Timothy Kuratek/CBS

Natalie Anderson opens up about medical issues that delayed her Survivor return

"Doctors told me I would never be back to being myself," reveals the San Juan del Sur champ.
February 10, 2020

It wasn’t supposed to take this long. Natalie Anderson won season 29 of Survivor (San Juan del Sur) with a late surge that separated her from the pack. Natalie showcased an impressive array of physical and social skills mixed with a tongue that could lash it out when she wanted (just ask John Rocker). It’s also the reason why she was cast on two seasons of The Amazing Race with twin sister Nadiya before heading out on the island.

It seemed only a matter of time before Natalie returned, and indeed she was supposed to do exactly that for season 34 (Game Changers). She was two days away from flying to Fiji… and then the doctors stepped in. Natalie had suffered a debilitating concussion that wreaked havoc on her life. She had hoped the symptoms would abate by the time filming began. They did not, and she had to pull out of the game just days before it began. Even worse, the reality TV champ feared permanent damage. “Doctors told me I would never be back to being myself,” reveals the San Juan del Sur champ.

But Natale is back. Back to being herself and back on Survivor. It took 18 months of rest, recuperation, and medical treatment, but the New Jersey CrossFit fiend is back and operating at “110 percent” for her belated Survivor return on Winners at War (premiering Wednesday on CBS). We sat down with Natalie in Fiji right before filming, and she talked about her long and painful road back to the island.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I am sitting here with the winner of Survivor: San Juan del Sur, Natalie Anderson.
NATALIE ANDERSON: Wassup, wassup?

You’re back!
Yes, finally.

You almost came back before, didn’t you?
I know, letting the fans down. Sierra was my backup [for Game Changers], but I got injured. It sucked, but that’s part of who I am. I’m crazy and reckless. But this season, as soon as they casted me, I was really careful to not get wrecked in any way. I’m here, so I’m excited!

How hard was that, Natalie? You’re coming back to play this game in season 34, and I know you wanted to do it, and then your body was just not willing and able.
It was weird because I went through the whole casting process, and I had all these visions about how I would play, and I thought I was really set up pretty nicely with the tribes and how they ended up being cast. There was some big players that I could have used in my defense, but it is what it is. It is life and everything happens for a reason, so maybe this was supposed to be my second time playing and not my third. But it did suck.

How jealous is Nadiya that you’re here?
Nadiya’s not jealous at all! She’s busy raising her baby. Nadiya had her baby — she’s, like, 3 months old — so hopefully when I make it and if we have family visits, baby Trinity and Nadiya can come hang out with me on the beach for a couple of hours.

We just got the Nadiya update, now let’s get the Natalie update. It’s been more than five years since you were last on Survivor. Tell everyone what you’ve been up to.
So after Survivor, I finished my prerequisites, I got into a graduate program for athletic training. I’ve always wanted to do something that’s sports science. Unfortunately, while I was in my masters program, I had this crazy concussion and, thank God for the Survivor money, I was able to dedicate a full year-and-a-half to recovering. For me, there’s no greater value in being happy and healthy. Everybody always asks me, “What’s the one thing you splurged on?” and I didn’t buy anything extravagant with my Survivor money. But I did pay a lot of money to get healthy and basically take off work, take off life, and use my money to let my brain heal. It took me a year and a half and I’m stronger and better now, so it’s awesome to be 110 percent.

After that, I went back to coaching CrossFit and I basically coach CrossFit full-time now. I coach at two gyms and so I always say, “Two fake jobs equals one real job”, right? So, I’ve been CrossFitting, coaching and working out, basically.

It’s great to see you so happy. I know that the struggles you’ve gone through and you and I have spoken about it a lot over the years. It’s so nice to see that spending that time and money on yourself really worked out and paid dividends.
Yeah, I’m really lucky to be able to do that. I know a lot of people that go through some injuries, they don’t have the financial situation to basically take off and be like, “I’m putting myself first and my health first.  So, it was awesome to be able to do that. I think coming back here and being stronger and more mentally stealth this time is proof that I’m 110 percent. And doctors told me I would never be back to being myself. The fact that I feel stronger and mentally stronger now speaks volumes to my own determination and my mental grip to never give up on something. Hopefully, I can translate that into the game.

Why come back and do the game? Why come back five and a half years later?
I would never be able to say no to Survivor. Doesn’t matter what situation I’m in. Last time, the doctors made the call for me not to play. I didn’t make the call, and if it was up to me, I would have played. But I was happy letting doctors make the call on me playing or not playing. Season 40 is so epic, the fact that it’s all winners and to be in an all-female tribe, I am all about the girl power and so I just want to be able to kick ass with these chicks at the start. Make sure that a boy gets voted off first because in my season it was a chick.

On most seasons it’s a chick for no reason. This last season Reem got voted off and she was way stronger than half those idiots, especially Keith! And Keith was like, “They said they were voting off the weakest player.” No, hello, Keith is the weakest player, vote him off. This goes on every freaking season of Survivor, so I just hope we can stick it to them, we can stick together, and show them that the force is female.

After being so close, were you able to watch Game Changers or not? I had your bio!
Pictures and everything.

You were ready to go and at the last second, the rug got pulled out from under you. Were you able to watch that season and enjoy it, or was it difficult?
It was hard at the start. At the start I was kind of boycotting it, and then I was like, “You know, it’s not Sierra’s fault. It’s nobody’s fault but my own.” And so I ended up watching it and I was actually really happy with the way the game went. I felt like a lot of players got taken out early that would have been super fun to watch, but you can never predict that on Survivor. I didn’t mind Sarah winning, but at the same time, I felt like it would have been a perfect platform for me and my kind of game. It was bittersweet, but I’ve let it go.

How have you changed as a person? What you’re bringing in emotionally and intellectually and personally to the game that might be different from 11 seasons ago?
I think that I’ve gone through so much in these last three years. I’ve had knee surgery, I had this concussion, and then I had this crazy burn to my face. And so the one thing I keep telling myself is, “Bad things come in threes, so maybe it’s time for some good luck?” One thing I would say is that it’s proven — I knew I was strong, I knew I was mentally strong — but going through what I went thought this year, I feel like it all is for a reason. All my suffering, all my sad days. I always say this, like the last time I cried, I cried during the concussion, and before that I cried during Survivor. So, for me, tears don’t come easily. But I feel like I’ve grown a lot. I’ve become more mentally sound and I’m really aware of how much I’m able to do if I commit myself to it. That goes a long way on the game of Survivor.

You’re sitting here with nine other women. You know who they are, and you probably have your own guesses as to who else may be here. Who do you want to work with? Who are some people that either you’re friendly with outside the game and you want to bring that into the game, or you’ve seen how they play and you think you can work well with them?
I’m not one of these Survivor players that hangs out with other Survivor players. I don’t have a lot of connections outside the game. The only person I’m hoping that’s here is Jeremy, because he’s the only guy that I would have played with because nobody else from my season is a winner, obviously, beside us two. I don’t hang out with anybody outside the game. I don’t go to fundraisers, I don’t go to rallies, I don’t go to social outings. And so I’m nervous that that could maybe be a bad thing ’cause a lot of people are really social. I don’t have any outside connections. Obviously, I would work with Jeremy because that’s one of the outside connections I’ve had and it’s a real relationship. It wasn’t formed on some bulls—, like, “Hey, we’re going to be on this game together, let’s work together.”

I think that from the chicks, I would love to work with girls that, from my perception from the games that I’ve watched them play, I think that I would love to work with Sarah and Sandra. Sandra, because she’s crazy and that she would be an awesome shield for me. The other women, it’s really intimidating, because watching them play… We’re all a bunch of badasses, in Drew’s words. I think as long as we can not let that get in the way and at the start just focus on being together. I don’t know, I’m excited to work with Par, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to work with her but also kind of nervous because of her gameplay.

This game has evolved so quickly. Even in the last few seasons there have been such new elements, like they did Edge of Extinction and other twists along the way. Have you been keeping up to speed with that, and are you worried at all that some of this stuff wasn’t a part of the game when you played? At least not as much.
It’s crazy, all the new twists. I like the twists, because it gives a player like me room to maneuver as we go along, and I think I’m really good on the fly. So if somebody came in with this huge strategy, and then CBS threw this crazy twist in the game, some people might get frazzled. And for me, I’m just like, “Yeah, let’s go with it.” I think that would be in my best interests. Even on my season, when they introduced that weird duel and we went to Exile. For me, I was like, “Cool, I volunteer to go to Exile,” I gave up reward. So for me, I can roll with the punches as long as they always keep the true integrity of the social game intact, that’s good. I like the twists, so hopefully there is something crazy, but not too crazy this season.

You’ve only dropped a few S-bombs. Last time I spoke to you and your sister out on location, you dropped six per sentence. Do you guys curse more when you’re together? Is it an amplified effect?
I think I curse more when I’m with Nadiya, but also I applied to be a police officer in my hometown of Connecticut and there was so much social media, I got all the way to the chief interview, and then they had found all this social media of me and I look like a bloody pirate. So they were like, “Yeah, okay, maybe not.” And then when I applied to graduate school, I thought about my cursing, and at the end of the day, I think females, we get a bad rep — because if a dude police officer was cursing, they would never judge him for being a potty mouth. But as a girl, it’s the society we live in, so maybe I’ve just become a little bit more tame. Also, when I’m coaching CrossFit, technically I have to do burpees and so I try not to curse then, too.

What’s your favorite curse word?
Obviously, f—.

You like that? Just simple, classic.
Yeah. You can use it all the time.

Any variations on that you like?
No, I’m very classic with that, that’s all I do. That and obviously the other stuff, but f— is my favorite.

How do you think other players see you? When they size you up, what do you think they see in you?
I think that if people were judging me on my season, I think that I would be an attractive person to work with because I was so loyal to my alliance until they obviously f—ed me over. There you go! And they saw that I was loyal to Jeremy even though he was voted out and that I was doing things in his name and in Nadiya’s name. I think they are obviously going to know that I’m a physical threat because I can’t hide my muscles, obviously. Especially with the chick’s tribe, I feel like I’m going to be the muscle of the tribe and so I feel like they are going to see me as a physical asset to the tribe. I hope that they don’t use that against me because they could be intimidated by that. But, at the same time, they are going to hopefully try and use me in challenges at the start. And then they know I was obviously feisty if you’ve watched me curse out John Rocker. You know that I’m not a meek player and I was aggressive and crazy and all over the place.

I think you were speaking for all of America when you cursed out John Rocker.
Yes, 100 percent.

What’s your biggest weakness in this game? What’s your blind spot?
My biggest weakness would be puzzles and memory challenges. This is pre-concussion. It was always an issue. And then I think my blind spot, I feel like I could get lulled into this comfort zone if I were to try and protect somebody as much as I tried to protect Nadiya. But Nadiya not being in the game, that’s always an asset to me. I kind of got blindsided because I was so loyal to Jeremy, I didn’t see the rest of my quote-unquote alliance doing this shady move behind our backs because I was so steadfast in our alliance and so loyal. I just need to make sure that even though I’m loyal, I still have my third eye open.

You had very interesting circumstances the last time you played because you’d been on The Amazing Race with your sister, you weren’t really a fan of the show, you didn’t know the show at the time, and you were coming in with your sister in the Blood vs. Water twist. Now you’re coming back as a winner, totally different. Are you more nervous, less nervous, about the same?
I think I’m more nervous. I came in with Nadiya with zero expectations. I was like, “Here we go.” Amazing Race, I got all the way one time, all the way to the end, the second time I got voted off first. So I was like, “Eh, whatever.” At that point, I’d experienced the high of the high and then the low of the low of getting kicked off first on Amazing Race. So when Nadiya and I came in, it was just like, “Let’s go for this adventure. It is what it is. What happens, happens.” And so, it ended up being an awesome experience, obviously. For me, I have zero regrets about my game or how it went and I didn’t put any pressure on myself, which was awesome coming in.

This time there’s a lot of pressure. I think that everybody is going to be putting pressure on themselves because we are all winners. But at the same time, some people have already lost in Survivor, so I feel like that kind of takes off some of the pressure. I’ve never got a single vote written against me, my entire game, until the end, obviously, to win. Once my name gets written down and I don’t get voted off and it happens, I think I’ll just be able to breathe and then just play. But I am way more nervous this time.

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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