It’s better to just do it right once or twice than try 10 or 15 times, all the while hoping it works out.

“Early in my undergrad, I was an impatient test taker . . . at some point, I remember realizing that some question was not asking, ‘Which is the right answer?’ but, ‘Which is not the right answer?’ I learned to slow down after that.”

Just as in ski racing, Cockney, over the course of his undergrad, discovered the power of preparation, but admits that valuable skill wasn’t applicable when it came to the Race.

“Some teams are saying they’re learning languages or they’re beefing up in certain areas but, frankly, you have no idea what the challenges or situations are going to be,” he says. “So, I think (the Race is) impossible to train for . . . except: learn to pack light and run with your knapsack. That would be helpful.”

And for those who may wish to apply for a future season, Cockney has this advice: “Highlight your relationship and stress why your story is worth telling. Try to be yourself and have fun!”