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[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched the finale of Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers.]
All hope looked lost. That was the situation for Ben Driebergen. The former Marine had repeatedly saved himself in Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers by dropping Bon bombs all over the Tribal Council set in the form of hidden immunity idols, but once there were no idols left to play and he lost the last challenge due to an upside-down U, it seemed over. There was no way Chrissy, Ryan, and Devon would not vote out the game’s most dangerous player.
But then a new final four twist forced a fire-making challenge and gave Ben a second chance, and he didn’t waste it — defeating Devon and then winning the jury vote over Chrissy and Ryan to take home the check for $1 million and the title of Sole Survivor.
How confident was Ben that the jury would reward him with the win, and what does he make of the controversial twist that got him to the end? We asked the season 35 champ all that and more right after his dramatic and emotional victory.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, did you know you had won when you made the final 3?
BEN DRIEBERGEN: No, not at all. Chrissy with her four immunity wins and being the only woman left in the game, she had a very good case to win. And honestly, Ryan did really good at final Tribal. He’s a good talker, we’ve all seen that. I was really scared. I didn’t ever think I had it in the bag. Never. Ever.
What about when you walked out of Tribal after it was all over?
Negative. Not at all. It’s such a scary feeling with the stress that has happened since May. No one in their right mind would be like, “Oh, I definitely won it.” You don’t want to believe that you’re going to win and then not win. Some days I’d be like, “Oh, well, I think I may have gotten enough votes to maybe win.” And then you’d hear something or see something or get a text message from somebody. I think some of the jury was still playing the game after the game ended too! So there was no way to feel confident and comfortable, ever. Even when the votes were getting read, it was Ryan, me, and Chrissy — 1-1-1, and then Chrissy got another one and I thought she was going to run it at that point.
You think you’re done when you lose the last challenge, it’s over — and then what is your reaction when you are sitting there at Tribal and hear about the fire-making twist?
Oh my God, are you kidding me with that?!? I didn’t want to give up. I was looking for idols at the final four, just because the game was crazy. I was never going to give up. But I didn’t find a clue and I didn’t find an idol and it was time to go to Tribal. They were so adamant about getting me out that I knew I was going home, and when she said she gets to take one person and the other two have to battle it out in fire, I knew she was taking Ryan. And it was my chance to get back in the game and Devon is an awesome guy and I wouldn’t want to go head to head against anyone else. I’m glad we did that together.
A lot of people are weighing in on the new twist. Some people loved it and others are screaming that it was unfair. What do you think about folks saying it’s unfair that they changed the rules like that?
Well, going into the season we had no clue that there was going to be a fire-making challenge. There was never any talk of it, there was never a what-if or anything like that, so it was fair across the board for everybody, because you couldn’t take that into your strategic game or your strategic endgame. Survivor, Jeff — they threw that on us as you guys saw it. And I think it brings a new element onto the game. There are people taking goats, and at final four traditionally some of the big time players at four and five start going out and it’s just because they’re outside of the numbers like this season with me. I was your typical sixth, fifth, fourth boot and just couldn’t do it, so I think it creates more dramatic, tense situations for the show by having that fire.
How tough would have been to lose a million dollars thanks to an upside-down U?
[Laughs] That was heartbreaking. I had it. I had it and thought I put all the letters straight up and down the way they were going to go, and I made one simple mistake. That hurt. That was a kick in the groin area and I knew I was done. I shed some tears out looking at the ocean and was like, well, now you got to show that you’re a good sport and you’re going to lose with grace — but you’re not going to give up either.
Let’s play a game of Survivor What If? Let’s say Devon beats you in the fire-making challenge and puts you on the jury. Who do you vote for among Chrissy, Ryan, and Devon?
It would have to come down to who could own the Ryan-Devon feud that would eventually have erupted at final Tribal. But then you look at Chrissy, and I think the problem with Chrissy was that while we all made mistakes and played personal this year, I think she just kind of rubbed people the wrong way. She’s playing the game though. We all screwed up. We were all mean and let things get taken a little too far, but that is the game. You get so trapped inside the game. If Joe says something about the Marines I should be able to just push it aside. But as a game move you have to respect what Joe did: He was on the bottom, he took a swing, and he connected and I blew up. So as a player, I respect Joe for that move.
I thought that was a great moment where they brought out your old Marine buddies on stage during the live show. What’s it been like for you going through this and have you been hearing from other veterans out there who have been dealing with PTSD?
I’ve gotten a good response from military people and anybody that has been in a shooting. Some people from mass shootings have reached out to me and said thank you. Like my buddy said, if this can pull just one vet out of a bad spot, then it was worth it.
How difficult was that to talk about on TV?
I didn’t think they were going to show it. And there’s been so much encouragement from vets and everyone that you just have to step up and now this is my role. And if I can do this and help people out then 100 percent I’m on board.
What are you going to do with the money?
I’m going to put it away and figure out what the heck to do because this is more money than I’ve ever thought about. So we’re going to stash it away for three months and live our life and figure out how we can save instead of how we can spend it.
They’ve had winners come back to play again before. Would you come back and do this all over again?
Oh, yes. 100 percent. My wife Kelly has already given me the go-ahead to come back and play if I get the opportunity so I’m just waiting for that call.
Make sure to read our full Survivor finale recap as well as our interviews with runner-up Chrissy, finalist Ryan, fourth-place finisher Devon, and fifth-placer Dr. Mike. Also get some inside intel on NEXT season from Jeff Probst as well as Probst answering all the finale burning questions. And for tons more finale coverage, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.