ST. ALBANS — At first, the Spartan Races were a second chance at glory for Orla Walsh. There’s an inherent competitive drive to the 30-year-old former college athlete, and the national series of obstacle-filled running events filled a void.
But now, for the St. Albans native, the Spartan Races have led to something else — television stardom — as she competes in an NBC-broadcast reality show that airs tonight.
The show, Spartan Ultimate Team Challenge, pits teams of five in obstacle races that need to be completed as a group. Each team has a Spartan Pro Team racer, and Walsh, who made the team two years ago, led two pairs of couples from Charleston, South Carolina, filming in Atlanta.
The show comes from the producers of another popular NBC series — American Ninja Warrior. Walsh won’t appear on the series until June 30, she says, and while contractually she can’t reveal how she did, she did say she was happy with her performance.
“I’d be happy regardless, win or lose,” said Walsh, a registered nurse who returned to the area from Colorado three weeks ago, where she worked for the Copper Mountain ski patrol. “I can say I would be really excited to do it again.”
Walsh was a track athlete headed to Towson University in Maryland when her mother passed away from breast cancer the night before she and her twin brother were to graduate from high school.
Walsh went on to run at the Division I level — and walked onto the school’s soccer team — but she said her athletic career never really took off the way she wanted it to as she dealt with the grief of losing a mother unexpectedly.
She came back to St. Albans, where she trained at Fitness Zone, now Train Station, a local gym on North Main Street. It was there that friends of hers suggested she try a Spartan Race in Tremblant, Quebec.
“I kind of lost my fire,” Walsh said. “Spartan Race was a second chance at being an athlete.”
At 3 a.m. she left to travel to Quebec for her first Spartan Race. Walsh didn’t know what to wear and she didn’t have much technique when it came to climbing the ropes or scaling the walls.
“I felt like Katniss from Hunger Games,” she said.
And she loved it. Soon she was traveling to Tewsbury, Mass. And Vermont’s own course at Killington. She took on the nickname “Vermonster,” her aggressive alterego, and was finishing consistently near the top. The race organizers began to take notice.
Walsh also lost a best friend, Kristy Corrigan, when she was 23. It made for an inspirational story the producers loved, especially during Spartan Pro races with lots of camera time.
Finally, after a race in Tuxedo, N.Y., she was invited to be a Spartan Pro racer. Now, she gets paid to fly around the country competing in the series of races that air on NBC.
It didn’t come easily for Walsh, who says that with her competitive nature, it was difficult to accept not being successful immediately.
The trunk of her car is filled with sandbags and buckets filled with rocks, not for added traction during winter driving, but so she can carry them up and down hills as she trains at Jay Peak or on Hard’ack, the hill on which she first learned to ski.
Despite being a full-time nurse, Walsh finds time to train, sometimes twice a day. Her weekends are filled with long runs up Jay Peak, or up and down Hard’ack. She overcame mono and bronchitis this winter — while still working as a ski patrol paramedic — to train for this year’s circuit of races.
Filming in Atlanta came naturally for Walsh. There was no drama between her and her teammates, as often happens in reality TV, but producers seemed to like her on-camera character and her ability to say the kinds of things audiences love.
“We’re just trying to show the world that normal people can do extraordinary things,” Walsh said.
Already, Walsh is hoping NBC will ask her to return for another season of the show, maybe one that pits the Spartan Pro racers versus the American Ninjas from NBC’s other popular series.
“It really was a great platform to inspire people,” Walsh said.