What's the deal with NBC's "The Biggest Loser" contestants? In years past, I loved watching them compete to stay on "the ranch" by losing weight. But this season, it seems that the players are trying harder to get off the show than to stay on it.

The latest case in point was last week's exit of Rulon Gardner, former Olympian and the last Utahn of four who started out the season. Without bothering to weigh in, he told everyone he was leaving for "personal reasons," and walked off the show.

Gardner did not participate in a media exit interview as the other eliminated contestants have done. But he did issue a press release thanking the show and the trainers who helped him get his health back.

"Once I reached my goal and started feeling like my old self, I felt compelled to return home and support my wife, Kamie, in the ongoing management of our personal and professional affairs. The real prize for me in participating on the show was regaining my life back and thanks to the show I have accomplished that. Another exciting outcome is that I am strongly considering a return to competitive wrestling."

There was obviously more going on behind the scenes. But if Rulon decided to leave on his own, why didn't he just drink several glasses of water to post a weight gain, and keep someone else from getting eliminated? Was it because there was no one he wanted to save? Contestant Ken Andrews told reporters that he and his son told Garner earlier in the season that they would vote him out the first chance they got. Andrews didn't elaborate on their beef, except that it had something to do with Gardner's attitude.

Gardner's defection was unprecedented, but it followed a string of contestants who, instead of begging to stay, asked to be voted off. Or who deliberately gained weight to fall below the "yellow line" and be sent packing. Are the grueling workouts, the months of isolation at the ranch, the screaming trainers, just too much for people? Are these folks well-off enough that the $250,000 grand prize doesn't matter?

Near the beginning of the season, identical twins Dan and Don suddenly gained nine pounds each. Although both brothers claimed they didn't purposely try to gain, it sure seemed suspect when other contestants were posting double-digit losses, and the twins had expressed a desire to go home.

A few weeks later, Marci Crozier and Deni Hill of Bountiful, Utah, decided to water-load and throw the weigh-in to "save" their daughters, Courtney Crozier and Sarah Nitta, from risking elimination. A puzzling tactic, since neither daughter seemed in imminent danger, as long as they worked hard to lose weight. And really, the best way to "save" your partner is to stay on the ranch yourself and garner support from other players.

In a later interview published in Reality TV magazine, Deni said Marci promised to protect Sarah if Deni threw the weigh-in and went home. Marci also talked parent Jesse Wornum into gaining weight as well, implying it was his duty to sacrifice himself to "save" his son, Arthur. But after Jesse went home, Arthur was left vulnerable, and was booted off the next week. Deni's daughter, Sarah, was eliminated the week after that. So much for Marci's "saving the kids."

At week 12, Kaylee Kinikini (a Mormon from Idaho) decided her "journey" was over. She purposely gained weight and asked her teammates to throw the weigh-in. But her plan backfired, and the choice ended up between another Utahn, Justin Pope and Courtney Crozier. Justin asked the group to vote him off to save Courtney, since she was young and still had a lot of weight to lose. It seemed that someone was falling on the sword nearly every week to keep Courtney. When she was finally eliminated after losing just one pound in a week, Courtney seemed more relieved than sad, making one wonder if she appreciated the sacrifices made by her elders.

Then two weeks ago, the vote came down between Moses Kinikini (Kaylee's dad) and Olivia. Moses asked to be voted off, after Olivia said she wouldn't be able to have children if she didn't lose more weight. At around 170 pounds, Olivia's plea seemed a bit stretched. But at least she showed the desire to stay.

Moses' elimination meant one less vote to save daughter Kaylee when she fell below the yellow line last week. But she had already tried to go home several weeks before, so it wasn't a heartbreaking good-bye.

To their credit, most of these players shed an impressive amount of weight after going home, so they didn't give up on their fitness goals. I wouldn't be surprised to see one of them win the $100,000 at-home prize. Justin Pope, who garnered respect as a leader, continues to "call out" people in his Logan hometown to get in shape. Deni has said she considers herself "The Biggest Winner," for the show's opportunity, and I hope sometime I bump into her in a local Zumba class.

1 comment on this story

In the midst of greedy, ruthless, reality shows, it can be refreshing to see people willing to sacrifice themselves for others instead of the win-at-any-cost mentality.

However, many fans tune in to "The Biggest Loser" to get inspired by players' determination to win their weight battles. It helps us go the extra mile on the treadmill or pass up a dessert to better our own health. It's disillusioning to watch them throw in the towel, especially when thousands of other obese people audition every year for a chance to be on the show.

But in the end, these are real people, not storybook characters, and they apparently know their limits.

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com