One Tough Bunny

January 20, 2003

She looks back on the trench foot with nostalgia. "I got it
during the 2000 Eco-Challenge in Borneo," says Danelle Folta. "I
remember thinking, When I was modeling, I never would have
thought I'd end up with trench foot."

After her experience at the Eco in Fiji this fall, trench foot
seemed like the merest nuisance. On the seventh day of the most
grueling Eco-Challenge in the event's nine-year history, Folta
found herself suffering from a high fever. "I sat down," she
recalls, "passed out and woke up 15 hours later." A blister on
her right foot had become infected. The infection had become
septic, the foot black and gangrenous. At a clinic in a Fijian
village, doctors removed infected flesh, operating on Folta by
flashlight without anesthetics. Back in the States she needed
still more surgery. "They had to take all this dead tissue off,
which left a wound so large it wouldn't close by itself," she
says.

That's where the skin graft came in. A plastic surgeon took some
skin off her right hip to help close the wound on the top of her
foot. Why the hip? "Obviously," she says with a smile, "if I ever
want to do a nude photo shoot, I don't want a big scar on my
butt."

Among other readily apparent assets, Folta has a robust sense of
humor about herself. The 33year-old Floridian is the founder of
the Playboy X-treme Team, a group of 25 former centerfolds whose
sports range from snowboarding to racing cigarette boats to
driving in cross-country car rallies.

Folta was a highly successful model--she appeared on runways and
in catalogs and was Playboy's Miss April in 1995--in whom resided
a dormant adrenaline fiend. Her first day on a mountain bike, in
1997, she went over the handlebars while coming down Mammoth
Mountain in California. "I showed up the next day for a Macy's
lingerie shoot with a huge bruise on my quad," she says. "They
weren't happy."

It wasn't long before she back-burnered modeling and founded the
Playboy Xtreme Team. Its message? "Your appearance has nothing to
do with your ability to do these races. It's your heart, your
soul, your level of conviction," she says.

Race directors fell all over themselves to get Folta and her
curvaceous friends into their events. The Xtreme Team draws TV
crews, and that makes race sponsors happy. It doesn't please the
people against whom Team Playboy races, however. Competition is
particularly fierce for spots in the Eco-Challenge, and plenty of
racers begrudge the Bunnies their seemingly open invitation to
it.

Says Team Montrail's Rebecca Rusch, one of the world's top female
adventure racers, "There are enough elite-level racers that you
don't need the so-called human-interest teams" that comprise the
back of every Eco field. "I like to cross-country ski, but I
don't go to the Olympics for it. I'd wreck the track and take the
spot of someone who actually belonged there."

More accepting is Team EarthLink's Robyn Benincasa, another of
the sport's elite women. "If having the Playboy team means an
extra hundred thousand people are going to tune in to watch my
team win"--EarthLink actually finished fifth in Fiji--"so much
the better."

Of the 81 teams to begin the race in Fiji, Team Smirnoff Ice
PlayboyX-treme was one of just 28 remaining when Folta was felled
by that infection on Day 7. "I was definitely surprised by how
strong, persistent and skilled they were," says veteran racer
Roman Dial, who navigated for Folta, Carrie Steilen and Kalin
Olson as the fourth member of the team. We know what you're
thinking, and the answer is no: Dial, who is happily married,
reports that there was no sexual tension on the course. Folta
agrees. "After four days of racing," she says of the notion of
disrobing, "you don't even want to see what's under there."

"She's balls-to-the-wall," says Maj. Blain Reeves of the Army's
101st Airborne Division. When he isn't training soldiers, Reeves
coaches the Bunnies. "Danelle has more stamina, mentally and
physically, than a lot of guys I've seen come through here. Like
her nickname on the website says [www.danellefolta.com], she's
the General."

These days the General is frustrated. She still can't run or
snowboard on account of the skin graft, which has resulted in
another, small trauma. "I used to be able to brag that I'd never
had plastic surgery," says Folta.

That answers a question a reporter had lacked the nerve to ask.
In adventure racing, as in other important areas, Folta is a
natural.

COLOR PHOTO: CAROLYN SCHAEFER THE REAL DEAL Folta and her Playboy team outlasted nearly two thirds of the field at the Eco.

"I remember thinking," says Miss April 1995, "that when I was
modeling, I never would've thought I'D END UP WITH TRENCH FOOT."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)