Around the time Tawanda “Tee” Hanible retired from the Marine Corps, the gunnery sergeant and Iraq War veteran received an email from Leftfield Pictures asking if she was interested in taking her military expertise to a different stage: television.
The company wanted Hanible—who was named a “Washingtonian of the Year” in 2014 after founding Virginia non-profit Operation Heroes Connect—to be a mentor on a new FOX reality show hosted by WWE wrestler John Cena called American Grit, where 16 fierce men and women would compete in army-themed challenges in teams of four. The winning team would get $1 million, and Hanible would get to lead one of those teams.
The offer came as a complete surprise. “I didn’t imagine TV being the next chapter in my life,” says Hanible.”I was intrigued but definitely thought it was a hoax or a prank. One thing led to another and here we are today.”
Shooting for American Grit—which premiered on FOX April 14—lasted one-and-a-half months late 2015 in “brutally cold” Eatonville, Washington. During that time, Hanible was faced with the challenge of coaching regular people through combat trials like navigating obstacle courses and speed-paddling boats. It proved to be difficult—the first individual to get eliminated from the show was one of her team-members, who challenged her leadership almost immediately. “Working with the contestants was definitely no easy task especially when you are used to training and motivating service members,” she says.
Still, Hanible knew her history with life-threatening situations as a military officer made her a worthy mentor. “My time in the Corps definitely equipped me with the mental fortitude of overcoming things that would have completely broken others,” she says. “Having obstacle courses and other training evolutions, you have a sense of just how much physically a person can take on.”
Hanible also drew on lessons she learned from other adverse experiences in training her team. “I’ve experienced many ups and downs, whether it’s being shortchanged because of my sex, being away from my family for long stretches of time, or dealing with the deaths of my fellow Marines,” she says.
It wasn’t all a struggle, though. Hanible especially loved working with Cena, who she says is a “humble individual trying his best to serve others in whatever capacity he can” and that he smells like “Tic Tacs, hard work, and dedication.” Hanible is also holding out hope that American Grit’s popularity may open the door to a future career in TV. “I would feel blessed to be able to do more television,” she says. “If this project grows into something big that would be nothing short of amazing.”
Watch American Grit on FOX Thursdays at 9 PM.