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2 Western Pennsylvania women to compete on 'Amazing Race'

| Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, 7:27 p.m.
Dessie Mitcheson, left, and Kristi Leskinen
Dessie Mitcheson, left, and Kristi Leskinen

Dessie Mitcheson, a swimsuit model who grew up in Apollo, wanted so badly to get cast in CBS' “The Amazing Race” that she auditioned three times – first with her father, then a few years later with a cousin.

And the third time, indeed, was the charm for Mitcheson.

She is one of two Western Pennsylvania women who are competing for the $1 million prize in the show's 30th season, premiering at 8 p.m. on Jan. 3.

When a casting director reached out to her asking if she wanted to join this season, Mitcheson teamed up with her best friend, fellow model Kayla Fitzgerald, 26, of Florida, who also had tried to get on “The Amazing Race” in previous seasons.

“I was always a huge fan of the show,” says Mitcheson, 27, a 2009 graduate of Kiski Area High School who now lives in Orange County, Calif. She recently was named one of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit's Top 15.

Mitcheson and Fitzgerald “said it was meant to be — that we were supposed to be on it.”

Kristi Leskinen, a native of Hopwood, Fayette County, was another good match for the this season, which sought pairs of people in the same competitive profession. She is a multiple medal-winning, retired professional freestyle skier who was the 2006 Action Sports Female Skier of the Year, and competed in many Winter X Games. Leskinen, who is 36 and moved back to her hometown area, loves the crazy unpredictability the reality show's contestants face. They don't know where they are going next, and where or when they will get their next meal. They have only a set amount of money and don't know when they will get more.

“You have no idea what they're going to throw at you,” says Leskinen, whose family owns the historic Summit Inn and used to own Laurel Caverns. “In ‘The Amazing Race' … all the experiences that you had in your life have kind of prepared you to be the best version of yourself and hope that those skills you built are going to come in handy.”

Leskinen – who now does consulting with sporting companies and mentors young female athletes – paired up with a former competitor: pro skier Jen Hudak, 30, of Park City, Utah. The two balanced each other out, as Leskinen likes free-spirited unpredictability, while Hudak prefers a schedule.

“She the perfect person to do this with – she's always up for an adventure and willing to take risks,” Hudak says. “You really don't know anything beyond the moment that you're in, which is kind of a cool thing, but it's also really challenging. I am a planner by nature … and you don't know where you're going next and what you're doing next.”

Hudak, who previously had applied for the CBS reality show “Survivor.” and Leskinen have known each other for about 13 years, and met on the competition circuit. Going from competitors to partners was fun, they say.

“We're used to working for impossible goals, for lack of a better word,” Hudak says. “No matter what was thrown at us, we just knew that we were a team.”

The show was filmed during October. The 11 teams of racers – including NBA players, race car drivers and competitive eaters ­— met in New York City's Washington Square Park, then set out for their adventure in Iceland.

What happens next? You will have to watch the show to find out. Meanwhile, the participants are trying to settle back into daily life, which is a stark change from racing frenetically around the globe in an unplanned, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants fashion. Contestants disconnect from the outer world, with no phones or televisions.

Mitcheson, who placed in the Top 10 of Miss Pennsylvania USA when she was 18, actually had a little bit of anxiety getting her phone back at first. She, like most modern people, lives on her phone, yet it felt weird getting it back after “The Amazing Race.” Now, she doesn't want to let it go again.

The experience, Mitcheson says, has “just opened our eyes to different things and how lucky you are.”

“It was an experience of a lifetime, and something that I always wanted to do, so I'm just really glad I got to do it,” she says. “It made my year.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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