Lia Mort beams as she pores over letters people from across the country have been sending to her Richfield home since she won the CBS reality competition show, "Tough as Nails" on December 8.
"They don't know me, but they're saying all these nice things about me. That I'm compassionate, gracious," the 54-year Army chief warrant officer said with a slight blush.
Mort was billed as a "Jill-of-all-trades" as she competed in 20 challenges against 11 other contestants for the top prize of $200,000, a new Ford truck and title of "Tough as Nails" in the third season of the show that ran from Oct. 6 to Dec. 8.
"I like to compete but it's still hard for me to believe I won," she said of the rigors of the challenges that included searching through a pile of 600 tires to find four with the same number, mounting them onto wheels and pressurizing them.
Another challenge involved each participant raising themselves 11 stories with a zoom boom to replace a lightbulb.
Her husband of 28 years, John, said he was also surprised that she took the title and the response it's garnered.
"There was a lot of stiff competition," he said, adding of the letters of support and media attention his wife has received, "I'm blown away. She's been an inspiration."
Mort has served in the Marines, driven tractor-trailer, worked as a professional firefighter and in construction. She prepared for the reality show by working on the 13-acre farm she shares with her husband and a menagerie that includes two alpacas, two donkeys, a goat named Blue who performs tricks for food, a 29-year-old horse, chickens and two dogs named Rudy and Jack.
A long rope still hangs from a tree in her front yard that Mort used to practice climbing. In the back yard, she chipped at a tree stump with an axe and drove a railroad spike into another stump with a sledgehammer. She also reviewed The Book of Knots that she has had since 1991 which she used to learn how to make different knots while working as a firefighter.
The practice paid off.
The final challenge, in which Mort clinched the championship, required contestants to race through obstacles, smash a wall with a sledgehammer, stack 30 pallets, untie and drag a dummy up a slope, remove four tires and attach them to a container to make stairs, cut three pieces of metal with a grinder to make six steps, drive two stakes with a sledgehammer and raise a rope ladder to reach a truck.
“Lia proved the old adage, you can never judge a book by its cover," said Phil Keoghan, the show's host and co-creator. "Our 5-foot, 3-inch, 54-year-old 'Jill-of-all-trades' flew in under the radar from the beginning and continued to master any job we threw at her. Her life skills, smarts and physical strength were evident from the first challenge, which she won, to the finale where she climbed to victory after a grueling 10 episode battle against 11 other hardened individuals."
Mort said the positive and supportive environment among the cast and crew of the reality show helped keep her focused and calm during the challenges.
"I said I wanted an adventure. It was an awakening," she said of the largely life-altering experience.
The cash prize will be used to pay taxes and the Mort's mortgage, but most of the rest will be given away. Mort is giving each of her 11 competitors $5,000 to donate to a charity of their choice.
"I want to take advantage of the opportunity I've been given" by inspiring others, she said.
She plans to start a nonprofit to help vulnerable and bullied children and establish a scholarship at Centerville Middle School in Lancaster in honor of her nephew, Nigel Kamm, who died by suicide in 2008 at age 14.
She also hopes to "share the excitement and energy" she felt during the competition by creating a challenge course on her property for the public.
In early 2022, Mort and two cast mates, Kalimba Edwards, 43, a fire captain from Nebraska, and Sarah Ham, a 30-year-old cement mason from Queens, N.Y., are creating a podcast, "More Than Tough," where they will discuss the show and interview past contestants and crew members.
In the meantime, Mort will be responding to all the well-wishers who sent her cards and letters following her win.
"I'm going to write back to all those people," she said.