Survivor’s been on American television since the summer of 2000. Tomorrow night, Jeff Probst will bestow the title of Sole Survivor on the 37th recipient…and a check for $1 million. You’d think winning the game is enough to cement your name into immortality with the fans, but does it really? Who won Ghost Island (the season prior to David vs. Goliath)? Do you even remember? I don’t. Winning does no guarantee Survivor immortality.
In preparation for tomorrow’s season finale, I thought it would be fun to take a trip down Memory Lane through a few lists. Who’s been the best Sole Survivor? Who’s been the least deserving? Who were the best players to never win the title?
Let’s take a look…
Top Five Sole Survivors
In 36 seasons (and counting), some champions played the game better than anyone else. Here are the five best Sole Survivors (in no particular order):
Yul Kwon: Cook Islands
To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. And that’s exactly what Yul did in the Cook Islands. In a three-person final Tribal Council, Yul defeated Ozzy Lusth by a 5 – 4 vote. In a season with a deep bench (including future winner Parvati Shallow), Ozzy was the original challenge beast. Yul’s strength was in strategy, alliances and most of all, jury management. It’s one thing to vote out a player. It’s another thing entirely to know when to vote them out. Yul’s only played this game once, but he was arguably one of the smartest Survivor players ever.
Sandra Diaz-Twine: Pearl Islands, Heroes vs. Villains
The only two-time Sole Survivor. Sandra’s strength was her craftiness. She was not gifted with athleticism, but made up for it in her strategic alliances and a whole lotta luck. Yes, luck goes a long way in Survivor, but what is luck? It’s opportunity meets preparation. In the Pearl Islands, she won because her runner-up, Lillian Morris, allowed her heart to speak louder than her head. Lillian refused to take Jon “Johnny Fairplay” Dalton to the final Tribal Council, opting for Sandra instead. Fast forward to Heroes vs. Villains and Sandra defeated Parvati Shallow and the evil Russell Hantz for her second title. Winning once can be chalked up to chance. But twice? Nope.
Natalie Anderson: Blood vs. Water
Full disclosure: I hated Natalie when she and her sister Nadiya were on The Amazing Race. Hated! She was obnoxious. On Survivor, though, she channeled her weapons into a crafty win in a season where everyone started as part of a pair. That she made it to the end was slightly surprising to me, honestly. Though only winning individual immunity once, Natalie played an aggressive game and pulled some epic blindsides on her way to victory.
Brian Heidik: Thailand
You probably don’t even remember Brian. He was the Sole Survivor all the way back in Season 5. It was his first and last time playing Survivor. Brian is roundly considered one of the least likable players in Survivor history because of his serial killer-like approach to the game. Like him or hate him, Brian executed one of the most masterful magic tricks over the game that we’ve ever seen: he won without ever shining a light upon himself. Did he crack the code? Sort of, but it’s because he was emotionally detached. Sure, he won challenges, but he read his competition perfectly and played them against one another. He closed his magic trick by dragging a stooge to the end who was less likable than he was.
Sarah Lacina: Game Changers
This was one of the deepest competitions in a long time. Sarah had to beat some fierce competition to claim the title. In fact, one might argue her runner-up, Brad Culpepper was more deserving. I’m not sure about that, but I do think he played a championship-caliber game (he certainly didn’t deserve to lose 7 – 3 in the final Tribal Council). The fact that Sarah built alliances across the entire game is testimony to her victory. On paper, Culpepper should win, but he was too aggressive and, at times, a bully. Sarah was sharper at reading the room, which went a long way to jury management. She also positioned herself as a crucial swing vote and could pick off players like a sniper. That’s a powerful place to be.
Richard Hatch: Season 1, Borneo
The first champion and arguably the inventor of much of the strategy that still carries over today. No, Richard never had to deal with Exile Island, hidden immunity idols and other wrenches thrown into the game today, but he’s the one who understand jury management and used it to his advantage to beat his competition. Yeah, he’s a bit of a knucklehead, but so what? He still deserves respect for his game play.
Five Least Deserving Sole Survivors
One thing I hate about Survivor is the best player rarely wins. Petulant, red-assed jurors would sooner reward a bad player than a good one because the good player outwitted them. Talk about cheap. Yeah, yeah. If you win, you must be good blah-blah-blah. Screw that. So, here are the five doorknobs who backed their way into winning this game.
Aras Baskauskas: Panama (Exile Island)
Talk about your garden-variety load. Aras had no business making it past the merge, much less winning the game. I maintain this was the season that pushed producers to opt for three-finalist final Tribal Councils, since the best player that season (Terry Deitz) didn’t win. Aras was an obnoxious, immature, punk-ass little bitch the entire game. A loudmouth who was dragged to the final Tribal Council by Danielle DiLorenzo because she knew Terry would be the runaway champion if she didn’t eliminate him.
Natalie White: Samoa
It may not even be her own fault, but Natalie did NOT deserve to win this season. She was up against the most feared, the most hated and the most strategic overall player in Survivor history: Russell Hantz. Natalie was a stooge and a puppet to Russell. The jury knew that, too. But they hated him so much that they refused to give him the money and the title. Credit where credit is due: Natalie won. But she sure as shit didn’t deserve it.
Tina Wesson: Africa
She is and always will be the blueprint for a coattail-riding, ingratiating, do-nothing who wins by duping the best player into trusting her. Yeah, she won, but she wasn’t a good player at all except for reading Colby Donaldson as a stooge. Donaldson was, hands down, a better player. Come to think of it, the jury was a bunch of morons, too.
Vecepia Towery: Marquesas
For the most part, I never minded her game. She was an under-the-radar competitor who seized a target of opportunity at the end to avoid facing a player she probably couldn’t have defeated (Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien). Indeed, Faustian bargains are a part of Survivor. I can dig that. What I found most galling about Vecepia is she didn’t own it. She instead “give it to God.” WTF? Screw you, you condescending jerk! Just own your strategy instead of feigning some bullshit religious piety, eh?
Tom Westman: Palau
I may get some heat for this one. In fairness, Tom was one of the best players of this game. The reason he makes this list is because of the cheap way he and that load Katie Gallagher ganged up on Ian Rosberger. They henpecked Ian to death up to and during the final immunity challenge over “broken promises” toward that load Katie. Those two ganged up on Ian and played the lowest card of all in Survivor: the “integrity” card. I liked Tom as a player right up to that point. Ian was a fierce competitor all season long. He was the only player left who had a chance to beat Tom in the end. But Ian was young and allowed them to play on his emotions to the point where he conceded in the final immunity challenge and asked Tom to vote him out. It’s not dirty to win, but it’s cheap as hell to manipulate a player like that. Ian was a fool, no doubt, but to endure that shit for 12 hours? You won, Tom, but it was tainted. Tainted as hell.
Best Players Who Never Won
This is an easy one.
The guy who’s spent more time in the game than any other player ever. And only made it to one final Tribal Council. That just doesn’t seem right.
If you don’t take Tina to the end, Colby, you win. No doubt.
I loved everything about her. Everything. She was one of the smartest players in this game but just found herself on the wrong side of an alliance.
A wretched human being, no question. But Russell went to back-to-back final tribal councils. That’s not an easy feat. I can understand losing Heroes vs. Villains, but he deserved Samoa. Still, he’s a soulless husk of a human.
Remember her? Her entire tribe got eliminated during her first game (Palau), then she made it all the way to the end of Guatemala as a runner-up. She wasn’t really there in her third game (Heroes vs. Villains), but Stephenie was an impressive player.