Latoya McCord tuned in last year to the inaugural season of the Titan Games starring “The Rock” Dwayne Johnson on NBC and looked over to her family in the living room after watching a few of the high-level athletes compete.
“You know who would be good at this?” McCord asked them.
Her nephew Ka’Deem Carey? The athletically gifted and physically imposing Canyon del Oro High School and Arizona running back who was preparing to play in his first season with the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League at the time? He played for the Chicago Bears earlier in his pro career.
Maybe another nephew Elijah Carey, also a standout running back for the Dorados who is an impressive physical specimen as well, practically all muscle at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds?
Her sister-niece Nadi Carey? McCord calls her “sister-niece” because they only have a 14-year difference in age. Nadi, who is 28, is every bit as physically strong as her younger brothers — she’ll argue she is slightly the better athlete — with a background in basketball as a player and referee and as a firefighter in the Golder Ranch Fire District.
“When I had Nadi in top shape,” her trainer Tim Adams said, “that’s when she was the state powerlifting deadlift champion in the 175-pound girl weight class. She deadlifted 487 pounds and broke the state record a couple of years ago.”
Deadlifted 487 pounds?
Nadi’s dad is 50 and can do a backflip. Her cousin Vance Johnson is one of the best athletes in Tucson history in football and track at Cholla High School who went on to play at Arizona and the Denver Broncos in the NFL.
Athleticism is certainly in the family genes.
“We were like, ‘Nadi — she would be so good in the Titan Games,'” McCord said.
She called Nadi.
“Nadi, we’re watching this show, and I think you should, you know, apply for it. I think you’d be really, really good at it,” McCord recounted the start of the conversation.
Nadi did not know much about the show that includes male and female athletes performing a variety of extremely grueling physical challenges to advance to the next round.
Examples from the first season include the Atlas Smash (contestants race to haul up two large concrete balls 25 feet with each having the option to whittle down the balls with a large hammer to reduce the weight they need to lift), Cyclone (contestants race to knock down five pillars, each two stories tall, with a 60-pound wrecking ball) and the Hammering Ram (contestants use 10-pound hammers to pound against a metal plate, releasing a 350-pound battering ram to knock down a wooden door).
That was just about one-third of the competitions, not including the grand finale — competing on an obstacle course named Mount Olympus.
That involved an exasperating seven-step process in which contestants sprinted into a wall, climbed cylinders, scaled cliffs, cranked up a 600-pound torch, slid down walls, and dragged a sledgehammer and a ball and chain. The winner was the first to use the sledgehammer to crack open a concrete slab covering the “Titan relic” — the show’s logo.
After getting an abbreviated description of the show from her aunt, Nadi said, “Nah, nah, I wouldn’t be good at that.”
They went back and forth.
“You would be good at it — you don’t want to apply for it?” McCord said.
“Nah, I’m not good at that kind of stuff,” Nadi answered. “I don’t want to do that.”
“Okay, fine,” McCord relented.
At that time, Nadi had not trained as intense as before with Adams and her focus was on broadening her career with college basketball refereeing after becoming a Big Sky Conference official in addition to her local high school and small college duties.
The most significant factor of Nadi rejecting McCord’s idea: She is shy.
“People who know me know that I’m very smiley and I’m very personable, but I don’t like the limelight. I don’t like the attention,” Nadi said. “When I played basketball, you can even ask my coach at Pima — Todd Holthaus — that when I played there, I sucked at free throws so bad because all eyes were on me.
“I didn’t like it. It’s like, wow, you have this really good basketball player and she can’t freaking make a free throw to save her life. Why? That’s the reason why.”
“She was not a great percentage free throw shooter, that’s true,” recalled Holthaus, who coached Nadi from 2010-12. “But she’s downplaying herself a little bit because I’ll take her lack of free throw shooting for everything else she was capable of doing.
“Knowing Nadi for as long as I have, she is just incredible. She probably doesn’t get the credit in the whole scope of the sports landscape of Tucson oftentimes probably because she is Ka’Deem’s sister. But you look at what she has done — winning two state titles for two different high schools (Flowing Wells and CDO) and then in her freshman year at Pima (in 2010-11), she helped us get to the national championship game. She’s a good one.”
She then went on to the University of Texas Permian Basin, an NCAA Division II school in Odessa, Texas.
After McCord’s conversation with Nadi, she at first was resigned to her sister-niece rejecting the idea of competing in the Titan Games.
“I hung up the phone with her. I left it alone and finished watching the show,” McCord said. “At the end of the show, it said, ‘Apply for next season.’
“I said to my family, ‘You know what? She doesn’t know what she’s good at.’ So I just applied for her. I put her name in the e-mail and I just applied.”
Imagine Nadi’s surprise when she received an e-mail a few months later from an employee of the Titan Games.
“When I got the e-mail, it said, ‘Hi Nadi, I’m so-and-so from the Titan Games. We’re very interested in you. We got your application and you are exactly what we are looking for in a Titan,'” Nadi said. “I was like, ‘What are they talking about?’
“And then a couple of minutes later, it dawned on me that this was the show that my aunt said I should be on. I knew exactly who was behind it.”
Nadi called her aunt and laughed about her pulling a fast one, but she still fought the idea about competing in the Titan Games.
“I thought there was no way I’m doing this,” Nadi said. “I haven’t competed since college. I don’t want to lose on national TV. It was too much pressure. I was just lacking confidence in myself, you know?”
Those around her, especially her family and her trainer, did not let her back away easily.
They said that competing in the Titan Games was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She was told that only 1 to 2 percent of the people in this world get this opportunity. They asked, “Who cares if you win? Who cares if you lose?”
“The fact that you’re representing Arizona, you’re representing Tucson, you’re representing referees and basketball players — that’s the most important thing,” Nadi said of the general comments. “You’re gonna be somebody’s role model. They’re gonna look up to you no matter what.”
She said that after they “spilled” it to her like that, she was like, “Alright, you’re right. I ain’t getting out of this.”
Next came the most arduous part of the process — qualifying for the show.
After a mandatory phone interview, Nadi was one of 60 out of the more than hundreds of thousands of applicants to be invited to the combine to take part in the drills to make the show.
She had a little more than a month to prepare for the combine. It was time to hit Tim’s Gym — the workout area in Adams’ garage at his Tucson home that he devotes his business of fitness-training people of all ages. He has trained all of the Careys. Ka’Deem recommended his sister to Adams.
A former trainer of the Atlanta Falcons, he operated health clubs in Atlanta and was credited for Larry Mize’s weight-training regimen that helped him win The Master’s in 1985. Adams moved to Tucson to start a mortgage business a few years after that. After the housing market crash in 2008, he shifted back to fitness training.
Nadi reported to Tim’s Gym at 5:30 a.m. five days a week in preparation for the combine. She was leery of the workouts because she was in basketball-refereeing shape of getting up and down the court, not full-scale competition shape of weight training and agility drills.
“We did a variety of bodybuilding and powerlifting movements,” Adams said. “We also did a variety of martial arts things as well because I incorporate a lot of that with the professional athletes I have trained over the last 34 years.
“She was able to do the day-by-day grind in my gym for an hour. If you make it through my workout for an hour, that’s incredble because normally people do not last more than 20 minutes.”
Adams said Nadi had to train “wide open” because they had no idea what competition would be in this season of the Titan Games if she made it that far.
He trained her extensively on her cardiovascular system and her weight training. She also often swung a 10-pound sledgehammer on different materials, such as tires and concrete blocks. He taught her to swing the sledgehammer properly through the target, a martial arts way of training.
“Tim got me ready and a lot of it was heart too,” Nadi said. “Naturally, my instinct of ‘alright it’s game-time’ turned on, and I was ready to go.”
The combine included her deadlifting 420 pounds, which topped all the other female competitors. Despite that achievement and holding up well in the different strength and endurance tests at the combine, Nadi had that self-conscience uncertainty again about whether she would qualify for the show.
“When I came back and told my family what I did especially with the deadlifting, they were like, ‘You’re going to get picked,'” she said. “My trainer said the same thing, ‘You’re going to get picked. You stood out.’
“The whole time I was still doubting myself. And then I got the call and it was a real shock for me.”
She made the cut as one of the 18 female competitors who will be matched against the Titans including professional athletes Clarissa Shields (a boxer), Jessie Graff (stuntwoman) and Hannah Teter (snowboarder). The men’s side includes former NFL players Victor Cruz and Joe Thomas and UFC fighter Tyron Woodley.
Robbie Rodriguez, a Tucsonan who graduated from Mountain View High School, also made the Titan Games. He is a registered nurse in Miami.
The contestants will be divided into three regions — East, West and Central. One male and one female will be awarded winners, with each earning $100,000. If a professional athlete wins, their money will be donated to charity.
Meeting The Rock on the set is a bonus.
“I will tell you this right now, you see people on TV and you don’t really know who they are,” Nadi said. “You see how sweet The Rock is on TV and how funny he is and how charismatic he is. In your head, you’re like, ‘I wonder if he is really like that person?’
“He is exactly what you see on TV. He is charismatic. He is sweet. He is passionate. He’s motivated. He is literally everything you see on TV. Everything behind the scenes, that’s how he is. He’s a really dope dude.”
The Titan Games Season 2 premieres May 25 on NBC.
McCord and eight others of Nadi’s friends and family, including her parents and Adams, attended the taping of it at Atlanta earlier this year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
McCord will sit back and watch the competition again at home on her TV, this time viewing on the screen her sister-niece, the one who she had to pull a trick on to get her involved after she was so reluctant last year.
“I guess you could say she can thank me now,” McCord said with a laugh.
Nadi is still trying to wrap herself around the idea she became part of the Titan Games.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, you got picked for the Titan Games out of all these people in the world. You were part of that little slim percentage of people who got picked.’
“Little old referee, Tucson Nadi got picked. Amazing.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.