Merryl Tengesdal: Tough as Nails

This local mom is showing her mettle on national television.
"Dragon Lady" Merryl Tengesdal

Granite Bay mom and fitness trainer Merryl Tengesdal has self-proclaimed “thick skin,” and she has the resume to prove it. After serving 10 years in the U.S. Navy, she joined the Air Force, where she remains the only Black woman to have ever flown a Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. In 2017, she retired as a colonel.  Now, Tengesdal (nickname: Dragon Lady) is again showing her resilience on the CBS series “Tough As Nails,” where 12 contestants compete in group and individual events that test physical strength and mental endurance. Tengesdal talked to us about her experience on the show, inspiring her daughter and why she believes every child should set big goals—and follow them. 

How did you get the nickname Dragon Lady?
It’s the actual name of the U-2. It started in 1955 under a black program (highly classified) in the CIA. The U-2 was designed to collect imagery and signals against the Soviet Union.

What’s it like, flying?
The U-2 is one of the most challenging aircrafts that I’ve flown. It’s difficult to land. It’s like flying a plane without power steering. You have to manhandle that aircraft. We wear pressure suits similar to NASA (because of the high altitudes).

Did you always want to be a pilot?
I always wanted to be an astronaut since I was a kid, and I knew one of the things I had to do was be a pilot. If someone said to me today, “Do you want to train to be an astronaut?” I would make that happen. It’s all about the journey; it’s good to have goals because you don’t know where you are going to land.

How did you end up on “Tough As Nails”?
The casting producer saw a post that I put up right before a boxing class. I was having fun and dancing and having a good time. They reached out to me and said, “Hey, you should look into this show.” There was an extensive interview process.

How “tough” was it?
It was tough; it was no joke. These are long days; the challenges kept coming. You try to perform at your best, and sometimes your best isn’t good enough, or sometimes you aren’t 100% that day. But you still have to perform. That’s not for everyone.

What was it like working with your teammates?
It reminded me a lot of the military. You build this camaraderie. We are thrust into a situation that is very stressful, physically and mentally demanding. As teammates, you have to figure out things very quickly to be successful.

What do your kids think about their mom being on TV?
My kids are ecstatic about it. One of my friends got shirts made that say, My mommy is Tough As Nails. They wear it proudly. If my son (8) meets new people, he says, “My mom is tough as nails!” My foster daughter (6), she’s proud. It’s nice that she can look up to someone who is doing these challenges and is in a position where she can aspire to be.

How do you encourage your daughter—and all kids—to dream big?
I talk about my life, coming up from the Bronx, and in certain ways there were humble beginnings with that. There are a lot of kids now coming up with similar or even worse (backgrounds), but it doesn’t dictate how they’re going to be in life. There may be some opportunities that present themselves that you need to take advantage of.

Now that filming’s done, what are you working on?
I’m working on an autobiography. I’m also training clients and picking up on speaking engagements, motivational and inspirational. We’re looking to adopt our foster daughter and hoping, in five months, that will happen.