Behind the scenes of ‘Tough of Nails’ with contestant Ilima Shim of Hawaiʻi
March 12, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
Before arriving in California for the filming of the fourth season of “Tough of Nails, Ilima Shim of Hawaiʻi and 11 other fellow contestants were put through a grueling process to make sure they were indeed tough — physically and mentally.
There was a background check and plenty of questions about her past, you know, to make sure they weren’t putting a murderer on the show.
There were tests to make sure she wasn’t on any performance enhancing drugs. She had to be able to do eight minutes of burpees (a combination of a squat thrust, pushup and squat jump) every Wednesday. She had to Google burpee just to learn what it was. And then there was the two-hour test during which she was watched by a psychiatrist as she answered math and other questions.
“My girlfriend told me we did everything that they had to do to qualify for [the Honolulu Police Department] except the lie detector test,” said Shim, a 36-year-old construction worker from Hōnaunau on the Big Island’s west side, who now lives in Kapolei, O‘ahu.
There also was COVID testing, which started weekly before she got to Los Angeles and became daily during the show’s filming in October and November of 2022. She also had to be vaccinated before she left for California, which was difficult for Shim because she was against getting the shot. She felt like she was backed into a corner because she didn’t apply herself to be on the show. Her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s mother did.
But, it was an opportunity of a lifetime for Shim, a mother of two children: “I was like, I’m either gonna let my family down or I could take five years off my life. I said screw it, you know. I’ll just do it because I just don’t want to let anybody down.”
Now, six months later, Shim is happy she took part in the CBS reality show, and she is $23,000 richer for the experience, finishing in sixth place.
She said the show was intense — the bruises and blisters were proof enough, never mind the mental games — yet still absolutely amazing. The show tested her in ways she’d never been tested before, and her determination, resilience and tenacity kept her in contention for much of the season.
They have the chance to win cash throughout the season, but the ultimate goal is the $200,000 grand prize, a Ford Super Duty truck and bragging rights as being named “Tough As Nails” champ. For season four, the winner was Jorge Zavala, a 25-year-old concrete form setter from Ontario, Calif.
“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. The series tests its competitors for strength, endurance, life skills and, most importantly, mental toughness in challenges at real-world job sites.
Before the fourth season began, there also were documents to sign and emails to send. It was so taxing that at one point Shim broke down crying, saying, “I can’t do this” before ever leaving Hawai‘i.
Also taking a toll on her was the loneliness She had to be away from her family for two months, something she’d never done before, and she had to quarantine before filming started. During the two months of shooting, she was required to spend all the down time in her hotel room.
She only saw her teammates for a total of about a week throughout the entire two months of the show was filmed.
Shim couldn’t have any contact with the outside world while she was competing. But she was never alone. She had a chaperone everywhere she went and Big Brother always was listening.
“We were always miked up,” she said. “We had microphones put on us when we woke up. So there was no burping in your throat or farting or peeing that they couldn’t hear. They were in your life. I would have the mic guys come up to me and giggle and be like, ‘Hey, you guys are crazy,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I forgot you guys were listening in on our conversation.’ “
Shim said it was super weird to have all the cameras around and being recorded all the time, but she got used to it: “It was just like a friend that you couldn’t close off. You’re like, ‘God, why do you keep recording me?’ But then at the end of the day you’re like, ‘Oh my god, that was such a cute video you got of me. OK, you can continue doing what you’re doing.’ “
The cast and crew quickly became like a big family, which helped take away some of the pain from missing her own family while she was away. The worst thing for her about being on the show was not being able to contact her family.
“They’re the ones who get you through a rough day,” Shim said. “I cried when I heard my girlfriend and my kids for the first time because you don’t realize how blessed you are to be able to communicate with people on the daily or see people every day until it’s taken away from you.”
Crew members and producers did offer support when she needed it, providing a motivational podcast or playing a song. In return, she’d provide them with candy and snacks.
Shim said the cast medic, who also is from Hawai‘i, and wardrobe supervisor also were great at their jobs.
“They’ve been through a lot of injuries and they know how to take care of people,” she said. “There’s just a lot more little things that people do not take into consideration.”
That was important because injuries were definitely not unheard of during filming, especially when contestants learn as they compete, which was a constant on the show.
Shim said it was 1-2-3, go, and whoever can succeed would make it to the end. The most trying challenge she experienced was having to retrieve a 300-pound block of ice that needed to be crushed to three times her body weight.
“I just tried to break my ice down as fast as I could and I lost a lot of ice in the process,” she said. “I was on my hands and knees and I was working my hardest and scooping up as much as I could not realizing until after the challenge that my arms and legs were completely black and blue. I was so bruised it was ridiculous. It looked like my tattoos had color in them.”
She was so focused on filling her basket that she wasn’t paying attention to the temperature; she couldn’t even feel how cold it was underneath all the shards of ice she was kneeling on because it was so cold and she was so numb.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there were those moments of lightness, including something everyone thought wouldn’t get aired that was the most funny moment during filming for Shim. Contestant Sergio Robles, a 51-year-old foreman from Huntington Beach, Calif., became excited about a challenge to do BJs on a car. Everyone on set started laughing and couldn’t stop.
Shim recalled host Phil Keoghan saying, “Excuse me. What did you just say?” Robles replied break jobs.
“You had me going for a second there,” Keoghan said.
Shim was the seventh person to “punch out,” which meant they were the last to complete a challenge and could not longer compete for the individual title.
In that “Pressure Is On” episode, she and Mister Frost, a 36-year-old welder from Spencer, Okla., lost an individual challenge to fix and then tap a water main.
“One thing I’ve never done is plumbing,” Shim said.
They missed steps according to job specifications. When they did, no one could tell them what they missed, so they had to go back to check a manual, which Shim said “nobody wants to read when everybody else is moving.”
They duo came close to finishing the job in time to be safe from elimination, but ultimately fell short. Knowing she could be taken out of the running in the individual competition, Shim thought: “This is too much to take in. Am I gonna not make it today?” She woke up that morning knowing it was the day she wasn’t going to make it all the way: “God had already told me, ‘Today is going to be your day [to be eliminated].'”
Her mind quickly turned to failing and then veered to having an overwhelming feeling that she would have to compete against someone who had become like family to her and one of her closest friends on the show. But she wasn’t there to win for Frost and his family.
“I’m here for me and my family,” Shim thought, recharging her batteries.
In the overtime competition, Shim and Frost were challenged to find and recover five items from a sewer: a set of keys, a cellphone, a pair of glasses, a hammer and a toy alligator, a reference to the urban legend of sewer alligators.
Shim came up short because several items were lost inside pipes because some disappeared into holes on the sides at the bottom of the main sewer, becoming unretrievable with the tools they were using.
“There’s literally nothing left to fish out,” she said. “Like, there’s two holes and the items are gone.”
Shim knew she was finished and cheered on Frost, who was her fellow “Savage Crew” teammate. The show divides contestants into two teams.
She bowed out gracefully, bumping fists with Frost. After the individual loss, Shim led the six-person “Savage Crew” to victory to claim the season’s $60,000 overall team prize. It was the first time she had stepped up to oversee the crew during a team challenge.
“Ilima, I want you to know you are a badass,” Keoghan said. “The Xena, warrior princess, of Hawai‘i. You are definitely tough.”
As highlights of her time on the show played, Shim cried as she spoke. She was proud of herself for even taking the step to be part of the competition. But her journey won’t end there, she said.
“I’m gonna go home, I’m gonna continue to do what I do and pick up new things that I never thought I could do and take everything that I learned here with me,” Shim said as the episode came to a close.
In retrospect, she wishes she would have observed more, going slower in some challenges and faster in others, throughout the competition, especially during her last challenge. She was always trying to make sure she was a step ahead, which led to her placing in the top three or four in most individual competitions. But it was the small things that added up — one tiny mistake could make a big difference.
In a challenge where contestants were tasked with constructing a planter box, Shim actually asked for about seven checks of her work before she received a thumbs up. That affected her performance — “the more you keep getting told you’re doing it wrong and had no clue what you were doing wrong, it just pulled your morale down” — which is why she ended up in the bottom three on that episode. She was grateful her frustration wasn’t shown on the episode.
“I’ve realized that in ‘Tough As Nails,’ that, you know, it’s the little attention to detail things that really get you from first to fifth really quick,” Shim said. “It was just those little things, those little slipups, that can cost you the entire win.”
Being a “TV personality” also has humbled her, especially since she’s recognized by people when she’s out in the public.
She had six elderly aunties, probably in their mid-70s, recently approach her at Pearlridge Center in ʻAiea. One of them told her the group watched her every Wednesday and hugged her, saying she made them all proud and thanking her for her hard work. She also had a little girl come up to her at Walmart, saying Shim was her inspiration.
A women at Pearlridge Center chased her down, explaining her husband was a truck driver and would never believe she got to meet Shim. The two FaceTimed the husband so Shim could say hi and then the woman asked to take a photo with her. The woman apologized for her hair, fixing her wig, explaining she had breast cancer.
“I was like, ‘You look beautiful,'” Shim said.
She loves every single supporter out there; she wouldn’t be anywhere today if it wasn’t for them supporting the show. Getting the support from back home on the Big Island was huge for her, too.
Through all the ups and downs and bumps, bruises and blisters, Shim learned to never be afraid and to always keep learning, keep motivated and keep being grateful and humble about life. She also got to see places she might otherwise wouldn’t have, including California’s Catalina Island.
Shim never would have been on the show if not for her girlfriend, who signed her up and pushed her along the process.
“If it wasn’t for her keeping up emails and choking my neck to sign forms, I probably wouldn’t have made it on ‘Tough As Nails,'” she said. “I’d be working on the series four of ‘Soft As Pillows.'”
It’s a good thing for her girlfriend, because Shim said the experience dramatically changed her life. It has motivated her to start her own business so she can spend more time with her family instead of working for others.
The $23,000 in winnings also helps. Yes, Uncle Sam is going to take a chunk, but the rest will go toward helping her 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son have a better future. The family just returned from a vacation she promised them before she left for the show.
“So, you know, it’s definitely made some of our dreams come true, and we got some things crossed off our bucket list,” Shim said.
You can watch Shim’s journey on the show via streaming service Paramount+ or visit the “Tough As Nails” website for full episodes, clips and more.