Rule No. 1 of The Challenge: Never underestimate Chris "C.T." Tamburello.
And yet, the rest of the cast of MTV realty hit's season 36 cast did just that during Double Agents, with the three-time champ making it to the final—his ninth—alongside Big Brother's Amber Borzotra. Despite the veteran and the rookie becoming partners just ahead of the grueling two-day challenge, C.T. and Amber were crowned the winners during the April 22 finale after coming in first at every checkpoint along the way.
"I gotta say, it was one of my best performances ever in a final," C.T. told E! News during a joint phone interview with Amber. "I mean, we took the lead from the beginning and didn't look back."
While the final may have been smooth sailing for C.T. and Amber, the season was anything but, each champion facing their own struggles along the way.
Competing on his 18th season, the 40-year-old C.T.'s dominance a game that he helped shape was questioned by some of the other players—cough, Fessy Shafaat, cough—while his handling of the split with fan-favorite Tula "Big T" Fazakerley had fans cringing and shaking their heads in dismay.
Amber, meanwhile, found herself struggling to find her place in the ever-growing Big Brother alliance, relying on her original partner, four-time winner Darrell Taylor, to help her navigate the the mindf--k that The Challenge can be for a rookie.
In the end, however, the pair came together to win a combined $900,000, reaffirming C.T.'s place as one of the greatest Challengers ever and establishing Amber as a force to be reckoned with moving forward.
In a chat with E! News, the freshly crowned champs weighed in on their impressive performance in the final, the surprising connection viewers didn't get to see and how C.T.'s four-year-old son Chris reacted to his latest win...
E! News: Congratulations! You two pretty much dominated that final challenge, but heading into it, what did you think your chances were, given that you had never worked together all season?
Chris "C.T." Tamburello: I couldn't have been happier to have Amber on my team. I remember her when she was with Darrell, she showed a lot of heart. She did not stop moving and kept going. Yeah, it helps to be this, that and the other thing, but the most important key, I think, in my eyes, is heart. And later on, I found out she was secretly a marathon runner. So I was like, OK, this is perfect, because Kam [Williams] is great, don't get me wrong, but we're too similar. We're both very strong-willed, thick-headed almost. Too many chiefs and not enough Indians, you know? Whereas with Amber, she was like, "I'm not good at puzzles." I was like, "Don't worry, I'm good at that. Can you run?" And came to find out, I couldn't keep up with her! I was super happy, I was super pumped. If I'm the slowest runner on our team, we're in good shape.
Amber Borzotra: Honestly, I felt so confident being paired with C.T. Just knowing he had experience, I knew he's so smart. I just knew that I needed him to keep up with me because I know that I love run. When I was partnered with Darrell, before he left, he told me to stick with C.T. and to keep C.T. safe any chance I got.
C.T.: For the longest time I didn't think Darrell had my back. And now when I think about it, Amber, we both were helping each other out indirectly without even talking about it.
Amber: I agree and it was so crazy because we didn't work with each other all season, so I didn't know how we would do as a pair. But we are like the perfect pair. I loved Darrell too…I wish I could put him and Darrell all in one! [Laughs.]
E! News: Viewers never really saw the two of you interact all season, so I'm curious to know if you guys did have any kind of relationship in the house before becoming partners?
C.T.: The game can be very stressful, especially when it's your first time doing it. I mean, they didn't show it, but Amber, I thought we had a moment where she was opening up to me and letting me know what was going on because people were coming at her and I'm giving the old man pep talk.
Amber: Yeah, it was nice to have him in the house, just to talk to when I was having moments, when I was having a hard time in the game. Even though we weren't together, he was still a good listener and gave good advice. And just going into the final, I was so confident in myself and him because I know he's all-go and does not give up. I was just so happy I had somebody who could help me eat.
C.T.: And you ended up doing the rest of the challenge with that blood all over you, you looked like some crazy vampire!
Amber: I couldn't have had a better partner. He literally made me want to keep going even more. He gave me the best energy in the final, always just keeping me on my toes, making sure I was level-headed. Any time I was like, "I can't eat this, I can't go anymore," he would say, "Just imagine us in a bar! Like, come on!"
C.T.: I figured if I kept talking it would distract you! And that's what worked for us. Look, it was a pretty goddamn close to perfect final we ran.
E! News: Well, C.T., last season obviously wasn't your best performance. And then this year, for some reason, the rest of the house kind of let you skate by and wasn't as afraid of you as they probably should've been. Yet, you then have Fessy coming at you saying he wants to be the new top dog. Did you feel like you had something to prove?
C.T.: I'm getting older, I get it, and you have a lot of these young kids that want to make a name for themselves. I respect that because I was there. But have some respect for the people that paved the way. Like with Fessy, look, we're not the same. I'm a 40-year-old man with a busted back who played D3 basketball. You're a 26-year-old D1 football all-star. Yeah, we may use our heads, but we use them in different ways. I like to use my head for puzzles, whereas he uses his head to run into things, you know? One minute, it's like, you come at me because you want to come for the title, you want to be top dog. But the next minute, I'm washed up, I'm past by prime, I'm no good at this. Make up your mind.
Amber: Remember, you always told yourself from the beginning, you were like, "I'm a born again rookie."
C.T.: Yeah, I forgot about that! It's a good point. Look, the game has changed so much, I think a lot of people like from my generation of Challengers, we played the game a certain way, now the game is a lot different. It's a lot more money, the challenges are just elevated to another level, it's intense right off the bat, so many new people. Kyle [Christie] was right to the point of like, when he talked about me living off "the shadow of the man I used to be," but, at the same time, during the dad-bod era, I have a higher win percentage than I did in my twenties.
E! News: And the game is that much harder now.
C.T.: It's smarter not harder at this point. Look, I am not a guy who's trying to get into fights or wrestle people or run into them at full speed, OK? That just sounds like it's going to hurt. I'm more of, like, work smarter, not harder, live to fight another day and let me know when the puzzle is there.
E! News: So C.T. was a "born-again rookie," but Amber, you were the actual newcomer and ended up delivering arguably the best rookie season ever. So what were you expectations coming into your first Challenge and how did your overall experience end up comparing?
Amber: Honestly, I didn't even know I'd make it to week three. For me, I was just going into this just knowing that my experience on Big Brother, I didn't even last that long, just seeing how a political game and a social game was played, that was something that I felt I had. I honestly just expected for my alliance to have my back through this all. But I saw how things played out and I don't know how I feel about that anymore. I didn't know how I was going to play this game. Plus, I came in for my first season and it's Double Agents?
C.T.: This was the most intense Challenge I've ever been on and this was your rookie season and you won it. I did notice a change in you after Darrell went home. You got pissed. I noticed that you were more assertive, you were very direct and you had goals. You had some teeth, you had some bite.
Amber: You get to the point where you're just like over it. You're over being that nice person sometimes and playing other people's games. I had to do things for the Big Brother [alliance], like vote certain ways that I didn't want to vote. This was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. Not just the final, but from day one. So I told myself that there was no chance in hell I was not going to win because I had to do everything in life that I did not want to do. It was just hard for me. But I learned a lot about myself.
E! News: This season was Double Agents, so making difficult decisions was a crucial part of the game. Looking back over your respective gameplays, what do you think was the best decision you made and then maybe one mistake you would go back and change if you could?
C.T.: Well, I don't think there was anything we would change. It worked out for us!
E! News: Well, I was kind of maybe giving you the opening to address the way you switched partners when you dropped Big T for Kam…
C.T.: Yeah. Obviously, I mean I've said that over and over. The way I handled it was wrong. And honestly, I think she was the best thing to happen to me in that challenge. Obviously, the end and winning with Amber, but by being on Big T's game, it was a blessing in disguise. She basically taught me how to replay the game politically. She introduced me to the younger generation. She had that attitude, like, "Come on, old man!" And I'd be like, "No, meh, eh, mumble, grumble."
E! News: Fans really did love the two of you together.
C.T.: Apparently! I was reading comments about us having a spinoff. How am I going to present that one to the wifey?!
E! News: Amber, how about for you, when it came to your best decision and is there one thing you'd change from your rookie season?
Amber: My best decision was when the rookies wanted me to listen to them and follow their lead, I decided to stick to somebody who has actually played this before and learn from him, which was my partner, Darrell, and other vets. I wish that sometimes I would've spoken up more and been vocal about things when people were really pushing my buttons. But there's not a lot that I would change. I look back and I am very happy with the way I played the game and my family is very happy with the way I played it and I made a lot of people proud on my end.
E! News: How did your families react when they found out you had won and have you spent any of the prize money yet?
C.T.: I still haven't spent the last one!
Amber: Oh my gosh, they were in tears. It was a lot because I left a lot at home and I felt…I left someone at home that was possibly going to pass away. So that was hard for me, but I was given the go-ahead to enjoy my life and take on this experience. They knew were I was mentally when I left to do The Challenge and they were proud when I actually made it and went through it and lasted as long as I did because mentally I felt like this was the hardest thing. Everyone was just so happy to see me and in tears and it felt so good to be back home.
C.T.: Amber, do you think that made it harder for you or gave you more fuel?
Amber: It gave me more fuel, honestly, because I knew that if anything I don't come from much and if I could come home and change a lot of lives, that's what I wanted to do and that's what I am doing right now. So it's a great feeling. I love The Challenge and I hope I am going to do this for another 20 years if I can. Again, I learned so much about myself and I have grown so much in just that little bit of time. I am so happy.
E! News: C.T., how did your son react to the big win?
C.T.: Well, I haven't told him what I do! He thinks I'm off fighting bad guys. The thing is he wants to come to work with me now. I'm like, "You can't, it's too dangerous." He calls me babe still. He's like, "Hey babe!" Because [my wife Lilianet Solares and I] always in the house, like, "Hey babe! Babe!" So now he does it, which was cute at first, but now when we pick him up from daycare, he yells "Babe" from across the room and comes running at me.
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