BRANDON — For Melissa Trinidad, there was one major change she noticed after appearing on American Gladiators. Total strangers began treating her like a celebrity.
Trinidad, who is a personal trainer at Lifestyle Family Fitness in South Tampa, was approached by a woman she'd never met.
"She came up and hugged me at the gym and said she was there because I was her inspiration because she saw me on the show. That made me feel great," Trinidad said.
Trinidad, 30, can't say how she fared on the show until this year's competition is over, but she survived Round 1 on May 12 and will return in a future episode as contestants work toward the semifinals. She said the experience was everything she expected and more.
"I was living out a childhood dream, so I was having the time of my life," said Trinidad, who has lived in Brandon since last year. "You're getting to do these crazy events you wouldn't be able to do anywhere else. It was an awesome experience, something I'll always cherish."
Battling the female gladiators brought out Trinidad's best.
"I'm a competitive person," she said. "When I was little I played basketball on the boys' team. Just last summer I entered my first triathlon not knowing how to swim, and I had six weeks to teach myself how to swim. It's in my nature."
The 5-foot-1 Trinidad said there isn't much backstage drama, and no off-camera interaction with the gladiators. She said Laila Ali, who co-hosts with Hulk Hogan, made her feel comfortable on the set. But off the set, everyone goes their own way.
The show's producers, Trinidad said, didn't ask contestants to put on airs or feign larger-than-life personalities.
"They want to see that competitiveness and that you're not afraid to put yourself out there. ... They don't really stress it [being animated]. But just knowing the cameras are on you, doing this really crazy physical competition, and with the adrenaline pumping your natural personality comes out."
Some contestants got hurt during the competition, but Trinidad used her 6-year-old daughter, Malawa, as her inspiration when the going got tough.
"She was why I was there. I was a single mom (she's now engaged) raising her alone until I met my fiance. And she really motivated me," said Trinidad, who got her journalism degree at the University of South Florida after her daughter was born.
"Providing for her is what drives me to become a better person. I watched the show when I was 11 and I was a huge fan. I just felt I was going to be on that show one day. When Season 1 (last year) came back, my daughter loved it as much as I did, and I wanted to show her that if you want something and really work at it you can achieve it."
After an audition in Orlando and several casting calls, Trinidad was in Hollywood.
She has always challenged herself physically, earning a black belt in martial arts six years ago. She teaches private lessons for kids and adults at the gym, and also competes in kick boxing competitions.
Still, Trinidad said events such as the Eliminator, an obstacle course ending with a grueling wall climb, were exhausting. Trinidad and her foe both slid back down the wall several times before Trinidad frantically clung to the rope and flung herself over the wall and into the pool.
"I made it, but my body was numb at the end," she said. "I wasn't feeling anything. I thought my heart was going to burst. I kept thinking, 'I have to make it up, I have to get up there before she [her opponent] does.' "
The grand prize — $100,000 and a Toyota Sequoia — is enticing, but she said that isn't her motivation for competing.
"The money would be nice, but for me the dream is priceless," Trinidad said. "I got to do something that so many people want to do but very few get the opportunity."