Just three words had passed between Will Jardell and James Wallington when each said they knew they had found the “one.”
The two met in February 2014 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles during auditions for the reality TV show “America’s Next Top Model.” Mr. Wallington was a casting assistant, Mr. Jardell, an aspiring model.
“Howdy,” said Mr. Jardell, who is 31 and a native Texan, upon passing Mr. Wallington, 32, in a hallway. “Find me.”
Mr. Wallington said, “Will had me at ‘howdy.’ My heart just fell out of me.”
Having been selected for the modeling competition, Mr. Jardell faced two months of filming during which he would be sequestered and unable to use his phone. It ended up that he, ultimately, was the one who did the finding.
After rising to a runner-up in the competition and returning to his hometown Nederland, Texas, he tracked down Mr. Wallington on social media. And soon after the two began a text and phone relationship.
“It really was love at first sight,” said Mr. Wallington, who just after the initial “howdy” had announced to his family in Grand Rapids, Mich., that he had found his future husband.
In September 2014, Mr. Jardell, who was modeling and teaching dance, moved to Los Angeles, where he attended the University of Southern California and received a master’s degree in public health. He is now a program specialist at the University of Southern California’s Institute on Inequalities in Global Health. Mr. Wallington continues to work as an independent casting associate producer. The couple also contribute travel related content to the magazine OUT Traveler.
In 2018, Mr. Wallington and Mr. Jardell landed a slot to compete in the “Amazing Race” reality TV show. This was a childhood dream of Mr. Wallington, who had auditioned many times with friends and family members.
To prepare for the 21-day challenge, the couple ran miles toting heavy packs, learned the flags of the world’s countries and memorized key phrases in seven languages. Countless hours were spent poring over every episode of every previous season of the series — sometimes multiple times.
During the competition, which took place from Nov. 9 to Dec. 3, 2018, the couple navigated challenges in 11 countries, including Colombia and Kazakhstan, beating 11 teams to claim the $1 million prize money. At the finish line in New Orleans, Mr. Jardell proposed marriage to a surprised and exhausted Mr. Wallington. Four million television viewers watched the couple seal their win, and their commitment, with a kiss.
For Mr. Jardell, it was a public display of affection unimaginable to him as a child growing up in a deeply religious home in a small Texas town. “I never imagined the possibility of marrying a man,” he said. “I literally tried to pray the gay away. Seeing a couple like us on TV would have helped me so, so much.”
On Dec. 3, three years after their “Amazing Race” victory, the couple returned to New Orleans to marry at the New Orleans Athletic Club. Two hundred guests attended, including 20 “Amazing Race” competitors, one of whom, Kellie Wells-Brinkley, a Universal Life minister and former Olympic track and field champion, officiated. Guests were required to be vaccinated or provide a recent negative Covid test.
In a nod to their “Amazing Race” team brand, the grooms donned purple bow ties.
During the sunset ceremony the couple’s wedding bands were passed among the guests. “Thinking about the blessings our friends put on our rings will help us in our future, both through the good times and the bad,” Mr. Wallington said.
Once married, the couple celebrated with a parade through the French Quarter accompanied by the Kinfolk Brass Band and dancing guests. Residents emerged from their homes to cheer and clap as the procession snaked back to the wedding venue where they enjoyed an internationally themed dinner.
“I never knew I could feel so much gratitude and love in a single day,” said Mr. Jardell.