The hit CBS reality series “Survivor” wraps up its 40th, and quite possibly best, season when “Winners at War” crowns a champion Wednesday. In preparation for the finale, I spoke with fan favorite and three-time contestant Ethan Zohn.
The winner of “Survivor: Africa” and, more importantly, a man who has defeated cancer twice, discussed this latest season, why he frequently comes to Colorado and who he was shocked to see on the beach when season 40 started.
Have you been to Colorado before?
I’ve been to Colorado so many times! I guess my strongest connection is through a bunch of different cancer organizations that I've been involved with that are either based in Colorado or host events in Colorado. First Descents is one of them, the other one is called Epic Experience. They're basically outdoor adventure camps for young adult, cancer survivors. I work with them as an ambassador.
The last one, which is a pretty neat thing called CancerCon, is basically the largest collection of young adult cancer survivors in the world. They come to Denver each year for a big conference of class speakers and parties. ... I also visited Colorado for the research on hemp and CBD and THC and cannabis.
I've been to the Air Force Academy a couple of times. I gave a speech at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs within the last two years. Beautiful area. Oh my god, I loved it.
I’ve read that while you were out on “Survivor” this last go round that the CBD oil was something that you missed.
I definitely was missing that. I'm living a nice cushy life here in New Hampshire and I got my wife and my cats and my piles of CBD and then all of a sudden it's now taken away from you and now you're in the middle of this game of “Survivor” with all the added stress on that and they wouldn't even let me take my CBD. They actually took my consideration to the top and asked if I could use it because they let you bring prescription medicine there if you need it, but they wouldn't let me take CBD or THC because it's illegal in Fiji.
It was 15 years between “Survivor: All Stars” and “Winners at War”. What was the motivation behind wanting to come back?
Well, I mean, one, it is a season everyone has been waiting for, for both players and both fans, I think. They're taking the 20 most popular winners of all time, bringing them back and letting us battle for not $1 million, but $2 million. We didn't know it was $2 million when we signed up for it. They told us that on the beach. But one, it's an honor to be asked back. Two, I've always wanted to play again, but because of some of the health challenges that I've been through, I haven't been able to.
I think it was 2010, I was literally locked away getting my second stem cell transplant in a hospital in New York City, watching I think season 20, which is “Heroes Versus Villains,” and thinking, "Man, if I stay alive long enough or if I get out of this thing and I'm OK, I want to be able to play ‘Survivor’ again." It was just a dream of mine and it took me 10 years to get ready mentally, physically, spiritually to go play this game of “Survivor.” When they called, I was like, "Yeah, you bet I want to play." For me just to be healthy enough to do anything like that is a blessing, so I jumped at the chance.
Were there any winners that you expected to see but that weren't there?
I expected to see Richard Hatch, I expected to see Tina, but other than that I would've liked to have seen a few more old school winners, I think it was a little bit skewed. There was like 13 new schoolers and seven old schoolers and so it just threw the dynamic off a little bit and I don't think anyone really suspected that it was going to be such a landslide in terms of a new schoolers just picking off the old schoolers one by one. But I would like to have seen a more even split.
When did you know who everybody was on the cast? When did that happen?
When you get to Fiji to film, there's a couple of days where you've got to do stuff like medical checks and wardrobe and just sign papers and do interviews and stuff like that. So they split up men and women. At that time I knew the guys going into it. But you're not allowed to talk. They keep everyone separate, pretty strict in that sense, but you could see who they were. I originally thought it would be guy versus girls. I said, "Oh all right, cool." Then we started the game and I see Amber there and I was like, "Holy crap. Rob and Amber are both here?" That's what I realized after that, that's why I thought they probably separated us that way early on. But I was completely shocked to see Amber there. I think everyone was shocked to see Amber there.
We have to talk about probably what's going to be your defining moment from the season. This is where you had to go get 20 logs one at a time and bring them back to camp. It was such an iconic “Survivor” moment seeing someone struggling, yet never giving up. Tell me what was going through your mind during that particular challenge?
I thought at first, I'd be fine. I thought that 20 times up the hill, I went up once before and I thought it wouldn't be a problem. I definitely went out a little bit too fast. I tried to keep up with Natalie, who is an absolute Olympic champion at everything out there right now. So, yeah, I just think basically, it was probably one of the most difficult things I've ever had to put my body through. You're completely depleted, you're hungry, you're tired, you're thirsty. We didn't eat that day. The challenge got the best of me, I was walking, I think it was around log 15 or 16 and I completely lost my depth perception.
I tried to step up over a rock and I would always be like, 3, 5 inches short and I kept tripping and stumbling and I got around the corner and I slipped and kind of fell. When I fell then the doctors stepped in and they're like, "Maybe you should take a little bit of a rest." Then I passed out. Luckily the doctors are there when that happened. But what was interesting about this, and where I'm going with it is, I thought: Here you are in the middle of this game of “Survivor,” this cutthroat game, where I was competing for $2 million dollars and I'm competing with three other women to get a fire token. And I thought, when I was down, they'd be beat up or kick you while I was down or spit on me as they walk by or whatnot.
But what ended up happening is they basically helped me up that last leg of the race. No one wants to go up that mountain once a day, nevertheless, 20 times a day, and here they're going off one more extra time, 21 times for me just to give me the energy and the power to get up there. So it was really nice to see how compassion and empathy and just human to human relationships transcended the game for that moment. I think it was just a really beautiful moment and I don't think I would have been able to make it up that hill if they weren't there with me.
What would you say is the hardest thing to adjust to going from being a viewer to an actual participant?
The days are really long. You guys see all the options and all the fun stuff, but there's 23 hours left in the day of stuff that you guys don't see. There's a lot of boredom and there's a lot of just chatting, you don't understand how little sleep we get, how little food we get. I don't think that's really clearly described. Sleeping conditions are absolutely horrible. It's freezing at night, it's warmer during the day. So just kind of like that stuff I think has been over the years has minimized. You don't necessarily see survival even being something you need to be good at in order to do well on the show “Survivor.”
Back in the day, and I don't want to be that guy, but survival mattered and the entire show is based on survival and location. And the challenges were big and huge and epic and it held a lot of weight in terms of if you did well in a challenge or not. Now the challenges don't even really matter as much in terms of strategy. You obviously want to win, but if you do bad in a challenge, you're not going to get voted off because of it. But to answer your question, I guess it's just the uncomfortableness, lack of sleep, lack of food, dealing with everyone else's bull--- all the time, that's the stuff you don't see because it's just minimized.
I'm assuming you think this will be your last season?
Oh yeah. Dude, I feel they should lose my number, I’ll say during the finale, "Don't ever call me again." Unless I do a random talker and show up for the night to be some sort of, I don't know, mentor type situation. I would do that, but there's no way I'd play again.
With that in mind, let me ask you a couple of questions in regards to your overall experience. What is your favorite "Survivor" memory?
My favorite memory is definitely visiting the village, in “Survivor: Africa.” I got to play hacky sack with my luxury item with all these children in the parking lot of a hospital and I later found out that all these kids were HIV positive. It was at that moment I decided that I wanted to do something with my money if I did win “Survivor: Africa.” I got back and I started this organization, Grassroots Soccer. Since “Survivor: Africa" and “Survivor: All Stars,” we're now in 60 countries and we've graduated over 2.9 million kids from the program, all from a little reality show. I think it's pretty neat.
That's fantastic. What is your least favorite "Survivor" memory?
I would say every day on the Edge of Extinction. It's not a pleasant place to be. It's purgatory, you are between life and death, but I would say it's more leaning towards hell than any other direction.
Who would you put on your "Survivor" Mount Rushmore?
Oh man, that's tough. It's going to be all old school because I’m completely biased. Myself, Boston Rob, who already has his own freaking statue, and Parvarti. The last one is between Hatch just because he's the original gangster. But I also feel like Tyson just because he's like a good friend of mine and he deserves to be etched in stone.
What can we expect in the finale Wednesday night?
As you know it's the epic second play-in challenge and everyone is incredibly jazzed up. Some people have idols, some people have some advantages and it's just going to be a really exciting and epic play-in challenge. The finale is going to be fireworks, these last three hours are going to be absolutely insane.
Gazette TV critic Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @terryterrones.