"My entire Challenge career has revolved around avoiding elimination and now you have to go in," the reigning champion says of season 35's new twist.
The Challenge Total Madness
Credit: MTV

After more than a decade and a half, The Challenge finally got to CT.

The returning vet and reigning champion — he won last season's War of the Worlds 2 — knows not to expect anything when a new season of The Challenge begins. But season 35, a.k.a. Total Madness, flipped the script on everything vets know about the long-running reality competition series: in a new twist, players must win an elimination to qualify for the final.

"Everybody’s scrambling," CT tells EW of how the players react to the new twist in the season premiere. "This Challenge is going to be unique for me, to say the least. My entire Challenge career has revolved around avoiding elimination and now you have to go in. That opens up a whole new set of challenges and obstacles."

When the players learn the twist, it impacts everyone's strategy. No one can predict how the season will play out. "Because you don't just have to go in, you have to win an elimination," CT explains. "You have to be careful because you want to go in and win but you need to give yourself the best chances to do that. And everybody wants to go in now, so you could be going head-to-head with one of the strongest people in the house. You want to go in against a lay-up but with everybody wanting to go in, and early, it changes everything."

As for how everyone tried to adapt to the new twist, CT teases how they all tried to strategize. "[What if] all the best players go head-to-head in the beginning and it happens again where you get left with a bunch of, what they called last season, layups?" he says. "But maybe there’s another twist. And yeah, it’s an individual game but some challenges you’re on a team of four, sometimes the house is cut in half, so coming up with a strategy — for this Challenge you have to be good on the fly. And you could be helping your biggest threat get to the final when you win together."

While CT never comes into a Challenge with a set plan, this season's twist meant all the other players would have to wing it as well. "I can’t go through a Rolodex and look at past Challenges and get tips. We’re in uncharted territory," he says. "And at the same time, this one’s tough because of the conditions. The moment we get to this Challenge, it was just a mindf—. Every time you think you know what’s happening, it gets switched up. We got Challenge fever/cabin fever. It gets to the point where people were just losing their minds. Please don’t make me go back there."

Every season is a unique social experiment, but the living situation this season added a new element of stress. Usually, the players get put up in a huge mansion with a gorgeous pool. This season, they were housed in an underground bunker with no amenities and sparse essentials.

The Challenge
Credit: Riccardo Giardina/MTV

"Little things would slowly pick at you and pick at you," CT says. "You’re in a bunker in Central Europe in the middle of a snow blizzard. You just gotta stay sane, keep your head on straight. There’s no windows. You’re freezing cold. It was like Exes II when I was in Iceland for the final but the entire Challenge, the conditions were just weighing you down. Usually, when you get back from the challenge everyone’s happy, lay out by the pool, have some drinks, enjoy ourselves. This one – I feel like I’m just venting on you right now and you can send me an invoice for this session."

With a laugh, he continues, "On this Challenge, the new kids almost had an advantage because they didn’t have as much to go on. Whereas all of us, we’ve been doing it for over 10 years and we’re used to the flip flops and palm trees, the catered food, poolside hangouts, chilling. This one, I just hope that was the end of that for a while."

Still, CT admits, "At the end of the day, God, I love it. I love it! I mean think about it — I got lucky 15 years ago when I went to a casting I found on flyers they were passing out at a club I was bartending at in college. I didn’t know those 15 minutes would last 15 years. Every year since then I get whisked off to this magical land, I’ve gone to every country, every continent except for the South Pole, doing crazy obstacles, jumping out planes, bungee jumping. Why do I keep coming back? Why not come back?!"

Total Madness will be CT's 17th full season of The Challenge, and at age 39, he clocks in as one of the oldest cast members. But to hear him tell it, he's far from considering retirement. "I keep telling myself it’s not going to last much longer and then I win. Everyone’s like, 'Why don’t you just retire?' Because I’ve got some left in the tank, I want to ride it out! Let’s see how long it lasts!"

But he also doesn't want to overstay his welcome. "If I wasn’t able to compete or I didn’t think I could win, I wouldn’t because it wouldn’t be fair to other people who want to be on the show."

This year, his only strategy was to continue his trend of staying neutral. "There’s a difference between staying neutral and being a floater," he says. "If you’re a floater, you’re everybody’s best friend, you try to stay below the radar. Being neutral is you’re not everybody’s best friend – you’re nobody’s friend, so to speak ... I’d like to think I’ve done these long enough where I do a good job of being patient before making decisions because once you make your decision it’s final. If you pick the wrong alliance, the wrong move, there’s no coming back from it. If the Challenge gods shine a light on me, I move forward. If my number gets called, my number gets called."

The Challenge: Total Madness premieres Wednesday, April 1 at 8 p.m. on MTV.

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