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Big Island native Ilima Shim competes on season 4 of ‘Tough As Nails’ on CBS

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Ilima Shim takes a selfie at one of the construction sites where she works. Shim, who grew up on the Big Island and now lives on O‘ahu, is a contestant on the fourth season of CBS’s “Tough As Nails” reality competition show. Photo courtesy of Ilima Shim.

Big Island native Ilima Shim had no idea she was nominated for one of the most difficult yet amazing experiences of her life until she learned she was one of 12 contestants chosen for season 4 of the CBS reality TV show “Tough as Nails.”

Now the single mom is showing her 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, along with the rest of the country, that by working hard and following your dreams, you can achieve anything.

“Tough As Nails” celebrates everyday Americans who roll up their sleeves and don’t think twice about working long, hard hours and getting their hands dirty to keep the nation running. Nearly 8 million people were employed in the construction industry at the end of 2022 throughout the nation, more than 1 million of them women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The series tests its competitors — who consider their calluses to be a badge of honor — for strength, endurance, life skills and, most importantly, mental toughness in challenges at real-world job sites. They have the chance to win cash throughout the season, but the ultimate goal is the grand prize of $200,000, a Ford Super Duty truck and bragging rights of being named the “Tough As Nails” champ.

Shim had no idea her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s mother secretly applied for her to be on the show. She said they saw something in her that she did not see in herself.


Three months later, they got a callback from CBS saying the company wanted Shim to be on Tough as Nails’ fourth season. That’s when they broke the news to her.

“They said, ‘Hey, look. We applied you for the reality show, it’s called ‘Tough As Nails.’ We believe that you can do everything they’re gonna throw your way and they’re asking for you to be on the show,'” Shim said. “I was like, ‘What? You guys are crazy. I’m a girl from a small island, a small town.'”

She didn’t want to let them down, so she said sure. She ­­was on the mainland for two months last year to film the show. She is on the team called “Savage Crew” and through three episodes, she is still in the running to claim the “Tough As Nails” title.

From left, “Tough As Nails” contestants Larron Ables, Ilima Shim and Ellery Liburd take part in a challenge during episode two, “Perfect Symphony,” of the CBS reality competition show. Photo by Cliff Lipson/CBS

Shim grew up in Big Island coffee land. The 36-year-old from Hōnaunau, who now lives in Kapolei, O‘ahu, spent her childhood helping her family trim trees and clear lots and pathways to pick coffee. She was always on the go and helped her mother clean condos.

That didn’t change after graduating in 2005 from Konawaena High School. She’s a hands-on learner and soaks up every bit of knowledge and knowhow she can no matter the job. Shim is a master of nothing but knows a lot just from experience. She lives life learning.


She hasn’t found that one job she wants to do forever and has never shied away from trying something new. She also won’t give up until a job is done.

Instead of going to college and becoming burdened by debt, the week before she received her diploma, Shim moved in with her cousin in Waimea and went to work as a laborer for landscaping firm Advanced Building Systems. She worked two and a half years for the company, building rock walls and performing other tough tasks so she could pay the rent.

She then spent five years during the prime of her 20s working in the hospitality industry at Four Seasons Resort Hualālai before having her first child and focusing on family for awhile. Seven years ago, she decided to move to O‘ahu to pursue a modeling career.

  • Ilima Shim, who grew up on the Big Island and now lives on O’ahu, takes a selfie at one of the construction sites where she worked. Photo courtesy of Ilima Shim.
  • Ilima Shim, who grew up on the Big Island and now lives on O’ahu, takes a selfie at one of the construction sites where she worked. Photo courtesy of Ilima Shim.
  • Ilima Shim, who grew up on the Big Island and now lives on O’ahu, works at a construction site. Photo courtesy of Ilima Shim.

Shim has appeared in Hawai’i Tattoo Models calendars, was named Queen PIAE (Pacific Ink and Art Expo) 2015 and was a representative of the Hawai‘i Tattoo Expo. She won a lot of trophies, got a lot of press and found success in the industry, including being on two T-shirts for a Los Angeles clothing company.

She got to the point where she had almost 100,000 followers on social media before she realized it was taking too much of her time and she didn’t like being in the limelight as much as she thought. She just wasn’t into modeling anymore and decided to step back. When she became pregnant with her second child, she decided to again turn her focus to family.


She found herself in 2020 back in the hospitality industry, working for Four Seasons again but this time on O‘ahu. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she lost her job, so Shim turned to construction work. She’s since hopped around, working full-time and helping at different friends’ companies.

Her only prior construction experience was working for Advanced Building Systems after graduating high school. So she did what she does best and learned on the job. Shim started with picking up trash, she has done drywalling and roofing, and now mostly focuses on pouring concrete slabs and framing.

  • Ilima Shim cast photo for “Tough As Nails.” Photoby Cliff Lipson/CBS ©2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc.
  • Meet the 12 new competitors ready to test their strength, endurance, life skills and mental toughness on this season of “Tough As Nails” on CBS. From left are Mister Frost, Beth Salva-Clifford, Jake Cope, Synethia Bland, Renèe Kolar, Ilima Shim, Phil Keoghan, Larron Ables, Aly Bala, Sergio Robles, Jorge Zavala, Laura Bernotas and Ellery Liburd. Photoby Cliff Lipson/CBS ©2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc.
  • Pictured (L-R): Larron Ables, From left, “Tough As Nails” competitors Renèe Kolar, Laura Bernotas, Ilima Shim and Sergio Robles in episode 2, “Perfect Symphony,” of the show’s fourth season. Photo by Cliff Lipson/CBS ©2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc.
  • From left, “Tough As Nails” contestants Aly Bala, Jorge Zavala, Ellery Liburd, Ilima Shim, Sergio Robles, Beth Salva-Clifford, Jake Cope, Renèe Kolar, Laura Bernotas, Mister Frost, Larron Ables and Synethia Bland appear on episode two, “Perfect Symphony,” of the show’s fourth season. Photo by Cliff Lipson/CBS ©2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc.

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done hands-on,” she said. “I was never in a construction company knowing what I knew. I went into a company not knowing literally squat and I was taught everything I know today just showing up everyday. So super grateful to have that opportunity to learn everyday.”

Her life has been filled with different tasks and experiences on a regular basis.

“My comfort zone is just walking into the unknown,” Shim said.

She’s tough not because of the physical work she has put in throughout her life. Her strength comes from her adaptability and having no fear of new experiences and work, and her emotional strength she has gained from personal tragedy. She was 16 years old when her brother died in a car accident the same day her grandmother died.

She is representing all of the hardworking people of Hawai‘i. She also is one of four people from the Aloha State to be contestants on the reality competition. Cyril “Zeus” Ontai III of Honolulu was a contestant during season 2; and Jerome Kupuka‘a of Ewa Beach, O‘ahu, and Takeru “Tak” Tanabe of Kailua-Kona were competitors on season 3.

“There is people out there that’s gonna shut you down and try to make you feel like you can’t showcase what you do for a living,” Shim said. “I think this show is super amazing to be able to show the world the inside and outs to how America runs.”

The show’s creator and host, Phil Keoghan, loves that she is so proud to represent Hawai‘i and bring aloha to “Tough As Nails” while being fiercely competitive.

Watch “Tough As Nails” on Wednesday nights on KGMB. The show is hosted by its creator, Phil Keoghan, who is pictured in this photo from the “Tough As Nails” website.

“I call Ilima the Zena Warrior Princess of Hawai‘i,” Keoghan said. “Ilima has a smile that lights up a room, a warm presence with the strength of a warrior. … We are honored to have her with us this season.”

Shim tells her fellow contestants: “Don’t let a pretty face fool you. I get down and dirty.”

In the first episode, on Catalina Island in California, the first challenge was to replace mooring balls that were deteriorated from the sea water. Shim was the first to get her boat started and motor out to her numbered mooring ball.

The first two finishers picked teams for the series. Shim ended up finishing the task fourth. She was picked first for team “Savage Crew.”

In episode 2, Shim finishes third in the first individual challenge that required completing a section of a concrete wall around an oil container.

In episode 3, the team challenge was to find 40 specific species of trees at the huge Devil Nursery in Southern California to fill out a work order. The individual challenge was building a planter box from scratch for a magnolia tree. This time, Shim was among the last three completing the task.

“I can hear my kids telling me, ‘Mommie, you got this’,” she said. And she did, avoiding “overtime,” in which the last two to compete the magnolia task have to compete against each other in another task to avoid “punching out.”

The person who punches out no longer is in the running for the Tough of Nails champion.

Hard work has never been a problem for Shim, according to her high school agriculture teacher Maverick Kawamoto. He said she was a really outgoing and friendly student, always willing and ready to work on the Konawaena farm. Her positive attitude and willingness to help others are other attributes that make his former student tough. Growing up on the Big Island, doing what she had to do to become successful, also helped.

“I think it’s great that she is on the show,” Kawamoto said. “She gets to represent Hawai‘i and mostly herself as a very independent, strong woman. I am very, very proud of her being on ‘Tough As Nails.'”

While students at Konawaena might not know Shim, as the show’s fourth season continues to air they are getting excited for her, Kawamoto said. Former students and past teachers who do know her also are ecstatic about her being on the show, including himself.

“[I] get very excited to watch her on TV, as she represents Hawai‘i, but most of all, as she represents Konawaena High School,” Kawamoto said. “The whole school and the community are proud of her. Go, Ilima.”

Shim said while the competition is grueling and designed to put contestants through a gambit of challenges that test their physical, mental and emotional toughness, it is worth every bit of sweat. She learned new skills such as welding and laying pipes, and no matter how draining and exhausting it was, participating in the show was amazing.

From left, “Tough As Nails” contestants Renèe Kolar, Laura Bernotas, Larron Ables, Ilima Shim, Mister Frost and Jake Cope get ready for a challenge in episode 4, “That’s a Safety Hazard.” The episode airs on Jan. 18. Photo by Cliff Lipson/CBS

“It’s been, by far, one of the greatest experiences of my life,” she said. “Overall, the experience is worth more than $200,000, a truck, a belt, anything in the world. Just the experience to be there and to meet 11 other contestants from around the world and be able to click and love each other and still be in touch with each other, that’s worth more than money. That’s gold.”

And, it was tough.

“Me testing myself to not give up, to keep pushing, to wake up the next day and say, ‘I got this,'” Shim said. “I’m sure I wasn’t the only one that didn’t want to get up the next day because we were just beat.”

To keep up with Shim’s progress on the show, tune in at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on KGMB or on streaming service Paramount+. You can also visit the “Tough As Nails” website for full episodes, clips and more.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at nathan@bigislandnow.com
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