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Professor’s summer on a worldwide trek, reality TV show yields ‘Amazing’ results

Alden, husband eschew retirement for a one-of-a-kind challenge

When you’re 62 years old and you’ve spent 40 years as a tireless educator, odds are that your wish list consists of nothing more than a desire to sit down and relax for once in your life.

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OSU Ecampus professor Cathi Alden tries to memorize a passage from “Confucius” with the help of her husband, Bill, on the TV reality show “The Amazing Race.” (Photo by Robert Voets / CBS)

Cathi Alden thinks that philosophy is bogus. The Oregon State professor recently spent her “retirement” on a mission to do the following:

  • Teach online classes at a major university
  • Convince her husband to audition for a reality TV show
  • Compete against former Olympians and other world-class athletes in a contest that clearly was not designed for “grandparents”
  • Surprise herself and millions of naysayers by displaying superior know-how on national TV

That’s how Cathi and her husband, Bill, spent their summer. What’d you do?

It’s OK to be in awe of (or feel inferior to) the Aldens. That’s actually the proper response considering that they recently won the hearts of countless viewers of CBS’ hit show, “The Amazing Race.”

Perhaps no one followed Cathi’s TV exploits more excitedly than colleague Sue Helback, who leads the OSU Ecampus online Master of Education program.

“I read in the newspaper that she was on the show, and I thought, ‘I know this lady! She teaches in my online program,’ ” Helback said. “And every Sunday night, I’d be in my office and close my door and say, ‘Nobody bother me; my show is on.’

“I had never said those words before in my life. I don’t have ‘a show,’ but she had me hooked.”

That show – in which 11 teams of two trek around the world and take part in various challenges – has always intrigued Cathi and her husband, so much so that she convinced him to send an audition tape in 2009, and they were accepted last summer.

Before that, the Aldens played the part of armchair analysts to perfection, watching the show from their home on a farm in Albany, Ore., certain that they could endure the physical and mental strain of the challenges.

And then they met their opponents, and all their confidence evaporated.

“Terror. That sums it up. We were absolutely terrified when we saw them,” Cathi admits now. “There was one guy who played in the NFL, two Olympic snowboarders, a 19-year-old kid who had sailed around the world by himself, two people who had won ‘Survivor.’ And all of the teams were 30 years younger than us.

“We thought we might be eliminated in the first round.”

CBS may have thought so, too. They never referred to the Aldens as “teachers” or “educators” – it was always “grandparents” or “farmers” in bold, yellow letters across the TV screen.

It wasn’t the biggest vote of confidence, but Cathi and Bill quickly found their niche, using keen intellect and the skills they obtained years earlier – biking through Europe and navigating subway systems in unfamiliar places – to outpace other teams.

Their No. 1 advantage? Being nice and liking one another.

“We had a lot of success interacting with local people in the various countries, and we were never hesitant to ask for help wherever we were,” said Cathi, who retired as a high school principal in Corvallis in 2005 and immediately began teaching Ecampus courses. “Some teams spent a lot of time and energy arguing, and that gave us some confidence.”

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The Aldens scamper to do Indonesian farm chores in one of the many “detour” challenges on “The Amazing Race.” (Photo by Robert Voets / CBS)

They didn’t win the $1 million grand prize, but they finished in fifth place – better than half of the other teams. Along the way, the Aldens visited eight countries on three continents and took part in a series of bizarre challenges, from a bodybuilding competition to running a bunny through an obstacle course and everything in between.

“Did (Cathi) tell you about the time she had to carry a bedframe in Africa?” Helback asks, sounding more than a little impressed. “So here’s this petite, 60-year-old woman, staring at a huge wooden bedframe in Malawi, and she just loads it on her back and does the rest of the challenge. I was blown away. She just never gave up.”

And that seems to be Cathi’s defining characteristic, a zeal for life that keeps her foot on the accelerator, retirement be damned. Without that passion, she and Bill might have missed out on a significant moment of clarity.

“Every time I meet someone from another culture, it stretches you and enriches you,” she said. “It was a huge boost of confidence in our ability to be with people in other countries and feel so secure that most of the people in the world are very solid, very decent people.

“It was an incredible experience.”