A year ago, fans of “The Amazing Race” were becoming fans of Utahns Dave and Connor O’Leary.
The father-and-son cancer survivors — Dave had prostate cancer; Connor had testicular cancer — were doing great on the CBS reality/competition show that takes contestants around the world. They finished third in the first leg of the race and were about to finish second in the second leg … when, suddenly, Dave felt something. Something bad.
He had ruptured his Achilles tendon.
With Dave on crutches, the O’Learys actually won the third and fourth legs of “The Amazing Race.” But they were forced to drop out in Episode 5 so that Dave could go home and undergo surgery.
“It was a bummer, to say the least,” Dave said. “It was a terrible way to leave ‘The Amazing Race.’ ”
“Everybody was, like, ‘Oh, it was so heartbreaking you guys had to leave,’ ” Connor said. “We definitely know it was heartbreaking.”
Fans of the show — fans of the O’Learys — quickly began to speculate that perhaps the Utahns would be invited back to race again. About the only ones who didn’t think about that were Dave and Connor.
“At the time, I don’t think anything crossed my mind except the need to get home and have surgery,” Dave said. “After the fact, we thought, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be great if they let us come back.’ But we had no idea if that would happen. And certainly, we were dumbfounded when it did happen so soon.”
The O’Learys returned to film Season 24 of “The Amazing Race,” which begins airing Sunday. And they did it without hesitation.
“I didn’t even question it,” said Dave, 59. “I said, ‘Yes, we want to do it again! We want a shot at redemption!’ ”
His 22-year-old son was also quickly on board, but admits he was “a little nervous” about their second round on “The Amazing Race.”
“I definitely didn’t want a repeat and have my mom mad at me for some other crazy injury,” Connor said. “The Achilles was definitely on my mind.”
This was not a minor injury. Dave was advised by doctors that rehab would take a full year.
“It was much more of a recovery process than I expected,” he said. “I kind of thought I’d be back into things right away, but it took some time. But, fortunately, everything healed.”
But just barely. When it came time to join the other contestants for an all-stars edition of the show, not quite a year had passed since the surgery.
And it wasn’t as if Dave was doing anything particularly strenuous when he was injured. Connor had already reached the mat that marked the finish of that leg of the race and Dave was close behind when the tendon snapped.
“It’s just a function of being old,” he said with a laugh. “I hate to play the age card, but I’m old, compared to all these other people. I mean, there’s only a couple of other people who are even close.”
Only one, actually. Of the other 20 people in the race — there are 11 two-person teams — nine are in their 20s, eight are in their 30s and two are in their 40s. Only one, 56-year-old Margie O’Donnell, is close to Dave O’Leary’s age.
“If it wasn’t for having a good teammate, there is no way I would’ve gone back,” Dave said. “If it was me and another 60-year-old, there’s no way I would have done it.”
“I definitely would say I felt more protective than the last time around,” Connor said. “I mean, I know my dad is fully capable and can do everything fine. But — I don’t want to say I sheltered him. But I just kind of did as much as I could to make it easier on him.”
The O’Learys are, perhaps, operating at a disadvantage in this all-stars edition of the show. Margie and her son, Luke Adams, are one of three teams returning to the race for the third time. As a matter of fact, all but one of the other 11 teams has run more legs of “The Amazing Race” than the O’Learys.
“Going back, we said, ‘Shoot, we don’t have a prayer … against all these young people. Some of them are professional athletes.’ ”
Those would be the Harlem Globestrotters duo — Herbert “Flight Time” Lang and Nate “Big Easy” Lofton.
“I got to know Connor and Dave really well,” Lang said. “Good guys. They’re both cancer survivors, and my dad passed away from cancer so I had a link with those two from the beginning. Running a race with them was so much fun.”
And fun was what the O’Learys decided to have on “The Amazing Race.”
“When we went into it last time, we had no idea what our chances were,” Dave said. “And at the end of the second leg, I ruptured my Achilles. So from that point, we said, ‘We’re in this for fun.’ We knew we couldn’t win. And we had a great time.”
And the great thing about “The Amazing Race” is that if you make it through two legs or six legs or all the way to the end, you get a chance to visit some cool places and experience cultures far different from what you’ll find in Salt Lake City.
“Honestly, the draw of going on the race for me initially was seeing some amazing places,” Connor said. “You’re a winner regardless of how far you make it.”
The other 10 teams competing with Dave and Connor O’Leary are:
• Nadiya and Natalie Anderson, 27 (twins), finished fourth in Season 21
• Meghan Camerana, 26, and Joey Graceffa, 22 (YouTube hosts), finished fifth in Season 22
• Caroline Cutbirth, 30, and Jennifer Wayne (country music singers), finished fourth in Season 22
• John Erck, 28, and Jessica Hoel, 27 (engaged), finished ninth in Season 22
• Mark Jackson, 47, and William “Bopper” Minton, 43 (friends), finished fifth in Season 20
• Herbert “Flight Time” Lang, 37, and Nate “Big Easy” Lofton, 32 (Harlem Globetrotters), finished fourth in Season 15 and second in Season 18
• Cord, 33, and Jet McCoy, 34 (cowboys/brothers), finished second in Season 16 and sixth in Season 18
• Margie O’Donnell, 56, and Luke Adams, 28 (mother and son), finished third in Season 14 and eighth in Season 18
• Rachel Reilly, 30, and Brendon Villegas, 33 (newlyweds), finished third in Season 20
• Leo Temory, 27, and Jamal Zadran, 26 (aka the Afghanimals), finished fourth in Season 23
“The Amazing Race” returns Sunday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. on CBS/Ch. 2.