Sept. 16, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. - When Poppy Carlig steps into the boardroom on tonight's season premiere of NBC-TV's "The Apprentice," she will smile and look confident. That is much is sure.
It doesn't matter if Donald Trump is sitting only a few feet away. Or, that millions of viewers are waiting for her to crack. She won't give them the satisfaction.
How did Carlig know, when she embarked on the filming of this year's season in June, that she could handle the barbs and withstand the claws of 15 competitors that include Ms. Cougar California, as well as seasoned attorneys and desperate family men?
Carlig never realized it, but her four years of competing for national synchronized swimming championship teams at Stanford prepared her perfectly for this scenario. The series premieres Thursday at 10 p.m.
"I felt like a mermaid in a shark tank," Carlig said. "It is a challenge to overcome the meanness and cutthroat behavior. But being cutthroat doesn't always win."
"The Apprentice," is a reality show hosted by the infamous Trump and is billed as "The Ultimate Job Interview." Individuals vie in an elimination-style format for a contract to run one of Trump's companies. Those who fail are removed from the show to the tune of Trump's catch phrase of "You're fired!"
While the show has used celebrities in the past, the competitors this season were taken from those who had been victimized by the recession. Many had lost their jobs or hadn't landed one. Carlig was in the latter category.
After receiving her undergraduate degree in human biology in 2008, Carlig went on to complete her masters in sociology while serving as a graduate assistant coach with the Cardinal.
Carlig applied to medical school, but decided it wasn't the direction she wanted to go in. She was offered a job doing breast cancer research, but the funding fell through. She appeared to be headed toward dental school when a friend alerted her to the casting and theme of "Apprentice."
Carlig was fascinated by the idea and, out of 99,000 applicants, landed one of the final 16 spots. What set her apart? Her Stanford education, she said, as well as her competitive synchronized swimming background. She also felt her untrampled attitude helped as well.
"I feel I have a fresh outlook," she said. "I'm not beaten down like some of the others. I don't have the disappointment of losing a $200,000 a year job. I'm the type of person who can take lemons and make lemonade. I still feel very positive overall with the problems going on with the recession."
The drawback for her, as she sees it, is her lack of professional experience. However, she has something others don't: synchronized swimming.
The pool continued to be her sanctuary during trying times.
"When I swim underwater, it clears my mind," she said. "It's one place where I find peace."
But it also has provided the lessons that negates any professional edge her competitors might have.
"It absolutely helped," she said. "Synchronized swimming is a performance sport. Even in the face of adversity, you have to have a smile on your face. You have to show Mr. Trump that you're confident and composed. I definitely think I had an advantage."
The nature of the sport is to mask nervousness and discomfort with an everlasting smile, all while sharpening the razor inside that makes the difference between winning and losing.
"When you're in that board room, you have to project that you've been here before," she said.
In a way, she has. Carlig won four collegiate national championships and trained with the U.S. Olympic team before a shoulder injury prevented any opportunity to reach the Beijing Games in 2008.
She learned other lessons from synchro as well, such as dealing with groups of other women, and how to be tactful in dealing with emotional or back-biting situations. And, from Stanford coach Heather Olson, she learned how to provide constructive criticism in a manner that does not break down, but enhances self-esteem.
Carlig can't reveal how she did in the series, which has completed the taping of enough shows to get down to the two finalists. The winner will be announced live in the season finale in December.
No matter how she does, Carlig said the experience has "opened my eyes to possible career paths," she said, such as sports broadcasting or other in-front-of-the-camera positions.
And what of Trump?
"He is a pitbull," she said. "But he is very smart. He sees all. He appreciates loyalty and appreciates people who are smart and kind, and can command a room and earn respect. Oh yeah, and his hair is real."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics