Monica Kaufmann Wipes Out the Competition

Brandon Hensley

On a cold, drizzly November night, Monica Kaufmann finds herself in a moment of truth. She is tired. She is sore. She has been pushed to the brink of physical exhaustion and, as gallons of water wash over her and the bright lights above fade in and out of focus through her wet eyes, she is about to give up.

Ignoring the water that has rushed into her lungs, she decides to press on. Here, treading both water and fate, Kaufmann is just a few minutes away from winning $50,000. How did she do it? A) She cheated, B) She’s lucky, C) She earned it, D) She was born for this.

“Are you competitive? Do you think you could win? Why should we put you on the show?”

Those were some of the questions posed to Kaufmann at an audition for ABC’s “Wipeout” last summer. The game show, consisting of 24 contestants who try to overcome water-based obstacles for a chance at $50,000, would air a special, “Wipeout Bowl 1: Couch Potatoes vs. Cheerleaders” on this year’s Super Bowl Sunday.

Looking back, it would have been easy for the 20-year-old Kaufmann to scoff at some of those questions. Is she competitive? Having been a cheerleader since age 8, and a member of the Glendale College cheer squad from 2006 to 2008, the drive to win is in her blood. “That’s when it’s a real sport,” she said of competitive cheerleading. “I love the feeling of, ‘Can I do this?’ ”

It is November 2008, and Kaufmann has made it to “Wipeout.”

The first round, called the qualifier, contains the infamous “big balls,” where contestants run, jump or fall on giant inflated balls to get to the other side. She will also be pelted with footballs and slammed into by moving punching bags. Kaufmann will have to use her slender athletic body (something bereft of her couch potato male counterparts) to her advantage. The qualifier will determine whether Kaufmann moves on, or whether her game show career is short-lived.

“I love the feeling of, ‘Can I do this?'”

To know Kaufmann is to know someone who is modest and self-effacing in the purest sense. “I’m just like everyone else,” she said. “Everyone struggles.” Cliches to be sure, but she really believes her words.
She does not fit the image of the spoiled cheerleader in a Mercedes. She drives a little Toyota Yaris, which she will hand down to her sister Melissa, 18, when she gets her license.

Her grandmother runs the La Cañada sandwich shop Berge’s (named after Kaufmann’s grandfather, who has since passed away), but it’s a modest business that hasn’t always given her family substantial cash flow.

She dismisses La Cañada as strictly an upper middle-class enclave nestled in the foothills. “No,” she said shaking her head. “That’s what everyone thinks.” She described her home as “not an ugly house, it’s just not what you think you’d be living in, in La Cañada.”

Kaufmann has been busy working for the past five years, including a summer stint as a cheer instructor for Universal Cheerleading Association, saving money for when she will move out when she transfers from GCC after the Spring. “I’m old enough to where if I have money, why would I take [my family’s]? It’s not fair to them.”

Kaufmann’s parents were able to spend money for her cheerleading, and that’s good. She has come to see cheerleading as a microcosm for life. She says she enjoys being a top girl, the one who is lifted up during cheers, and who, at cheer’s end, will spin her body more times than Tony Hawk at the X-Games while falling into her teammates arms. “I’ve gotten to be able to trust people,” she said of that experience. “It’s what I live for, honestly.”

A political science major, Kaufmann intends to pursue law, hopefully at UCLA, but has not ruled out cheerleading if another school comes with an offer. That’s a lot of work, but what’s held her back before? “We [her family] dream big and work hard, and of course you’re not always going to get what you want.”

What Kaufmann does get is the fastest time in the qualifier. The course is not exactly kind to her (or anyone else). She takes a spill in a mud pit, and gets bounced by the big balls, but she is able to rebound quickly after those falls to clock in faster than anyone else.

She has made it to the second round.

Danger lies ahead though, as, Kaufmann will have to endure one dizzying, unexpected ride to advance one step closer to her ultimate goal.

“I’ve gotten to be able to trust people. It’s what I live for.”

Kaufmann recalled the time she first heard about a young girl named Brittani Idom. They were both involved in the youth football and cheerleading program called Gladiators. “She was involved in the cheerleading…that’s how I knew of her,” said Kaufmann. They would occasionally run into each other at certain events, exchanging pleasantries.

They did not go to the same high school, though, only reuniting when they saw each other the first day of Glendale’s cheer squad practice in 2006. “I was like, ‘Oh, I know this girl!’ And then from that second we were inseparable.”

On July 6, 2007, in the early hours of the morning in Los Angeles, Idom was shot and killed while driving home from a club. There were initial rumors that Idom was caught in gang crossfire, but the case is still being investigated. The shooter has still not been found. Idom was 18.

“She was like a sister to me,” said Kaufmann.

The entire cheer squad was devastated, including Kaufmann’s former coach Jessie Moorehead. “I’ve lost students before,” said Moorehead. “This was the first one where somebody else came along and chose to take somebody’s life.” Moorehead admitted to being affected as a coach.

“I became a little more protective of my students.”

Moorehead was asked to speak at Idom’s funeral. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I wouldn’t have been able to get a word out,” said Kaufmann.

Did her coach?

“Yes and no,” said Kaufmann.

Moorehead couldn’t quite explain how Kaufmann dealt with the tragedy. “When you’re 18, 19…everyone goes through changes during that time and they become different people or they become stronger than who they are. It’s hard to say whether anything that she’s done has changed or become into is strictly because of Brittani or because she’s becoming a woman.”

In a time of crisis, it can be difficult to know where to turn. To know who to trust. Kaufmann used to put her trust in her best friend and her coach.

She still can.

Kaufmann now says when she prays, “I don’t just pray to God. I pray to Brittani.”
“When she puts her mind to something, she pushes real hard until she gets it,” said Moorehead. “If she needed anything I’d be there.”

Kaufmann is thrust into battle against 11 other soaking wet warriors, but comes out victorious on her two challenges, and it’s not even close.

In one round, she’s able to jump onto moving ledges (like hands on a clock) and pull herself up to the top.

In the next round she and the remaining contestants are locked to a pillar than spins around enough times to make anyone lose their lunch.

Kaufmann is placed next to USC fan Scott Klase, complete with a cardinal and gold painted face. Fearful that Klase’s shaky stomach might also start giving her nausea, Kaufmann is not in the mood to find out.

Despite her struggle to regain her balance when set free, she is able to jump over two giant teeter-totters and finish first. Kaufmann later revealed her motivation.

“I said, ‘I have to get this course over with because if I get next to him again and he throws up, it’s over for me.'”

Kaufmann has made it. The final round awaits. It will be night. It will be cold, and she will have to outlast her final adversaries. Only, she might find new friends can be found almost anywhere she looks.

Two of the other finalists, Azusa Pacific University alumnus Stuart “Super Stu” Yatusake, whose belly flops at APU basketball games became the stuff of legend, and Azusa freshman Ali Bundrant, came to befriend Kaufmann while on the set.

“We just kind of clicked,” said Bundrant. “[We] kind of have the same personality types.”

Kaufmann was surprised to learn at how family oriented the atmosphere had become, something the ABC crew did not expect.

“Everyone was rooting for each other; no one was saying ‘I don’t want them to win.'”

While one person ran the final course, the rest were in a holding van, allowing for more time to connect. “We were talking about past experiences and saying, ‘I know you really want this. If it’s not me, I’m happy it’s you.’ And it was genuine,” said Kaufmann.

Bundrant agreed. “We said that to each other, whoever wins earns every penny of it.”

Ignoring the water that has rushed into her lungs, Kaufmann decides to press on. The time to beat is Bundrant’s 8:13. She has just regained her good sense, opting to continue rather than give up. It’s not so much the cold (she is wearing a body suit for warmth) as it is the fatigue. She has been on set all day, this being her third course in 12 hours, and not 20 seconds ago a tidal wave of orange-colored water swept her away like one of Pharaoh’s men when the Red Sea decided to un-part.

She is still only a few minutes from $50,000. Enduring only one misstep along the way, she smoothly navigates a ledge full of moving giant footballs and pompoms, and cleanly jumps through two spinning platforms on her way to the winners circle. Her time of 4:20 easily surpasses that of anyone else’s, and Kaufmann rejoices.

It is finally over. She has won.

Bundrant was disappointed, but magnanimous in defeat. “I think she was determined to win the whole time. I know that for a fact,” she said of Kaufmann. “I think she deserves it. She did an amazing job.”

Kaufman said she learned self-assurance in her “Wipeout” experience.

“Everything I learned about working hard and trying for something that you want even though you don’t think you’re going to do it, it can work out for you.”

Kaufmann will be saving most of her winnings, but the money was only a fraction of the fun for her. ” I got to go on TV. I got to have a really good experience, meet really good people, and I’m getting paid for it, you know?”

Those good people include Bundrant and Yatusake, both of whom Kaufmann will take out to dinner once the money arrives (sometime in May, Kaufmann said). Bundrant jokes that they might suggest a restaurant that will drain her wallet.

“Order a filet mignon , a lobster,” Bundrant said laughing.

Sure, it’s only a game show, but just like “Wipeout,” life can throw a lot at someone at a young age, and it’s never to early to gauge yourself at this point in the game.

“I love my friends, I love my family. I love everything I do and I don’t take it for granted,” she said.

So, exactly how did Kaufmann do it? As is the case with most things, there may be more than one right answer.