A few years ago, Maria Herrera suffered devastating injuries to her spine, lung and forearm while street luging. “I got pretty banged up,” Herrera told us. “The doctors had to operate with emergency surgery and said that I might never walk again. I had to spend a lot of time basically teaching my body how to be a body again because I couldn’t even get out of bed on my own. My dad had to carry me. … I was helpless, completely helpless.”
Herrera went on to explain that, after spending “a good year honestly feeling sorry for myself, and half trying to get better,” she did, eventually recover, thanks largely to her “stubborn willpower and some perseverance and a lot of hard work. That’s how I ended up here.”
“Here” is American Tarzan, Discovery Channel’s new survival competition series debuting July 6. It’s a grueling challenge across the Caribbean island of Dominica, where seven competitors, including Maria, trek through four distinct terrains (or “biomes,” as the show calls them): jungle, coast, mountains and canyons. Over these challenging landscapes, the men and women must live completely off the land, while tackling punishing obstacles and facing conditions that early inhabitants faced hundreds of years ago, relying on nothing more than basic tools, mental toughness and physical strength.
Each competitor brings with him or herself a self-described “super power,” and Maria’s is listed as being strong upper-body strength. That is very evident in the first episode, where she zips up some tall vines in under 30 seconds (truly looking like a real-life Tarzan in action), leaving another struggling competitor in her dust, clinging to the vines.
But Maria also says that her true super power is the willpower that enabled her to overcome her accident.
“I mean, specifically, and definitely, I’m more strong upper body wise,” she explained, “which does help when it comes to the obstacles. Gripping, and climbing, which is a lot of it. I mean, mostly [though] it comes down to willpower. Whether it’s in this competition, or in life in general. My injury being a prime example. You want to get better. If somebody’s injured, you want to get better. You work for it. You want to lose weight, you work for it. You want to get good grades, you work for it. I think that’s really what it comes down to is willpower, how bad you want something.”
And with Maria wanting to win this competition badly, her previous experiences with obstacle courses (not to mention the fact that she watches “a lot of” another Discovery survival series, Naked and Afraid) were also put to good use during her journey.
“Last year I did between one and three events every month for over a year,” Maria said. “I definitely had the know-how to just kind of maneuver my body around crazy obstacles and stuff like that. I had already done a bit of the survival-type thing on my own. I spent some time in the Amazon rain forest alone. I already kind of had an idea of how to handle myself in a situation, but when it comes to nature — I mean, there’s … you can do all the preparation you want, but nature’s going to do what she wants to do anyway.”
And Mother Nature certainly did what she wanted when it came to rain, which Maria said was among the most challenging instances.
“The rain, no matter what biome I was in, when it rained it was miserable. It was cold. I mean, it’s just jungle, and it’s beautiful, and it was warm in the daytime, but when it rained it was just … it was terrible. It was kind of that Forrest Gump rain, where he’s talking about it coming sideways and upways. I’ve never seen rain like that before.”
There were even times during some of that cold, pouring rain, where Maria’s willpower was truly put to the test.
“Oh, there was definitely at least one moment where I thought, ‘This is it, it definitely isn’t worth it,'” said Maria. “Really it was when I was cold, it was pouring rain, and I’m like for a second in my head, I was just like, ‘This is it. I can’t.’ I hate being cold more than anything else, and for me, once I get cold, my morale just plummets. I went up to one of my competitors, and I was like, ‘Girl, you’ve got to do me a favor.’ I’m like, ‘No matter what, if you have to slap me, I don’t care. Do not let me tap out.’ She’s like shivering. She’s like, ‘All right, deal. Same.’ Yeah, she’s one of my best friends now.”
According to Maria, all the competitors became close, even though they only met for the very first time once the competition started.
“We didn’t meet until we got there. We didn’t know anything about each other, our names, how many guys, girls, nothing. That was kind of neat. We’re all going to be lifelong friends now. We bonded — you have to. … We are competitors. That was why we were there. But at the same time, we’re human. We all kept each other going.”
Aside from taking away lasting friendships from her time on American Tarzan, Maria was also more philosophical about what the show gave her.
“It’s just really increased my appreciation for everything that I have. From my family and my friends, the support system I have. I’m just so incredibly blessed. I really appreciate so much. And then on the other side there are things that really just annoy me. Social media … for the most part, people’s inabilities to have much human interactions. Most people wouldn’t be able to not just survive out in nature, but just, say, go out there without a cell phone and not have any idea how to be in the moment. I really appreciated that, too. I wish more people would just get out there, leave their electronics, and just be with each other.”
American Tarzan airs on Discovery Channel Wednesdays at 10pm ET/PT beginning July 6.