Skip to Content
reality TV reviews, news, and analysis since 2000

Tough As Nails 5’s winner! Plus: a proposal for a finale twist

Tough As Nails 5’s winner! Plus: a proposal for a finale twist
Phil Keoghan with Tough As Nails season 5's cash prize before the final challenge (Photo by Robin Cymbaly/CBS)

In less than a month, Tough As Nails season five has come and gone, but it did not do so quietly: the final two episodes had plenty of dramatic moments, right down to the final gauntlet, which was incredibly close, as so many of the competitions have been.

Phil Keoghan introduced Sunday night’s finale by saying the season-five cast were the “fittest, strongest, most highly-skilled workers to ever compete for the Tough As Nails title,” and while past contestants might be been quietly weeping at home, this cast was certainly evenly matched.

Those who are waiting for Big Brother and missed Tough As Nails missed better, more-dramatic challenges and deeper relationships.

While I was not a fan of this drop-and-burn schedule, I remain a fan of Tough As Nails, and would watch it any time. Preferably soon: Can we please have a season six, CBS?

The team competition ends

Two groups of people—one in dark green t-shirts and one group in orange t-shirts—stand and watch something intently
Cheryl Lieteau, Kenji Ngo, Todd Anderson, Carly Steiman, Ben Dempsey, Paul Hamilton, Dustin Bradford, Marcus Jones, Akeela Al-Hameed, and Carolina Paredes watch the final Tough As Nails season 5 team competition (Photo by Robin Cymbaly/CBS)

In the eighth episode, Dirty Hands won the team competition, but there was still one team challenge left in episode nine. It’s there in case the show needs a tiebreaker, but with no need for that this season, it’s now just one final chance for winning $2,000 each.

The challenge was the now-standard Battle of the Trades, though as the seasons go on we’re getting a little further away from actual trades. I’m not sure log-pulling or improper use of a tool count as trades, though they worked well as challenges.

Before the battle began, each team expressed their desire to win, and each team captain from episode one gave themselves credit for selecting great teams in the first episode.

Dirty Hands picked the first opponent, and then Savage Crew picked first discipline, and then switched with each battle. So we had:

  1. Cheryl vs. Carolina at the log chop: Cheryl won
  2. Yesi vs. Jessica at log pull: Yesi won in a dramatic finish where she pulled past Jessica at the line that Jessica reached first but could not get over
  3. Kenji vs. Akeela at wood planing: Kenji’s plane broke immediately, and then so did Akeela’s, but Akeela won
  4. Ben vs. Dustin at all three: Dustin won, leaving Ben behind
  5. Paul vs. Carly at the log pull: Carly easily won
  6. Todd vs. Marcus at wood planing: Todd won
  7. Dustin vs. Ben at the log chop: Dustin won after Ben cut the strap holding his log, disqualifying him
  8. Carly vs. Carolina at wood planing: Carolina won
A person slides a piece of wood through a narrow metal slot
Carolina tests her board during the final match-up of the final team competition on Tough As Nails season 5 (Photo by Robin Cymbaly/CBS)

After the first four rounds, it was Dirty Hands with two points, Savage Crew with three points—identified with hatchets stuck into a board.

Carly’s win in the fifth round tied things 3-3, and then Todd pulled ahead to give Dirty Hands the lead 4-3.

Savage Crew had the next call, so Dustin called out Ben—and then beat him again, tying it up.

That meant that round eight was the deciding factor for the day’s $12,000.

Carolina won it for Savage Crew, and the first person out of the individual competition winning, individually, the final team competition was a pretty terrific arc for her.

A group of people in orange t-shirts gather around a person; one has his arm on her shoulder
Savage Crew’s Paul Hamilton, Dustin Bradford, and Jessica Hayes celebrate Carolina Paredes’s win in the final Tough As Nails season 5 team competition, which earned them $12,000. (Photo by Robin Cymbaly/CBS)

Before the final five attempted the individual competition, we heard from a few contestants about who they’re worried about.

Because this is an edited show, I was trying to figure out if Dustin sharing that “Ben’s my biggest competition” meant they’d be up against each other in the final, or if one would knock the other out.

But then Cheryl told her teammates “you guys’ve gotta dust Dustin” (A+ alliteration, Cheryl!) and it seemed like Dustin might be caught in a reality TV editor’s foreshadowing.

The individual challenge task: assembling a making a picnic table, including creating two A-frames, benches, and the top. The winner earned a whopping $9,000, which is how much money you’d have to pay me to sit at a picnic table in this heat and humidity.

This wasn’t just an Ikea assembly challenge: the contestants also had to measure and cut pieces of wood, using only a flimsy hand saw.

Kenji, Ben, Todd, and Jessica finished, in that order, but all got a thumbs-down.

Carolina screamed “details!” and that was exactly what was wrong: benches that were the wrong length, work areas that were not clear.

In Todd’s case, it was some cable that was basically leaning on his platform, but he didn’t notice that and went as far as starting to unscrew pieces from his picnic table in his desperate attempt to appease the judges.

Jessica got the cleanup area thumbs-down because her water bottle was sitting on the platform. “Take a sip of water!” Paul told us he wanted to say.

She didn’t do that fast enough, so Ben won, and Jessica came in second, keeping the finale from being populated by just men.

“I’m tired of coming in second, I’m tired of coming in third,” Jessica told us, but alas, came in second yet again.

In an interview later, she told us, “In the army, I did my boot camp and I was the only female out of my whole company, and I had to work twice as hard just to be considered equal. I will battle tooth and nail to come out on top—and those boys better watch out.” I wasn’t a fan of the way Jessica managed her team earlier in the season, or dealt with conflict with Akeela, but she’s grown on me as a character and competitor.

A man pulls a log using two ropes; behind him, a man facing away chops a vertical log
Dustin and Ben face off in the final Tough As Nails season 5 team challenge (Photo Robin Cymbaly/CBS)

The last two were Todd and Dustin, who went into the Overtime competition: milling a log into four 2x8s and eight 2x4s.

Oh, did I mention there was a CUTE WITTLE DOGGY at the challenge? The editors had fun with it: When Phil Keoghan said, “If you’re last, you’ll be punching out,” and then we cut to the dog flat on the ground, panting and whining. Even if that was a sound effect added in post, it worked as comedy.

Speaking of sound added in post and comedy: whoever edited this had a lot of fun, and I had a lot of fun watching it.

Dustin got his log ready to cut first, but pushed the apparatus with the belt-like saw blade catching on the log. From the sidelines, Ben said, “oh, he’s gonna break that band—watch your eyes!” and then moved as if to duck behind his fellow spectators.

Thankfully, the band didn’t snap and fly off, but it did have to be repaired. So while Dustin sat back watching a pro change the blade, Todd walked next to his machine as it moved itself, happily slicing through the log. This was all set to some classical music, and was a delight.

A thing I actually said as Todd cut out 2x4s from his log: “I guess I didn’t realize that wood was just in the middle of trees!” It was just amazing to watch a piece of wood from the hardware store appear from the middle of a tree. I know wood comes from trees—I’m a dummy when it comes to a lot of things, but not that ignorant—but I don’t think I’d ever known how simple the process was.

Anyway, Todd breezed through this, but one of his 2x8s was rejected for having an entire edge of rough bark, so he had to use a whole new log to cut one more 2×8. Despite that, Dustin could not catch up, and punched out.

That leaves us with three finalists in their 30s: Ben (33), Jessica (35), and Kenji (39), and one in his 50s: Todd (58). Dustin’s exit proves that it can be anyone’s game in the finale—so let’s see whose game it was!

Tough As Nails 5’s final four compete for $200,000

A person wearing a plaid shirt and hat clapping
Phil Keoghan on Tough As Nails season 5’s penultimate episode (Photo by Robin Cymbaly/CBS)

First, though, a proposal for a Tough As Nails finale twist, and an invitation to mock my proposal.

Watching the penultimate episode, and looking at the group of individuals who’ve punched out, I had a thought for a finale twist.

What if, after the competition got down to the final three, each team was able to vote one of their punched-out members into the final competition?

That’d produce a final five, which is maybe too many people for a final obstacle course. Maybe everyone could vote one person in, regardless of team.

What excites me about this idea is that it’d make the finale not just about the individual competition, but once more about Tough As Nails’ two teams and their relationships.

Who needs the money? Who has a chance against the final three? Who would the actual final three argue to be voted in—stronger or weaker competition? For example, would Jessica vote for Dustin to come back in? Or Akeela? Since half of Dirty Hands is in the finale, who would they choose to join them? Cheryl, Carly, or Yesi?

One of the best things about Tough As Nails is that it does not drop contestants throughout the season, so we get to know people as they get to know each other. That includes those who’ve been eliminated from the individual competition early.

Why not reward them for their relationships, growth, and/or skills?

Here’s a moment when I worry I might be a massive hypocrite since I dislike Survivor’s Edge of Extinction so much. While I thought of my finale twist idea before knowing who was in the final three, I also don’t want to be inventing a twist just to save my faves, as a certain host of another CBS show did.

But Tough As Nails isn’t Survivor; it’s not a social game with people voted out. Those who lose two individual challenges do spend time sitting on the sidelines during those challenges, but they’re right in there with every team competition.

Bad idea? Better idea? The comments are open below for your feedback! For now, let’s move away from my fantasy to the reality of Tough As Nails 5’s finale.

Tough As Nails 5’s final challenge and winner

A person in a plaid shirt with their hands clasped; a pale red building and water are in the background
Tough As Nails host Phil Keoghan welcomes the contestants to season 5 on a dock (Photo Robin Cymbaly/CBS)

Three challenges remained: one individual, overtime, and the final.

The individual challenge was driving 18-wheel trucks with flatbed trailers backward down a curvy course, picking up 12 massive tires, 20 concrete blocks, and 20 bags of dirt along the way. A professional driver was in the cab with them, I guess so they could operate the invisible brake that’s on the passenger floor of cars I ride in and that I press down when I get anxious.

The fastest person would win $10,000; the second-fastest would secure a spot in the final two. The other two would go to overtime.

Ben and Kenji went first, and Kenji really struggled with driving the truck, steering it so that the trailer would go in the direction he wanted. Ben finished well ahead of Kenji, but it was still possible for Todd and Jessica to beat both of them.

Todd got his truck really close to his piles, which Phil described as “that old-man wisdom.” SHADE. (Phil is two years younger than Todd.) That worked, though, and Todd finished well ahead of Jessica.

The overall winner won by “about 30 seconds”: Todd, who received the $10,000. Ben was second.

Jessica and Kenji went to overtime, which took place at the top of a truss along a narrow little catwalk. They had to run electricity to four lights, connecting conduit and then feeding a wire through it.

It came down to the final conduit, and Kenji connected his first, eliminating Jessica.

That makes it an all-Dirty Hands final challenge. It’s also the second season in a row—and the third season of five total—with an all-male final three.

Ben, Kenji, and Todd faced a “final test of your strength, endurance, mental toughness, and your life skills,” as Phil described it.

The gauntlet brought back elements from earlier challenges, some identical (planing down a board to fit through a slot, getting posts into a log) and others in new ways (the ATVs were used to crash through a faux concrete wall, sod had to be pushed through a pipe to knock out tools), plus some fun new things (a see-saw ladder).

While Phil described the stages, he mentioned creating a staircase with tires, which I assumed was the end—but no! “That’s when your nightmare really starts to begin,” Phil said. It was a very long course, and one that had a lot of precision work, which I prefer to components requiring brute strength. There was still a lot of physicality required, though!

Ben pulled ahead early, with Kenji behind him. Kenji’s post driving technique didn’t work as well on a metal pole going into a log as it did on a wood post in soil, and he fell way behind. His teammates—especially Akeela and Cheryl—were there for him from the sidelines, trying to yell suggestions, but he didn’t seem to hear or understand. His technique caused him to bend both poles, and he never made it past that stage. “How can this be the end of me?” he screamed at one point, crying and slamming his post driver into the bent poles. It was a sad end to his otherwise strong season for Kenji.

Ben and Todd were working on the same stages at the same time, but Ben was just ahead, getting through his drain pipe first, climbing up his tire staircase first, and getting his board planed first.

The show went to a commercial as Ben started climbing his final ladder and slipped, dropping some of the pegs that they were using as steps. But they were once again side by side—and Kenji was still banging away.

Todd had to go get more pegs, and so did Ben: he needed just one, and he won the $200,000.

This season, individuals won between $8,000 and $36,000 between individual wins and team competition shares. The person who won the most: Ben, at $36,000, followed closely by Kenji’s $33,000 and Todd’s $30,000.

“I came here to make memories and have fun,” Ben said, and of course he also made a total of $236,000, a Ford Lightning truck, and the wrestling belt thingy.

The season ended with a montage from the season and what the contestants took away from their time on Tough As Nails, followed by the traditional updates on what each of the contestants are doing now. It’s amazing to me how much more information those quick glimpses give than 45-minute-long Survivor reunions do.

It’s another way in which Tough As Nails has created and solidified a format that succeeds on all levels, and is just a pleasure to watch.

All reality blurred content is independently selected, including links to products or services. However, if you buy something after clicking an affiliate link, we may earn a commission, which helps support reality blurred. Learn more.

About the writer

Discussion: your turn

The writing here is the start of a conversation, and reality blurred values your contributions to that conversation. We’ve created a community that connects people through open and thoughtful conversations about the TV we’re watching, the pop culture we’re consuming, and the stories about it.

To share our perspectives and exchange ideas in a welcoming, supportive space, there are rules for commenting here. By commenting below, you confirm that you’ve read and agree to those rules.

Happy discussing!

Bad Mitten

Thursday 3rd of August 2023

- I'm not sure I like your twist proposal. Voting really just goes against everything that this show is. On the other hand, I think if they put some sort of battle back challenge in towards the middle of the season, I wouldn't be against it.

"It was a very long course, and one that had a lot of precision work, which I prefer to components requiring brute strength. There was still a lot of physicality required, though!" - I'm not sure I agree with your description here. To me, that final gauntlet was skewed too far towards being just physical/brute strength tasks. I would like to see more technical/precision based tasks.

"Ben pulled ahead early, with Kenji behind him. Kenji’s post driving technique didn’t work as well on a metal pole going into a log as it did on a wood post in soil, and he fell way behind. His teammates—especially Akeela and Cheryl—were there for him from the sidelines." - Getting super technical here but Akeela was not Kenji's teammate. While I appreciated her sticking back to seemingly show support for Kenji, I'm not sure how reasonable it was to keep yelling at him not to quit given his stake was literally bent rendering his ability to complete the task seemingly impossible.

Bad Mitten

Monday 7th of August 2023

@Andy Dehnart, What can I say, I have good ideas from time to time. I can see it now, Phil walks in to surprise the contestants, who's ready for an opportunity to punch back into the individual competion?!

Andy Dehnart

Friday 4th of August 2023

Ooh: a redemption challenge is a great idea, and would keep Tough As Nails challenge-focused, rather than introducing a vote.


Monday 31st of July 2023

Your proposal reminds me too much of EDGE OF EXTINCTION. Eliminated participants, whether they’re on Survivor or Tough as Nails, shouldn’t be allowed to compete for the final prize. I just don’t think it’s fair. Bringing back someone who is voted out is fine for Big Brother because nobody takes that show seriously. I say no to your Probstian idea. Why fix a show when it’s perfect the way it is?

I wanted Jessica in the final three so it wouldn’t be all Dirty Hands and male, but it wasn’t to be.

I wanted Todd to win but Ben obviously earned the win. He was very sweaty at the end.

It was hard to watch Kenji stuck at the pole-driver station. I found myself looking away.

Thanks for the recaps!


Monday 31st of July 2023

The final four challenge was strength-based, putting the female contestant at a distinct disadvantage. At the final four stage, all challenges should be skills-based to make it an even playing field. Shame on Tough as Nails!


Tuesday 1st of August 2023

@Melissa, Yes, I like when they make weight challenges fair like making the logs equal a percentage of the person's body weight. Both the weight of the items and the height of the truck bed definitely made it unfair to smaller, shorter contestants.


Monday 31st of July 2023

@JD, Was that the semi truck one? Jessica and Kenji were also at a disadvantage because they are short. I agree, I'd like to see it be a little more fair.


Monday 31st of July 2023

This may sound like "sour grapes" but I wonder if there was something different about the log that Kenji was given. If he had just not pounded the posts into it it may have been die to his ability, but the fact that the posts bent as he was working on them makes me think that the log was harder, had a knot or the predrilled hole was not right. I am sure the show tries to make the tasks equal but this just didn't look right.

Chuck S

Tuesday 8th of August 2023

@George, Using that technique on a post into easier to move dirt is one thing, Trying to use it on a log, where you really have to drive the metal post in, just would never work properly.


Tuesday 1st of August 2023

@George, I wish he had realized that it was his technique that wasn't working and switched it up. He was so sure that it worked before so it should work again that he didn't stop to reassess. It was really hard to watch. I was a big Kenji fan.


Monday 31st of July 2023

@George, I think it was just his technique. Just throwing the tool on the stakes had worked for him during the original challenge, but it didn't work here; he needed more muscle behind it.

RJ Mayberry

Sunday 30th of July 2023

My wife, Kathy, and I really enoy the show. We have watched it all five years. I personally enjoyed the tasks that were more practically based; repairing cars, or wiring lightbulbs, building things, instead of obstacle courses or contest type challenges. We like how the competitors have to pick a partner, then might have to go into overtime against their partner. It was stated that this is not a social game, but it really has a social side. Team members have to work with the others on their team. They have to forgive and forget intra-team offenses and arguments and come together to work and "get the job done." I thought that Kenji's reponse to the one particular competition really showed his humanity. His reaction helped make me realize that these competitions are really tough, and that competing on the show can be emotional. Also, the interaction between the Savage Crew members on the van was refreshing. They had to work to overcome their differences. That was very real. Have you ever considered a celebrity Tough as Nails? Of course the money would go to charity. Thank you for the show and thank you for considering my comments.

Sincerely, Ron and Kathy Mayberry Ohio