UC Irvine’s Kaba Modern has been getting all the support and attention from the student body in its quest for the title of America’s Best Dance Crew on MTV, but little do most UC Irviners know that they had another Anteater competing on a hit NBC TV show this season.
Alex Rai, who graduated from UCI in 2005, had his claim to fame in this season of the new American Gladiators show. Rai made it to the finals of the new and juiced (no pun intended) remake of the ’90s hit show. Though he didn’t win the $100,000 and a chance to be a Gladiator in the next season, Rai exudes a personality that finds the positive in anything.
‘I wasn’t trying to be Hollywood when I got on the show. I was like a little kid throughout the whole experience,’ Rai said. He marveled at the set and layout of the competition, and acted like a little kid at Chuckie Cheese when he finished one obstacle, excited to tackle the next.
He recalls having immediate regrets as he saw the Gladiators come out for the first time in his first event, power-ball.
‘NBC did a great job keeping who the Gladiators were a secret. Usually the information leaks, but we had no clue. When I saw them come out right before I was going in for power ball I was like, ‘Oh my God, what did I sign up for?!”
Rai won his first round of the competition with ease. However, he hit some rough patches in the second round, and found himself in a deficit going into the Eliminator, the last event which decides which candidate will move on. His opponent’s lead proved to be no problem in the Eliminator as Alex used his speed and balance to make up ground, and win when it mattered.
In the show’s finale, Rai was matched up with a freak of nature in Evan Dollard. Dollard nearly dominated all the events prior, and built a substantial head start going into the Eliminator.
‘At that point, I knew. I would need a lead going into the Eliminator to have a chance against Evan, but I was content with it. I just had to go out and give it my best.’
Many speculated that Dollard was given an unfair advantage in the finale episode. Rai and Dollard had to compete in ‘The Wall’ competition, which Dollard dominated with ease. He works as a rock climbing instructor. In addition, Dollard was always matched up with the hairy, howling Gladiator Wolf in nearly every event. Dollard never lost to Wolf and was clearly better than him. To top it off, Justice’s gun got jammed in ‘Assault’ which allowed Dollard to hit the target and win the event. Rai acknowledges that if he had a little more luck, the result might have been different. However, he is the first to say that the Eliminator is Dollard’s event, and has no hesitation in calling him the ‘true American Gladiator.’
Rai’s demeanor on and off the show epitomizes the phrase ‘win graciously, lose graciously.’ As a teacher and wrestling coach, Rai’s goal is to inspire and educate. While attending UCI as a grad student from 2005-07, Rai taught at Lakeside Middle School in Irvine. He became a favorite teacher amongst students, because of his goofiness and his ability to relate to the kids.
It wasn’t until the faculty and staff approached him from his hometown of Rosemead to come back and teach his alma mater.
‘Man, life was good. The kids in Irvine were enthusiastic about learning and I loved the staff. Going back would also mean me taking a pay cut.’
Putting all of that aside, Rai thought about his main goal and reason for teaching, to help make a difference. He decided to go back to Rosemead and take the job as a history teacher and wrestling coach at El Monte High.
El Monte High School is in a lower socio-economic neighborhood, and does not rank very highly academically. For Rai, he felt that going back to his home and making a difference with under-achieving kids would be a greater challenge, and in turn more rewarding.
‘If the kids [at El Monte] saw a guy who talks like them, laughs like them, watches the same TV shows and lives in the same neighborhood can do it, they can to.’
The producers of American Gladiators fell in love with his story. Had he won, Rai was planning on donating a majority of his winnings to the indebted El Monte wrestling program.
Though fans of the show approach Rai daily, his popularity is immense in the Southern California high-school wrestling community. He talks about how kids always approach him at competition, and even gets ‘Gladiator Ready!’ and ‘I need a medic’ calls from fans. The ‘I need a medic’ calls refer to when Rai was on the floor in exhaustion after an event in the show and asked for medical assistance, which brings up a fact many watching the show didn’t know.
Rai partially tore his rotator in ‘Power Ball,’ the first event of the competition. However, he did not want to leave the show so he kept quiet and pulled through. His competitive spirit carried him through the show, and his story at El Monte High made him a crowd favorite. The producers of the show had to stop filming at times, because the ‘Alex Rai’ chants in Gladiator Arena were disrupting the recording.
Though Rai and his fans were disappointed when he could not come out on top at the end, Rai did not deem the event a failure in the least.
‘I want to show my kids that you have to try. Alex Rai being on American Gladiators was a one-in-a-trillion chance, but I tried my hardest and I hope that I showed my kids that a little effort goes a long way.’
Since the show has ended, Rai has been swamped by e-mails from viewers giving him support. A mother e-mailed him and told him she wants her son to grow up and be like him.
‘I could be a serial killer for all she knows, but it’s amazing knowing I have that effect on people.’
The El Monte wrestling team has been receiving monetary donations and a family in Oregon donated uniforms and equipment.
‘If I can have this kind of effect on a child, and receive this kind of support for as little as the 55 minutes I spend with most in a class, that is worth way more than $100,000.’