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'Amazing Race' contestants, producers adapt to tragedy, COVID-19

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'Amazing Race' contestants, producers adapt to tragedy, COVID-19
Lulu (L) and Lala Gonzalez compete in "The Amazing Race." Photo courtesy of CBS

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 5 (UPI) -- Amazing Race contestants Lulu and Lala Gonzalez said they returned to Season 33, premiering Wednesday, after a COVID-19 hiatus to honor their grandmother. The competition show halted production Feb. 28, 2020, before worldwide lockdowns the next month.

"My grandmother always used to say, 'You always have to finish what you start,'" Lulu Gonzalez said on a Television Critics Association Zoom panel. "We knew that we needed to do this for her."

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The Gonzalez twins, 37, are radio hosts in North Bergen, N.J. Lulu Gonzalez said their grandmother supported them as they entered the race, but died before they could resume.

"It was some type of closure," she said. "We knew that if we didn't finish the race, it would also linger over us, and we didn't want to have any regrets in our life."

Season 33 will include video of the Gonzalez's grandmother. She filmed a video message to her granddaughters, encouraging them before the shutdown.

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"She gave us a pep talk," Lulu Gonzalez said. "We felt like we needed to do this for her and for all those people who lost a loved one during the pandemic."

The Amazing Race pits 11 teams of two on a worldwide adventure, solving challenges to discover the next location of their journey. Each week, the last team to complete each leg of the race is eliminated until only a winning team remains.

Two teams were unable to return when production resumed. Co-creator and executive producer Elise Doganieri said the show had to make up for two eliminations to keep the race on track, but would not spoil the surprise twists in the new competition.

Other Amazing Race formats were not impacted, such as detours in which contestants choose between two possible routes, and roadblocks, in which one team member must solve a challenge without a partner.

"We've figured out how to maybe extend the leg," Doganieri said. "You'll still have the same Amazing Race detours and roadblocks, pit stops, check-ins, eliminations and an amazing cast."

Doganieri said that some of the protocols The Amazing Race employed to remain safe from COVID-19 made the race more intense. Doganieri said the show might keep some in place for future non-pandemic seasons.

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For example, "We chartered a plane so the contestants wouldn't be on public transportation," Doganieri said. "Which actually made for a very intense and exciting race, because the teams were actually closer together."

Pre-pandemic, contestants were afforded a credit card to pay for airfare to the next destination. With the chartered Boeing-757 plane, The Amazing Race found a different way to keep track of the scoreboard.

On Season 33, The Amazing Race will count the time each team arrives at the chartered plane. When they arrive at the destination, teams will embark in the same order, with a head start on the teams behind them.

"We wanted to keep it fair - as fair as we could do during these COVID protocols," Doganieri said.

Penn Holderness, 47, and wife Kim Holderness, 45, also returned after the hiatus. The Holdernesses are social media personalities, and said they were grateful the show took a break.

"We could not really imagine a way that we would be able to do it safely," Penn Holderness said. "It was a comprehensive safety plan."

Kim Holderness said the protocols The Amazing Race employed spoiled her for her return to daily life. She said the show gave them frequent COVID-19 tests and a pandemic safe bubble.

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"We'd come back to the U.S., and I came in, like, 'Where's my consistent testing? Where's my little bubble?'" Kim Holderness said. "I kind of missed my little bubble."

The Holdernesses said they had dreamed of competing on The Amazing Race since the first season.

"When we got the call, it had nothing to do with trying to grow our social media footprint at all," Kim Holderness said. "This is a bucket-list experience."

Penn Holderness said the couple received permission to discuss their experiences on The Amazing Race once episodes aired. They just can't give away anything before the show is broadcast.

"CBS has given us permission to talk about parts of it as it's revealed," Penn Holderness said. "We'll talk about it on top of what we see from the show. But, the show itself is what we're really excited about."

The Amazing Race airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. EST on CBS.

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