'Tough as Nails' Contestant Merryl Tengesdal Is the Only Black Female U-2 Pilot

'Tough as Nails' Merryl Tengesdal is the true epitome of a tough woman. She is the first Black woman to fly the Air Force U-2 Spy Plane.

Tatayana Yomary - Author

Feb. 25 2021, Updated 1:33 p.m. ET

'Tough as Nails' Merryl Tengesdal
Source: CBS

If you’re a fan of the CBS hit show Tough as Nails, then you know that the contestants on the show endure a lot. The competition series is all about showing how tough you are, and some people tend to fold under the pressure. And while many of the hard-working contestants put it all on the line to show their strength and perseverance, there are always a few who become fan favorites. Merryl Tengesdal is one of them.

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Merryl has become a standout on the show for her grit, personality, and impressive skill set, so it’s no surprise that viewers are interested in learning more about the Tough as Nails competitor. And while she has made history in the U.S. Air Force, there is so much more to Merryl’s story.

Merryl is the first and only Black woman to fly a U-2 aircraft.

There’s no denying that you have to be tough to make the cut on the hit show. And with Merryl’s extensive background in the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy, it’s easy to see why she’s a top contender. 

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merryl tengesdal
Source: CBS

Per the University of New Haven, Merryl became the first (and, so far, only) Black woman to fly the Lockheed U-2, a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft nicknamed "Dragon Lady.” 

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Not to mention, she served in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Merryl continued her service for more than 23 years and eventually went on to retire as an Air Force Colonel.

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“My Navy background and exposure to leadership opportunities set me up for success in the Air Force,” she said. “Flying the U-2 is challenging. It is unforgiving.”

And while she never thought that being a member of the University of New Haven’s ROTC would lead her to such an incredible career, she is more than thankful for the experience and training. After all, she says that her training has helped her tremendously on the show. 

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Merryl works as a motivational speaker and fitness trainer at her local sports club.

There’s no denying that Merryl is as tough as they come. And while her days of serving our country in the military are over, she has stepped into the role of a fitness trainer at her local sports club.

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“During the day, I motivate people of all ages through fitness training,” she says in her Tough as Nails bio. Adding to the her impressive qualities is the fact that Merryl has continued her fitness work even after a hip replacement.  

Merryl also makes it a point to influence the youth through her experience in the military and beyond. 

“I also attend various speaking engagements where I share my life story and strive to inspire young minds and future leaders to greatness,” she shared.

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She says that young people have excellent and disruptive ideas for how to change the current model of working. Merryl also makes it a point to influence her 8-year-old son and 6-year-old foster daughter.

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Merryl’s husband is pursuing his doctorate degree.

While the U.S. Air Force icon continues to push and motivate herself throughout all aspects of her life, her family is doing the same thing. In particular, her husband is studying to earn his doctorate degree. 

After being honored by her alma mater for her exemplary career with the Distinguished Alumni award in 2013 and an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree, she joked about her achieving the honor before her husband.

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Source: Instagram

“I was blown away when I found out,” she said. “I am very humbled. My husband is pursuing his doctorate, and we joke that I earned my doctorate before he did. He is very proud and has been very supportive.”

And while Merryl has been open about how supportive her husband is, we've only seen snapshots of her children on her Instagram page. They may be a couple that prefers to not post each other on social media, but it's great to know that Merryl has him in her corner. 

We can all agree that Merryl is serving up stiff competition on Tough as Nails. And while we’re pretty far away from the announcement of the Season 2 winner, we’re excited to see her journey on the show.

Tough as Nails airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.

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