For ex-MLS striker Steven Lenhart, the "World's Toughest Race" is just latest part of his existential journey

Steven Lenhart - World's Toughest Race climbing

Plenty of people had plenty of names for Steven Lenhart during his time in MLS. Some you would say in polite company and others where polite company would politely yet sternly ask you to leave. But former teammate and close friend Alan Gordon calls him “The Abyss.”

The Abyss speaks with deliberation and asks big questions that mercilessly drag you toward introspection. Like. Stuff gets deep, man.

It’s how a scheduled interview to talk about his appearance on a reality show somehow ends with him asking you what your purpose in life is. Which … I mean … Oh, yeah, I almost buried the lede here. Steven Lenhart is on a reality show. It feels small to even talk about when you’re staring mortality in the face, but he’s there. On your TV or computer, if you want. Taking part in a competition called “World’s Toughest Race,” a name so blunt you can only assume that it has to be telling the truth.

And it might be. The Amazon Prime show, which is available to stream now, features 66 teams of four from around the world speeding through the wildlife of Fiji as fast as they can doing everything from mountain biking, to rafting, to rappelling and every other “ing” word your outdoorsy friend uses that you pretend to know. On top of that, you can’t exactly plug your destination into Waze. To get from point A to B, you’ve got a compass and a map and that’s it. Bear Grylls is the host and explains it all better, but you should at least be aware that the winning team receives $100,000 for their sustained misery.

For Lenhart, the journey began 10 months before Fiji, when one of his buddies offhandedly mentioned casting had opened for the show. Lenhart suggested they make a video and that same day, they created an audition tape in a Santa Cruz backyard and sent it in. Things snowballed from there. Lenhart found himself in Fiji and in front of a camera for the first time in a long time. It gave him a chance to practice vulnerability on a mass scale.

“Being able to open up about my past to people that I will never know, letting them in and hear what specifically my story is … that's … there's a lot of things to consider with that one. It feels a little bit liberating to share and just to own specific parts of myself on whatever stage,” Lenhart told recently.

“That’s a driving force for me to be vulnerable in places. It's OK if it's one on one with someone, or if there's an opportunity in front of a camera with a lot of people that I don't know. It brings up a lot, but that's a commitment that I have to myself to do my best to be vulnerable.”

For ex-MLS striker Steven Lenhart, the "World's Toughest Race" is just latest part of his existential journey -

Steven Lenhart (left) with the rest of "Team Curl" on the "World's Toughest Race." | Amazon

It’s difficult to impossible for many people to embrace vulnerability. For someone with Lenhart’s story, it likely veers toward the latter. But that doesn’t matter when his story makes vulnerability so crucial.

To MLS fans, Lenhart is best remembered as one half of the “Bash Brothers,” alongside Gordon at the San Jose Earthquakes, delighting home supporters and getting under the skin of opponents in equal measure.

At the same time, Lenhart was battling personal tragedy. In 2011, his dad was a victim of suicide. Since then Lenhart has dealt with depression and his own demons. Sam Stejskal detailed Lenhart’s journey — literal and metaphorical — for The Athletic in 2019, and it seems that World’s Toughest Race is another addition to not only that larger journey of self-understanding, but a step in his more recent efforts to understand a life after soccer that began in 2017.

“It's a debt, man,” he said. “It's a debt for athletes who ride playing this sport that's been curated throughout our whole lives. It’s been the most consistent source of expressing like parts of ourselves that we never even really know we’re expressing them. And then that just ending and not having a way to tap into that type of expression. It's a debt. It sucks.

“There's a lot of sorting through and trying to cooperate parts of my old soccer identity to who I want to be today. As far as my relationship with movement goes, I have to be exploring that part of myself or I feel like I'm dead.”

For ex-MLS striker Steven Lenhart, the "World's Toughest Race" is just latest part of his existential journey -

Steven Lenhart in action for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2014. | USA Today Sports Images

Lenhart surfs, he bikes, he hikes, he swims, he’s constantly looking for ways to be in motion and be in nature. When I talked to him he was preparing for an elk-hunting trip. But none of that quite prepared him for just how exhausting the race would be. Exhausting and cold.

“Being cold and being tired are two things that I don't have much practice being,” Lenhart said, reflecting on the month he spent in Fiji. “I would sit down for 15 seconds and fall asleep at some points. But not when I was cold. When I was cold. I was pretty much just pissed off and breathing as consciously as I could.”

Somehow that discussion led to a larger one about how amazing it is that our bodies heal themselves. The Abyss pulls you in like that. To listen to and now see “Steven Lenhart, MLS antihero,” come out on the other side, his life as someone compulsively introspective for the purpose of not only understanding himself, but understanding how he can help others is fascinating. And inspiring. Competing in the race helped him put that side even further out into the open. It made the exhaustion and cold worth it.

“That's the thing that I wanted to let people know that we're works in progress,” he said. “And wherever we are right now is totally fine.”

Even if you can’t answer a question like “What’s your purpose?” right now there’s still time.

Lenhart certainly believes that. And whatever random place in the world he pops up next, he’ll make sure to let people know you can go into the abyss and come out better for it.