With each season of The Challenge we a new mix of competitors. We also see storylines emerge or continue from prior seasons. This is what makes The Challenge unique, and it allows some people to be portrayed in a different light each season.
Over the years, we’ve seen many competitors become stars on the show. For some people, their moment as top dog would extend across many seasons. Other people would rise to the top for a moment only to fade into the background in later years.
Recently, I made a list of the best “one season wonders” from each season. This was a similar concept, but this list will allow everyone to be considered. There may be some overlap, but usually the big stars of The Challenge appear on multiple seasons. Further, some people may appear on this list multiple times because they were such an integral part of multiple seasons.
I will only be choosing one person from each season plus a runner up. People are being ranked on their role as the “star” of the season. This does not mean they were the best competitor, but lasting for a long time in the game (therefore having more screen time) is important. People who have multiple storylines and received the most attention will be ranked more favorably most seasons.
Road Rules All Stars: Rachel Campos Duffy
Rachel’s appearance on this show is notable because she returned after surviving a car accident and for starting her relationship with Sean. At the time, it was a cute story. Now, it’s viewed as the start of a republican romance.
Runner Up: Cynthia Roberts
Real World/ Road Rules Challenge: Nathan Blackburn
Nathan will mostly be remembered as the most enthusiastic competitor on The Real World team. Often frustrated by his weaker teammates, he was probably disappointed by this season in hindsight. He also flirted with Janet and was pulled over by the cops while driving the winnie. *gasp*
Runner Up: Beth Stolarczyk
Challenge 2000: Amaya Brecher
Fun and naive, Amaya was pretty awful at most of the competitions. She did have her moments, however. Particularly when she clotheslined Veronica in a game of touch football. She spent most of the season arguing with Heather, but did provide a sense of comic relief to the show.
Runner Up: Heather Gardner
Extreme Challenge: James Orlando
The Extreme Challenge seemed to be the opposite of the prior two seasons. This time, Real World held most of the strength while Road Rules struggled and fought. James was at the center of a lot of the drama, whether or not he intended to be. He was a fierce but aggressive competitor, and this rubbed some people the wrong way. He also had a softer side, seemingly reserved for Rebecca from the Real World team.
Runner Up: Julie Stoffer
Battle of the Seasons: Coral Smith
People who only know Coral from her later seasons may not know how great her debut was. While she was not part of the best team on the show, her spot in the Real World inner circle solidified her role throughout the show. She was a strong leader, eliminating Stephen to keep the peace on the Real World side and controlling Mike when The Miz emerged. She won, took home a car, and was the only person to keep all $50,000 of her split of the prize money.
Runner Up: Emily Bailey
Battle of the Sexes: Emily Bailey
Battle of the Sexes wasn’t as much boys vs. girls as it was girls vs. girls. Sitting near the top of the food chain as Emily, who made a couple controversial decisions throughout the game. She stood up for the girls, refusing to strip during Battle of the Opposite Sexes. However, her decisions to eliminate Aneesa, Rachel, and Veronica shook the girls’ team. In the end, she threw all of her advocacy for the women out the window when she quit two missions before the final because her boyfriend James was going home.
Runner Up: Ellen Cho
The Gauntlet: Coral Smith
While we saw a stellar performance from Coral on Battle of the Seasons, she had a rocky run on The Gauntlet. Her relationship with Mike was jeopardized and her feud with Trishelle started. Her new friends had her back, but her key survival in the game was advocating for the women. In the end, she made the final but was defeated by a spider bite.
Runner Up: Sarah Greyson
The Inferno: Katie Doyle
Somewhere between the start and end of The Inferno we saw Katie change. She started out as an honorary Real World teammate: she was that bad. Then, she started to win eliminations. Most of her Road Rules teammates came to resent her, with Veronica going as far as intentionally losing a mission so she could win the Lifeshield and force Katie to compete in the Inferno. Twice, Katie had to fight for her life, and twice she returned. It all ended in a screaming match between Katie and a topless Veronica. Then the dysfunctional Road Rules team regrouped and won the whole season with Katie on the team.
Runner Up: Coral Smith
Battle of the Sexes 2: Coral Smith
Effectively resuming her spot as team leader, Coral was the mouth of brains of the Women’s team on Battle of the Sexes 2. She was fighting a losing fight, as the girls really couldn’t compete with the boys at all. She did make the final, and she definitely brought the same intensity we saw on Battle of the Seasons, but she wasn’t working with a team of athletes.
Runner Up: Tonya Cooley
Inferno 2: Tonya Cooley
Call her a slut, call her a ho, but don’t call her a liar. Tonya came into The Inferno 2 as an outcast and underdog on her team. Much like Katie, she had to win two Infernos to make the final. Her big fight came earlier in the show when Robin addressed her alleged affair with Mark. As a result, Beth got her clothes thrown in the pool, but it didn’t help Tonya’s reputation. She was bullied by her teammates until the end of the season where the Bad Asses lost the final mission.
Runner Up: The Miz
The Gauntlet 2: Kina Dean
When most of the veterans disappeared, Kina emerged as the rookie champion of the season. Being forced into the captain role, she needed to deal with the uncertainty of the game and the counter alliances that emerged on her team. Impressively, she won three Gauntlets (albeit one by default) and won the season with her then-boyfriend Randy.
Runner Up: Derrick Kosinski
Fresh Meat: Tina Barta
Fresh Meat was a season played primarily by the super-vets of the era. Champions like Theo, Coral, Katie, and Darrell held a lot of power while the Austin rookies were the season’s shitshows. In the middle was Tina who would eventually rely on a rookie to carve her path to the final. This was the season where Tina surprisingly better than expected and won the silver place prize.
Runner Up: Wes Bergmann
The Duel: CT Tamburello
In the first individual season, CT was the top dog among the men. No one wanted to face him, but everyone had to scheme to get him out. This season gave us some of CT’s first beast-mode moments and proved how strong he could be. Of course, this season is also notable for his relationship with Diem and the beginning of a romance that would appear on The Challenge for nearly a decade.
Runner Up: Diem Brown
Inferno 3: Susie Meister
Of all the Challenge seasons, Inferno 3 felt the least spectacular. It was missing most big names and relied on the hope of secondary cast members carrying the show. With all of the Lifeshields and gameplay, Susie took the role of the lead female. The Bad Asses resented her, voting her in to all female Infernos. But she kept winning, removing herself from the block three out of four times. Her ally Cara coasted through the game, but the duo received a great amount of criticism for prioritizing their own safety over the good of their team.
Runner Up: Abram Boise
The Gauntlet 3: Frank Roessler
On a season overrun by shady veterans, it was hard to single out the one most influential Veteran. Meanwhile, the Rookies had some clear leaders. Whether earned or self-appointed, Frank was probably their best leader. He won three eliminations and had to navigate the game with a team bloated by Real World: Austin has-beens. While he maintained relationships with the veterans, his best relationship was with Jillian.
Runner Up: Evan Starkman
The Island: Johnny Devenanzio
Cringe if you must, but we all know The Island was a game mostly played by Bananas and Evelyn. While other competitors kept and held keys, these two went tit-for-tat with their gameplay. Johnny became a source of “entertainment” in the house, which really meant insulting the women and making derogatory remarks. At the end of the season he stabbed his ally and friend, Paula, in the back. He sailed away to his first victory, kissing a big check and his foe Evelyn.
Runner Up: Evelyn Smith
The Duel 2: Evan Starkman
The Duel 2 collected some of the best competitor up to that point in history. Evan probably wasn’t on that list, but he asserted dominance in an alliance-fueled game. Other top competitors like Landon or Mark relied on winning missions to see a final. Despite not having his BFF, Evan took an alliance-based approached. He did get called out early in the game, but his reaped the rewards in the second half. He nudged Landon into a damning elimination and narrowly outran Brad to win the whole season.
Runner Up: Rachel Robinson
The Ruins: Kenny Santucci
The Ruins was primarily run by the Johnny/Evan/Kenny (+Derrick) alliance as a whole, but outside of the gameplay, Kenny played an integral part in the story was saw on TV. His hook up with Johanna was the center of Champion drama and resulted in the team focusing their efforts on removing Wes from the game. Eventually this worked, and Kenny had to use his social game to ride to the end without seeing a single elimination.
Runner Up: Wes Bergmann
Fresh Meat 2: Kenny Santucci
Fresh Meat 2 was a season built around the Kenny & Wes drama on The Ruins. Ultimately, Kenny won the battle despite losing the season. He was almost the underdog at the start of the season, but with a strong partner like Laurel he was nearly unbeatable. In the end of this alliance-fueled season, a third party would emerge the victor, but Kenny received most of the camera time.
Runner Up: Jenn Grijalva
Cutthroat: Laurel Stucky
The gray team was supposed to be a non-factor on Cutthroat, as it was comprised of mostly rookies and unproven competitors. Abe was given the leadership role on the team, but Laurel was the voice and muscle. Some people viewed her as a bully, but she became the most fitting Challenger on a season called “Cutthroat.” Her arguments with Cara Maria and Eric defined episodes, but it was ultimately Sarah and Abe’s disqualification from the final that proved she was more capable than the perceived leaders.
Runner Up: Brad Fiorenza
Rivals: CT Tamburello
After a few seasons away, CT returned to The Challenge and became the center of all the drama. He was forced to work with Adam, making them the most heated rivalry of the season. Meanwhile, all of the other guys were plotting to take CT out. Many of the girls who debuted while CT was away became intrigued by him, resulting in brief romances with Laurel and Mandi. Ultimately, CT lost, but almost everyone was rooting for him.
Runner Up: Paula Meronek
Battle of the Exes: Diem Brown
Everyone watching Battle of the Exes was rooting for CT & Diem to take it all. After years of a roller coaster relationship, the duo worked together and rekindled a spark. While CT had many fans, this time it was Diem’s redemption story that was featured front and center. It was a story of forgiveness, struggle, and perseverance that captured the hearts of viewers.
Runner Up: CT Tamburello
Battle of the Seasons: Frank Sweeney
Battle of the Seasons was a complete overhaul, and Frank led the rookies this season. While he wasn’t the most likable, he was a capable competitor and very savvy in the game. He managed to make just as many friends as enemies, though we mostly see his battles with the enemies. His fights included people like Wes, Nany, and Marie, but none of these stunted his game. He won and defied all of the expectations of him.
Runner Up: Trishelle Cannatella
Rivals 2: CT Tamburello
Just like the first season on Rivals, the sequel was all about CT. This time he was paired with Wes and still fighting for his first victory. As a team, Wes and CT were dominate but CT was as reckless as ever. He hooked up with multiple girls and got into fights with rookies and veterans alike. In the end, he shook the entire house and secured his first victory.
Runner Up: Heather Cooke
Free Agents: Johnny Bananas
After finishing as runner up on Rivals 2, Bananas returned to Free Agents in better shape. This time, he had to fight, and he won three eliminations throughout the show. Most notably, he faced Jordan who elected to go into elimination and told Johnny to “earn his stripes.” Bananas proved he can still fight in the game and earned his stripes this time around… not that he really had to.
Runner Up: Laurel Stucky
Battle of the Exes 2: Wes Bergmann
Battle of the Exes 2 is a must-watch season if you care about social and political gameplay. Despite missing the final, Wes played a near-perfect game throughout the season until Bananas returned. He stayed true to his alliances (including rookies), made big moves at the right time, and flipped peoples’ allegiances. By this point in the series, the game had become somewhat predictable. If it wasn’t for the twist, Wes’s flawless game likely would have taken him to victory.
Runner Up: Sarah Rice
Battle of the Bloodlines: Cara Maria Sorbello
Cringe if you must, but this season was 100% centered around Cara Maria. Unfortunately, it was a storyline neither her fans nor haters enjoyed. With Abram coming into the game midway, it was clear production just wanted to stir up some drama and drama ensued. It was massively uncomfortable, and viewers watched Cara Maria struggle during one of life’s crossroads while Abram endured a heartbreak. Fortunately, both people are in better places now, and Cara Maria did win, but this storyline makes it hard to return to this season.
Runner Up: Cory Wharton
Rivals 3: Sarah Rice
On Exes 2, Sarah stabbed Bananas in the back by sending him into the final elimination. On Rivals 3, she fought for his forgiveness and rebuilt the relationship. When they were on the same page, Sarah and Bananas were unbeatable. Then, the final twist allowed Bananas to steal Sarah’s share of the prize money. It was a sad and surprising end to Sarah’s Challenger career, but without the twist this would have been the most predictable final ever.
Runner Up: Johnny Bananas
Invasion of the Champions: Ashley Mitchell
We all know Ashley is a firecracker, but this season proved she’s a firecracker who can burn through the competition. With her newfound Lavender Lady alliance, she was able to play the game on her own terms but use the power of numbers to advance. Receiving help from her Ladies, she made the final where she proved she is one of the most well-rounded competitors you can find on The Challenge.
Runner Up: Nicole Zanatta
Dirty Thirty: Jordan Wiseley
After a few seasons off, Jordan returned with new allies but the same drive to win. He started off slow, but was forced to play the game after an offensive comment united the house against him and sent him into elimination. As the game progressed, he used his power to make big moves, put his faith in a rookie (Tori), and won the final after literally falling from the sky.
… however, I think Camila would have this spot if her edit wasn’t reduced after her “incident” midway through the show.
Runner Up: Camila Nakagawa
Vendettas: Tony Raines
Coming into this season, Tony was just another member of Bananas’s alliance. For the first time, he started becoming beast in the game and found himself with a good amount of power. Eventually this would allow him to stab Bananas in the back and throw him into elimination against Devin, where Bananas would go home. The later half of the season would watch Tony get sick with power, target Leroy, and reap the punishments in the final.
Runner Up: Kam Williams
Final Reckoning: Ashley Mitchell
When picking the “stars” of seasons, this one was particularly hard. It was defined by twists and rivalries, and no one embodies that more than Ashley. She came in as a mercenary and left as a millionaire. While some people made big moves and had big alliances, the twists made this season a revolving door of people. Now that she season is over, everyone will primarily remember it as the time when Ashley stole Hunter’s money.
Runner Up: Kam Williams
War of the Worlds: Wes Bergmann
After a short hiatus from the proper Challenge, Wes returned cockier and smarter than ever. He started “sliding into the DMs” prior to filming (which violates contract, but whatever) and building alliances. This allowed him to thrive in the game while targeting big names early. Wes got to the final, proving he was better than his competitors from prior Challenge seasons. However, he wasn’t prepared for the rookies who may have been more capable than Bananas or CT.
Runner Up: Da’Vonne Rogers
War of the Worlds 2: Jordan Wiseley
The first week Jordan was speaker for the US team. On the last week he won with the UK team. Jordan did everything people do on The Challenge to get attention: earned power, won elimination, crossed his team, and got into fights. Then he upped the ante by proposing to Tori. So yeah, this season was all about Jordan.
Runner Up: Tori Deal
Total Madness: Johnny Bananas
On his twentieth season, Bananas broke his streak of going home early. His plan: work with Wes. As the season progressed, Bananas would win competitions and influence the direction of the game. All of this ended with him facing off against Wes and finally beating his long-time foe. In the end, Bananas left half a million dollar richer and renewing faith in his abilities.
Runner Up: Cory Wharton
… but it likely would have been Dee Nguyen if she wasn’t edited out
Double Agents: Fessy Shafaat
You might be surprised to see Fessy so high on this list because he’s shy, but he was at the center of most of the drama on Double Agents. Multiple people wanted him as a partner, he was at the center of a crumbling relationship, and he stabbed a friend in the back. All of these things get a lot of attention, but his most memorable moments came when he flopped in the final. Double Agents was a long season, but Fessy was consistently involved in the episodes and his name will be associated with the season.
Runner Up: Kam Williams
Champs vs. Pros: Wes Bergmann
Champs vs. Stars: Johnny Bananas
Champs vs. Stars 2: Louise Hazel