The Challenge Cast
Credit: MTV

This season’s Challenge offered up its cruelest, most game-changing twist yet: Thanks to an alliance-busting individual competition and a luck-of-The Draw elimination format, almost no one would ever be safe. And so, week by week, the Free Agents were tossed into pairs, team, or individual challenges—in which only an unequivocal win could guarantee (temporary) safety. It was pure anarchy, and the skull card underlined what a (metaphorically) deadly game producer had laid out for the series’ 25th season.

Making it through to Free Agents‘ final, Deven, Johnny Bananas, other Johnny, Laurel, Nany, and Zach benefited from a combination of strength, smarts, and dumb luck. Awaiting them, a juiced-up, multiterrain square dance that forced players into pairs that switched every time an obstacle was completed was completed. There was rafting, hiking, and hours of peddling a stationary bike that underlined the theme of the season, that pushing yourself to your absolutely limit still can get you nowhere. Did I mention that was just day one? For the third time in Challenge history, a mountain trek sealed the finalists’ fate. In the end, only nine minutes’ difference over the course of the two-day finale marked the line between victory and defeat for two of the Free Agents.

Warning for those who haven’t seen The Challenge‘s finale: Spoilers will follow. So, without further delay, the Free Agents winners are…

Johnny Bananas and Laurel

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Even after emerging from four elimination matches, it’s little surprise that Johnny Bananas took the Free Agents title. As the series’ most record-breaking competitor ever, he has more than $400,000 in winnings, five final titles, and the hands-down respect of his competitors. “I’ve never considered myself the strongest nor the smartest person in the house,” he says, “but what sets me aside from a lot of the other competitors is my ability to adapt to any circumstance that’s thrown our way. … You have to be a chameleon. You have to be able to adapt to an ever-changing environment at the drop of a hat. If you can’t do that, you get weeded out pretty quick.”

For the ladies, Laurel says the new mercenary format resulted “this weird karmic game. … By the fate of The Draw, I ended up in the elimination round with [all these people with whom I’d had personal conflicts].” Still, after holding her own record—for participating in the most Challenges without ever being sent home—she acknowledges she earned this win. It didn’t hurt that she happens to be an avid mountain climber off-screen, too. “The weird thing about fate is, for some reason I always get the Challenges when we’re in the mountains. I’ve never had to do a weird eating challenge, thank the Lord!”

Free Agents conceit set up for two victors who couldn’t be more different. While Laurel (not-so-successfully) drilled her partner Zach to the point where he nearly quit, the usually temperamental Johnny carried partner Devyn on his back in a first-day hike. “That alone is a testament to how people can change,” he says. “I’ve always been known as a person who loses his temper, especially when I’m competing with female partners. Going into that second leg with Devyn, I knew it was going to be an uphill battle. Not just running but athleticism [in general] is not her strong suit, and I knew that I had to keep it together.”

For Laurel, her stumbling blocks to victory were less physical than emotional. After falling out with her best friend Cara Maria (whom Laurel dispatched in a third-to-last episode elimination), she’s taken stock of her performance and recognized that winning the war still meant losing a few battles along the way. “I learned that I had a lot of pride this season, and that really held me back,” she acknowledges. “That pride disabled me from being able to suck it up and resolve things [with Cara].” She adds, “I’m working on myself. I’ve made so many mistakes. I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve made mistakes—my mistakes just happen to be on national television.”

Still, the result of Free Agents felt like a cosmic make-good in the wake of personal upheaval before this season. “I had left my corporate job, my apartment lease was up in New York City, I thought I was going to move to California,” she recalls. “I get a phone call from The Challenge… and I thought, ‘Maybe this is all the forces coming together saying it’s the perfect time for you to go and give it one more shot.’ I felt the most myself after the three years that I took off between Rivals and Free Agents than I ever have before.”

Bananas feels similarly validated, saying, “This [season] was the sweetest victory ever. My back was against the wall this entire time. This was the first Challenge I’ve come into where I really had no support [from] an alliance. This was a struggle for me from day one until the end…. It was kind of match point for me for most of the game, and I managed to find a way out every single time. [Unlike in other Challenge formats] no one can take anything away from me or take credit for how things went down.”

So how will we they spend the $125,000 prize? In contrast to their on-air dramatics, the victors’ answers are surprisingly reserved. “I want to act like I don’t have the money at all. I want to continue to live simply. I want to continue to go in a direction that I find what it is that I’m here for.” I just want to be a normal person,” Laurel giggles.

Bananas admits, “If you’d asked me that question five years ago, I probably would have had a much more reckless answer.” He says with a quip, “I haven’t actually sent in my paperwork to get that check sent to me. I feel like the longer they hold it, the less danger it is for me going out and spending it on booze and hookers.”

While Laurel thinks it’s “time to hang up [her] hat,” it seems like Bananas’ Free Agents check might not even have a chance to clear before he’s back in the game. Though casting for the next season hasn’t been announced yet, Bananas teases, “I don’t think [if I had] 10 wins I’d even be satisfied. … Until the day that I fall over and die or retire from Challenges, there’s always something more to be accomplished.”