Nice girls finish first

IT HAS BEEN nearly three weeks since Tee Joe Jer and Zabrina Fernandez won the inaugural The Amazing Race Asia, but the congratulatory messages haven't stopped pouring in. The ebullient pair aren't complaining, though. 'We're used to people coming up to us and they've been so nice, complimenting us on what we've achieved,' says Fernandez.

Racing through 15 cities in 24 days and travelling more than 36,000km, Tee, 29, and Fernandez, 26, made headlines when they won the event and US$100,000 in prize money. The duo, devoted fans of the US version of The Amazing Race and self-confessed reality-TV junkies, made race history as the first all-women team to come out on top. The grand finale, screened on AXN on February 1, was a showdown between the last three teams: Tee and Fernandez; sporty couple Andrew Tan, 26, and Syeon Park, 28; and Hong Kong couple Francesca von Etzdorf, 27, and her boyfriend, Sandy Sydney, 29.

For the finale, the teams came full circle around the world as they left Dubai and headed for Kuala Lumpur - where the race began - before heading to the final destination, Kuching, in Sarawak.

Although it wasn't entirely a nail-biting race to the finish line - in the last few minutes, the viewers knew the women would clinch the top spot - Tee and Fernandez weren't always the clear favourites.

'In the beginning, when teams were asked who would be the first team to be eliminated, everyone said [Indonesian brothers] Mardy and Marsio [Juwono] or Joe Jer and Zabrina,' says Fernandez. As the race progressed, most followers pegged the female duo as a dark horse to win - even though they weren't the strongest, nor were they the smartest of the teams. Even their friends and families didn't think they stood a chance.

'When we got back from the race, some of our friends who knew that we'd participated didn't ask us if we won, but at which stage we got eliminated,' says Fernandez. (The race took place last June and teams had to sign confidentiality agreements, because it only started airing in November.)

That they weren't considered contenders didn't faze Tee and Fernandez - who were colleagues at a television production company in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia - because they didn't rate their chances of winning very highly, either.

'Even when we were on the boat to the final pit stop we didn't think we could win,' says Fernandez. 'We thought that there might be an engine failure or that we would have to look for more clues. It was only when we saw the other [eliminated] teams cheering us on that we realised it was the end and we had won.

'We were always just happy to be on the mat, and our strategy was not to come in first all the time,' says Tee.

Except for the last leg, the women never finished on top - proving that it's not about coming first all the time, but when it matters the most. They credit their win to sheer persistence.

'We enjoyed ourselves so much, we didn't want to go home,' says Fernandez. They never thought of quitting, even when the going was tough, such as during the three hours they needed to find a particular road in Bangkok. 'We were just too stubborn to quit,' says Tee.

The win for the two, who had known each other for about two years when Tee suggested they try their luck in auditioning for the race, appears to have strengthened their friendship. 'I learnt that Joe Jer is really strong physically and mentally,' says Fernandez. 'She's patient, and I know that I have a good friend in her.'

Tee says Fernandez's motivation and never-say-die attitude was an asset in the race. 'I have deep respect for Zabrina and all the things she said to motivate me in the tasks,' she says. 'Like when I was making the dung cakes [in India], she kept saying what a good job I was doing and that I was doing better than anyone else ... that really spurred me on.'

Their easy camaraderie is as evident after their victory as it was during the race. The two never lost their cool with each other during the competition - despite the scorching heat at many of the race destinations, and the struggles they faced.

Even when they were carrying out their sometimes difficult tasks, they looked as if they were enjoying themselves - such as when they relaxed to drink the juice from coconuts they had to smash to find their next clue.

Was this simply clever editing on the part of the producers, then? 'No,' Fernandez says. 'There were tense moments, but never at each other. We were just enjoying ourselves too much.'

The pair also got along well with the other teams, in particular the duo from Sri Lanka, Sahran Abeysundara, 31, and Howard Bicknell, 39. As fans of the US version of The Amazing Race, the girls knew all too well how friendly rivalry among the teams could turn ugly, and they chose not to go down that road. 'We've seen so much nastiness in the previous shows, so it's great to know that nice people can finish first,' says Tee.

The women will never forget the race, from the dejection of coming in last on the Bangkok leg - which, fortunately, was a non-elimination round - to the exhilaration of winning and all the other moments in between, such as sky jumping and bungee jumping, as well as driving through New Zealand, and the train journeys in India.

They admit that it was difficult to get back to the normality of everyday life.

'When we were flying home, after the race, we didn't have to strategise or guess what tasks lay ahead ... just sit on the plane,' says Fernandez, sounding almost dejected.

Tee agrees. She says that the race was 'the happiest month of my life'. She seems to have caught the travel bug, spending about six months after the race travelling around the US and Colombia. The two friends hope to travel more in the future and are planning a visit to Sri Lanka.

'We want to visit Howard and Sahran,' says Tee. 'It would also be great to revisit some of the places on the race, like Bangkok, and maybe even do some rock climbing in Krabi.'

So, would the duo participate in another season of The Amazing Race Asia - an Asian all-stars edition, for instance - if they were called up?

'In a heartbeat,' says Tee.