As the latest season of The Amazing Race rolls out, I thought that we can take a trip down Memory Lane. In this case, an article I wrote in 2002 on one of the show's most popular teams, John Vito & Jill. I wound up finding a copy of the story -- cover date December 24, 2002 -- and I figured that I could reprint it, given that the Staten Island Register has been defunct for years. I made minor corrections where needed.
I'll try and follow up with annotations in a future entry, elaborating on some of the material in the article, as well as go over their ill-fated turn on the original version of The Amazing Race: All-Stars back in 2007.
Island couple in 'Amazing Race'
They dedicated their appearance to the victims of 9/11
by Jason Borelli
This fall, Staten Islanders found a little local color mixed into a major reality series as a borough couple competed on The Amazing Race.
John Vito Pietanza, a bond market strategist from Eltingville, and his girlfriend, Jill Aquilino, a business consultant originally from New Springville, appeared as a team for nine weeks on Wednesday nights. On December 4, the duo took their final bow as they were booted from the show for finishing in last place, but not before outlasting seven other teams.
The Amazing Race is a CBS reality series where teams travel around the world in a race for $1 million. Each team is made up [of] two people who have a relationship with each other (Jill and John Vito were listed as "dating.") Along the way, the teams must perform certain tasks before finishing a leg of the race. The last team to arrive at the end of a leg gets eliminated.
Last year, Jill had sent an application along with her older brother, Frank Thomas "F.T." Aquilino. Jill had been looking for information on Survivor (the premiere reality series from CBS) when she found a fledgling reality series that was looking for contestants.
"I thought it was cool, and I constantly thought of my brother," she said of The Amazing Race. "So I called him and told him we had to apply."
Jill and F.T. never got a response from the show. On September 11, Frank, a vice president at Cantor Fitzgerald, was killed during the attack on the World Trade Center.
In memory of her brother, Jill reapplied for the show's third season; this time with John Vito, who had been F.T.'s best friend, and whom she had been dating. After sending in the application earlier this year, they found out they were going to race in June.
In addition to F.T., Jill and John Vito were competing with others in mind -- the firefighters lost from the Concord-based Rescue 5 unit of the Fire Department.
"They had these memorial patches, and we wore them on our backpacks to pay tribute to the people on Staten Island who were lost on September 11," John Vito said. "We were hoping that some of the people who had family to Rescue 5 noticed when we were on the Race."
Jill and John Vito's trip lasted for 10 out of 13 legs. In total, they competed on four continents and in 10 countries. Although they were seldom among the front-running teams, they managed to keep a safe distance away from teams that were close to elimination.
In each leg of the Race, they came across a Detour, the show's parlance for a choice of two tasks, each with its own pros and cons. "We tried to choose the adventurous options in the Detours just because we were there," said John Vito. "We had the opportunity of a lifetime to do things we would never ordinarily do."
To that end, they made to most of their trip. They skydived over Mexico City and rappelled from a cliff in Cabo da Roca, Portugal. They delivered wine in Lisbon and went bobsledding on an Olympic track in Innsbruck, Austria. They also had to complete Roadblocks, tasks that only one person per team could complete. While John Vito swam with dolphins in Cozumel and played goalkeeper against junior soccer players in Lisbon. Jill took part in traditional Scot games in Aberdeen (including hefting a [caber] twice her size) and sold snails in Marrakech, Morocco.
At the end of each leg, teams stayed in Pit Stops, where they rested until the start on the next leg. During an extended rest period, they enjoyed the scenery in Gridelwald, Switzerland.
"We were able to really walk around and enjoy this town and the beauty of it," Jill said. "It's 70 degrees out, and yet there were these snow-capped mountains that we were staying at. It was like being in a fairy tale."
Their trip ended in Singapore, where they were the last team to arrive in the 10th leg, short of the finish line and the ultimate prize. "We wanted to win, but our main goal was to complete the Race," said John Vito. "We're very upset we didn't get to Vietnam [for the next leg]."
Given the lack of tension and gutsy moments (including Jill falling down hard and popping back up without losing a step), the couple has been one of the most popular teams on the program. After their elimination, they received a 94 percent rating on CBS's website, the highest any team has attained during the current season.
As Jill put it, "We may not have won the million dollars, but we're so happy people like us and got to see our true colors."
The two-hour season finale of [The Amazing Race] aired Wednesday, December 18. John Vito and Jill have also set up a website, johnvitoandjill.com, which is currently in its earliest stages of development.