Ethan Zohn on how 'I didn't feel I'd be alive long enough to play Survivor again'

'They probably thought I was dead,' says the two-time cancer survivor about his return.

Now, Ethan is ready to go from kicking cancer's ass to kicking ass back out on the island as he returns for Survivor's epic season 40 battle royale, Winners at War. The fact that Ethan is even able to show up and play is a win for both the man and the entire Survivor community who have watched him help raise millions of dollars for the charitable causes like Grassroot Soccer and Stand Up to Cancer, but Ethan is far from satisfied by just showing up. He wants to win…again.

EW sat down and spoke with Ethan out in Fiji the day before Survivor: Winners at War (which premieres Feb. 12 on CBS) began filming to talk about his emotional return to the island, how he prepared like a rookie, his biggest advantage heading into the game, and hoping others don't "weaponize my cancer and use it against me."

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Okay, Ethan. It's been a long time since we've seen you on Survivor. Survivor: All-Stars, season 8, was last time you were on, so 16 years ago. Just give everyone the update as to what you've been up to, because obviously some pretty recent great news in your life.
ETHAN ZOHN: The greatest news on the planet is that I'm a newlywed. I found the love of my life and got married to the wonderful Lisa Heywood, who's an interior designer. We met in New York City and recently packed it in and moved to the middle of the woods in New Hampshire.

That's amazing. It's been so long since you played and you were a completely different person then. And you've been through so much. We know about all the medical difficulties that you've been through, you just talked about the fact that you're married now, got a little gray in your hair. How have you changed as a person and how does that change who you are in the game?
Well, it's funny because I wanted to go back and watch myself again. So I went back and watched Survivor: Africa. I was 27 years old. I hadn't watched the show since it aired on TV, and there was always people around so I didn't focus on it. So I went back and I almost didn't recognize that kid. I was like, "You have no idea what's about to happen in your life." And I was so kind of shy, reserved, innocent and polite. And I thought I had gotten so far away from that and I was a completely different person, but I'm not. At my core, I feel I'm still like a nice guy, I'm compassionate, I'm loyal, I'm empathetic, and so I was happy to see that I haven't changed that much. Obviously, things around me have changed and I've been through some health challenges, like you said, but part of the reason I'm here is like, I want to like tap into that 27-year-old kid who just said yes to this crazy adventure and just crush this experience out here.

This is epic. There was a time where I didn't feel I'd be alive long enough to be able to play Survivor again. Obviously, I knew that an all-winners season might've been around at some point. So I was watching Heroes vs. Villains in my hospital room getting my second stem cell transplant praying, dreaming that I'd stay alive or I'd be healthy enough to come play again, and I'm here.

It's amazing. As someone who visited you in the hospital when you were there and knows all the good will for you in the Survivor community because of what a great guy you are and everything you've been through, I can't help but wonder: Does that hurt you in the game? Do you think there could be an element of "Whoa, I can't sit next to Ethan at the end"? Does all that help you or hurt you?
Well, I like to think it helps me, but I see where you're going with this. In my mind, Survivor is a game of relationships, and if you can connect with people and be comfortable around people, I think they just want to hang out with you, they want to be around you. One of my advantages here is that I don't think anyone thought I was going to be here. They probably thought I was dead. It was like I walked around the corner and they were like, "Holy crap, Ethan is alive?"

So I don't think anyone either thought I was here, they probably didn't research me, and they don't know how I'm going to play. I played at a time where there was no hidden immunities, no clues, no ways to get back in the game, no blindsides. Right?

So they're like, how is this kid going to play? And if they do know how I'm going to play, they're going to think, "Ah, he's a likable, he's a nice guy, he's loyal, he's trusting," but I'm not.

Well, is there a learning curve for you then? Because you just said you re-watched Africa. It's like a glacial pace then compared to now, you know what I mean?
It's slow TV. People are saying, "It's going to be like a bicycle." And I'm like, it's probably not going to like going from a bicycle to a Harley Davidson filled with rocket fuel. Probst gave a little announcement to everyone. He's like, "This game is different from all your people who are from the old school era." So I think it's an advantage that people aren't going to know how I play. And the people who say I have a good story, like, "Come on, dude. Are you going to use my cancer against me? I would gladly trade my good story for any of your good stories. I would give you $1 million to trade places with you so you can have my good story. So f— your good stories and let's play. I'm here, we're all winners, I'm 45 years old, I'm ready, I'm unstoppable, let's go! Stop living in the past, right?" So I don't think it's fair to weaponize my cancer and use it against me.

I know how much you love this game and how important it is to you. How important is it to you also to use this — as you've done so successfully since you were first on the show — as a platform? Because you really are the premiere person that people think about in terms of using the Survivor experience for good, because of everything you have done to give back with Grassroot Soccer. So how important is that to you and how much does that factor into you being here in season 40?
It factors in definitely. To put things into perspective, Survivor: Africa was when we had the idea for a Grassroot Soccer, we're using soccer to teach kids life lessons. Survivor: All-Stars had a thousand kids through the program. Now in 2020, 2.2 million kids have graduated from Grassroot Soccer. So you're talking about how Survivor has changed lives. Not only did it change my life in a crazy way, it's changed so many kids' lives all over the world, we're in 50 countries now.

So I definitely think about that. I will be wearing a Grassroot Soccer shirt again, of course. And then, because you asked me about the whole cancer thing, the whole reason Survivor's Stand Up To Cancer exists is because of myself and, unfortunately, Jenn Lyon, who passed away, and Jeff. CBS was nice enough to say, "All right, let's auction off all the props and donate that to Stand Up To Cancer." So I think about that, but it's not my first priority on being here. I'm here to play. This is going to be an incredible epic experience.

But there's a way you can be a winner in this experience without being a winner. I know you want to win, but just by being here with everything personally you've been through and everything that you are — the good that you're doing for other people transcends this experience.
Definitely. Yeah, you wrapped that up pretty nicely. This, for me, just sitting here across from you pre-game is an absolute miracle. I shouldn't be alive right now. So anything that happens after this moment or after day 1…. Sorry, you're pretty awesome, but I'd like to make it to day 1. I don't want to die today before the game starts tomorrow.

But yeah, it's pretty awesome. It's like anything is icing on the cake. It's a perfect bookend to this crazy life of Survivor that I've lived, and at season 40 there's kind of nothing better. So I'm happy, I'm a little spiritual right now. Obviously I want to win and I've prepared. Dalton, I have prepared like a rookie, because I'm watching all these shows and like, I don't know what's going on. I'm the oldest guy here, 45 years old, and I'm the oldest male player here. That says something, when I played Africa I was 27.

So my wife and I, we moved to a warmer climate. I was walking barefoot to get calluses on my feet. She was hiding idols in the forest. I was swimming, I was doing balancing drills, I was meditating, I was doing puzzles, I was running, lifting weights, I was untying and tying knots. Taking free-diving classes so I can hold my breath. Everything I could possibly do to get in the mindset to be here, and this has been for the last 90 days of my life.

So I've prepared and I've tried to like control everything that I feel I can control. On the flip side, I have no idea how to play an idol. I don't know what the f— a blindside is. I've never been in these fast paced games, so I think part of my strategy is I need to find someone in the new school era who can help guide me a little bit. But I am an old school guy. I feel that an old school player's going to win this thing. I feel that like the old school values of trust and loyalty can be applied to this new era. That could just be the old man in me kind of hoping for the best because that's just my game, but I really think there's a place for it.

It's interesting because in Game Changers there were a lot of old school players, and that became a theme early on. There was a divide: There was the old school group and there was the new school, and it's interesting to hear you say that you think those old school values can win the day while also saying you need to find someone from the new school to sort of help each other and marry those concepts.
Yeah, I look at the way Adam played. He played kind of an old school game. He had a loyal relationship. Parvati, she played with one person all the times she's played. She was loyal to Russell in the second time, she was loyal to Amanda. So those are old school values in the new school game. You have to have one or two ride or dies. So like that's my Lex and Tom.

You mentioned Adam. Is Adam the guy that you want to work with or is there someone else?
I thought about it and he was probably like 10 years old when I was on. You can imagine like, "Oh there's another Jewish guy on the show I can identify with." He lost his mom to cancer, he's a compassionate guy he plays with his heart. That's someone I can identify with. Does that have value when you got the Robs and the Tysons and the Wendells out there? I don't know.

How much do you know these people, because obviously you and Rob have played together, but in terms of all these new players, have you met these people before through anything?
I've been off the radar in a good way. I don't go to any of the events, I haven't met a new winner in the past 10 years maybe. I look at them on social media, I watch all the shows, but yeah, I know Rob.

You have no connections to the others.
No connections. I am hoping some old school women show up — like, maybe Tina is here or Parvati or Sandra. I've met them. So maybe you can make that bond quickly, but I don't know.

And that could always end up helping or hurting you. How do you think others see you? Not how do you see yourself, but as you make your impressions of them, what do you think their impression of Ethan is?
I'm hoping that when I showed up, no one's really saying like, "Oh my God, Ethan's a huge threat we got to get that guy off." That's what I'm hoping. When you see some of the other faces walking around where they are big threats, and my value is that I don't think anyone knows how I'm going to play. Everyone else has played more recently, their strategy has been outed. If you're manipulative or you're untrustworthy or if you're big on blindsides, if you find tons of idols, people know that.

People don't know how I played, and they don't know how I play with this new era of the game. So I think that's going to be an advantage, and if they do know something about me, like I said, it's like, "He's a nice guy." And they can probably see a way to work with me because probably just through the philanthropy that you're talking about and my public image at this all they know of me is like, I'm a nice trusting, compassionate guy, and maybe you want to be around that type of person. [Pauses] You're like, "Yeah, right."

Well, it's just a the question of if they're thinking "This is a guy I can trust and work with," or is it, "This is a guy I can take advantage of."
I'm fine with that. Let them take advantage of me.

Or letting them think they're taking advantage of you.
Yeah, let them think they're taking advantage of me. I'm okay with that. You know me well enough. I'm not the A type personality, the guy who's going to stand up and bark orders. I'm the guy behind the guy, that's my role. That's where I feel comfortable and safe. I'm help around the camp, I win challenges, I'm supportive of everyone, I help make decisions, but I'm not the face. I don't need a résumé. I don't need blindsides, I don't need to embarrass people, that's not my style. I'm good just siting behind.

Does it still sting that you went into Survivor: All-Stars with basically no chance because everyone wanted to get the winners out immediately. Does that still stick in your craw at all?
A little bit. I think it was too early for an All-Stars, and, like you said, we were a target from day 1. Everyone's strategy at that time was you can't let a winner win again. So it was an uphill battle. I could never really get anything going. Never really had the opportunity to develop a strategy because no one wanted to work with me because they just knew that I was going to get voted out. So it was a little bit sour on that stuff, but it is what it is. I lasted the longest of all the winners, so that's kind of something.

It's always fun being with the old school players again and getting that nostalgic rush of reconnecting, but I have to say, Ethan, just sitting here with you out here again in this environment, with everything that you've been through, and all the discussions you and I have had over the years — to be out here doing this with you… I don't get emotional, right? But I'm actually getting, like, slightly emotional.
Okay, just a little bit.

For me, that's a huge thing. It's very cool to see you out here. I can't wait to see you back in the game, and I am really excited for you.
Thanks, man. I'm happy to be here and it's an honor to be here.

Don't mess it up.

For more Survivor articles, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss, and for exclusive season 40 photos and video, follow Dalton on Instagram @thedaltonross.

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