No matter how much The Challenge has changed over its 35 seasons, there's one rule that always stays the same: T.J. Lavin hates quitters.
The host of MTV's long-running reality competition series has no patience for contestants who choose to leave the game, and he has all the reason in the world to judge them so fiercely. His own dedication to the franchise he joined in 2005 is unparalleled because it comes from personal experience. "The no-quitting passion comes from my BMX days," the former pro rider tells EW. "When I rode BMX bikes, there was no quitting, there was no doubt. That's ingrained in my mind, I don't quit anything. I'm going to keep going until I succeed, and that way you never fail. If you don't quit, you're just on your way to success."
Lavin's zero-tolerance stance on quitting is so well-known that Challenge competitors often push themselves to perform harder out of fear of disappointing him. Because when someone disappoints Lavin, you won't see them on the show again. "I get probably 50 people a week asking me how to be on the show, in DMs and comments and whatever, 'Put me on the show!'" Lavin says. "And quitters are taking the place of someone that really wants to be there, would die to be there, would give anything to trade places. And you miss your girlfriend? That's why you're going to leave, because you miss your girlfriend?!"
He is, of course, referring to the player who infamously quit Rivals III for that exact reason (and of course has never been back on the show). And Lavin stresses that when there are "extenuating circumstances, like when people leave because there was a death in the family or something really gnarly happened back home, then of course that's not quitting. That's going and doing the responsible thing. Or if there's a medical issue, that's a very big difference." But for someone like Lavin who puts his everything into The Challenge and consistently prioritizes the show over his own personal life, quitting is an unforgivable crime. Because he practices what he preaches.
"My dad passed away when we were in South Africa [filming Final Reckoning]," Lavin reveals. "It would have been an act of Congress for me to get back to the United States for the funeral and then go back to South Africa to film, not mention that it would have taken at least a week, since it takes two days to go there and two days to get back. It would have been just a huge cluster. So I just suffered in silence for a month and a half and finished filming, and then I got to deal with all that stuff."
While Lavin hasn't hosted the series since its inception in 1998, he's proud of how his attitude over the past 15 years has been a positive influence on the franchise. "It pushes people further than they ever could have imagined they could go," he says. "Some of the stuff I've put them through, I'm not even going to lie, I'm not sure if I could get through it. Or I could get through it, but I wouldn't be happy. [Laughs] They're doing work, and I'm very proud of them for getting it done — and they're sometimes doing it with a smile."
That's why he's shocked to see The Challenge go so long without getting awards recognition. It's never been nominated for an Emmy in any category, despite predating all other reality competition series. "You know, we're the first challenge competition show to bring in eliminations and all that – people have copied us from the very beginning," he says. "It's an honor to see what somebody else pulls from us and puts into their show, that means that we're doing it right. I look at it as imitation is the highest form of flattery. But it's crazy that we've been overlooked so much as far as getting an Emmy or outside awards."
From "the level of cinematography to the level of production," Lavin says The Challenge "pushes the limits all the time." And it's constantly evolving. "Compared to back in the day when it was just who can put the bike together the fastest and run it across the field, it's now big budget stuff," he says. "Helicopters, huge tanks in the field, all kinds of craziness you can't even imagine. I've had the best time of my life filming it."
But as the franchise has leveled up in recent seasons, the physical challenges have also become increasingly difficult. As a result, players are getting injured more than ever. But Lavin, who survived life-threatening injuries during his BMX career, thinks the heightened level of risk is a good thing. "It's definitely not free, you know? At the end of the day, some of these things are life and death," he says. "The stunt guys we have are no joke. There is nothing to play with, it's all serious. There are a lot of risks, and I think it's real cool that MTV and everyone at Bunim-Murray are [doing this]. If it was just a bunch of wack stuff you didn't care about, the show would have been over a long time ago."
When Lavin joined The Challenge for Gauntlet II, he was deep into his career as a decorated pro BMX rider. He had no hosting experience and no idea what to expect from the potential new gig. "I met [executive producer Justin Booth] once at the casting," he recalls. "When I got there, he handed me a sheet and was like, 'Learn this.' It was two pages of copy, I had no idea what to do, it started raining, I was sweating, and all of a sudden I was like, 'I'm just going to learn the bullet points, wing it, and see what happens.'"
That turned out to be the secret that changed not only The Challenge, but also Lavin's life. "They all loved it. It came out so natural," he says. "And it was kind of the birth of a new way of hosting a TV show because before that, it was very strict, to the script, this is how it is. Now it's 15 years later and they don't even hand me a script anymore. [Laughs] A lot of it is coming off the tip of my tongue."
After that fateful first day, Booth told Lavin over lunch that as long as he produces The Challenge, Lavin will be his host. "I was like, 'Really?'" Lavin says with a laugh. "And he was like, 'Yeah, I don't know how long it's going to last, maybe like two or three more seasons. Who knows?' And now here we are, I've been the host for 25 seasons. It's insane to me to say that out loud. I was so unsure back then. It's so crazy!"
Just as The Challenge has changed over those 25 seasons, so has Lavin's life. After a life-threatening crash while competing in the Dew Action Sports Tour in 2010, he ended up in a medically induced coma after which he contracted pneumonia. He since made a full recovery, but has since stopped riding BMX professionally. "I don't even bring my bike anymore because I'm much more aware of my health," he says. "I have to be healthy during filming, so two months prior to taking off to go film, I don't do anything dangerous so I don't get hurt and mess up the whole production. I'm very conscious that it's not just me anymore — it's our whole crew, and our crew has been like family to me now for the last 15 years."
That family extends to the cast as well. Unlike other reality competition shows that introduce entire rosters of new cast members each season, with only a few "all-star" rounds bringing back familiar faces, Lavin is unique as a host in that he's able to forge long-lasting relationships with all the Challenge contestants, since many return year after year.
"It's like a huge family or a traveling circus," he says. "It's a bunch of people who are all working towards one goal, which is creating the best television that we can. Sometimes things get heated between contestants, but they very rarely lash out at me. And if anything is ever said to me, that's in the heat of the moment where they don't mean it. It's pretty cool."
Having personal relationships with the players is one of Lavin's favorite parts about hosting The Challenge. But he also makes sure to "keep a professional distance" from them in the off-season.
"There are a couple guys I see here and there, like I see Leroy [Garrett] every once in a while because he lives in the same town, but it's very rare that I see him; I'm talking maybe once every two or three years," Lavin says. "And if I ever see anyone outside of the show, it's friendly no matter what. But no real visits or dinners or anything like that. Just very professional, everyone knows we have to keep at arm's length because it's a professional relationship."
With the introduction of the "red skull" twist this season on Total Madness, Lavin has enjoyed watching the game get turned upside down as veteran contestants had to adapt and go into eliminations voluntarily to qualify for "his final," something that has never been done before. "Justin was like, 'I need you own this thing,'" Lavin says of the upcoming final. "I helped with the design of it. This Challenge final is by far the coolest that I've ever seen."
Looking to the future, Lavin is the first to admit he has no idea how long this will last. "I love hosting it and I feel like we're doing great, so if it ain't broke, I don't know why we'd try to fix it," he says. "At the end of the day, most good things come to an end, so at some point in my life I'm sure that my hosting days will be numbered, but as of now I'm really excited about it. I hope to be with The Challenge forever."
He did say he doesn't quit anything.