Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Elizabeth Olson on how the show was costly to her marriage
"Survivor became a huge strain on my marriage," Elizabeth tells EW. "It’s taken years to work through that."
With season 41 of Survivor delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show's past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they've been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.
There is no off switch. While the game of Survivor ends once you are voted out, quit, medically evacuated, or judged by a jury of your peers, turning the game off in your brain can take considerably longer. Plus, not only do contestants have that crazy, remarkable, once in a lifetime experience out on the island, but then it all plays back on TV a few months later — in effect, re-tethering the cast to that experience (and each other) all over again.
Throughout our Quarantine Questionnaires, many players have discussed the difficulties of returning to "normal" life after going through such an extraordinary encounter. "Being unable to let go of the game was not so great for my own mental health," said Jason Linden of Survivor: Island of the Idols of his post-game state. "I was still obsessed with the game, but at the same time immediately thrown back into fast-pace big-city living, while running a law practice. I had a lot of problems with getting my professional 'engine' started. It was worrisome at times, as it felt like my brain had been rewired that I was only able to make sense of Survivor."
Elaine Stott (also from Island of the Idols) is another who noted how her Survivor-obsessed brain impacted her daily life after she returned home. "Emotionally, it was very hard," Elaine told EW. "I found myself spending hours talking to my castmates every day, and not interacting with my family and friends at all. It was as though the people I had just shared this amazing experience with were more important than the loved ones I was playing for in the first place…. I think that the toll that Survivor takes on you lasts long after the cameras stop rolling."
Count Elizabeth Olson of Survivor: David vs. Goliath as another former player who struggled readjusting to life post-Survivor, and those struggles extended into her marriage. "Years later, I have entertained briefly that I regret it," says Elizabeth about appearing on the show. "Being on Survivor was costly to my marriage. Survivor became a huge strain on my marriage. I was obsessed in thought and time with Survivor for months on end after getting back. I dreamed about it. I talked about it constantly. I thought about it almost constantly. And lots of people recognized me."
The combo platter of obsessive attention to what happened on the island along with obsessive attention from strangers due to sudden fame has produced emotional whiplash for many former players, including Elizabeth. "My husband was incredibly supportive of my getting on the show," she notes. "However, my obsession afterward with the experience, along with the attention from friends and strangers really affected my husband. Obviously, my family is way more important that an experience, way more important than a game, way more important than a TV show. I failed in conveying that to my husband. It's taken years to work through that."
Thankfully, Elizabeth has plenty of fond memories from appearing on the series, including engineering the very first vote-out of the season, in which she was the one able to "draw first blood." Elizabeth can even now laugh about her scary spear-fishing mishap in which she had to be rescued by production out in open water after (mistakenly) believing her tribemates had abandoned her. If you want a Quarantine Questionnaire that is open and raw and honest, while also filled with amazing anecdotes and behind-the-scenes intel (including what the cast watched on TV while evacuated for the cyclone), then you've come to the right place, because Elizabeth Olson is about to deliver the goods.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
ELIZABETH OLSON: Since I was a kid, I committed to pursue my dreams and do whatever I can to make it happen. I believe that God births in us desires. I also believe that if you are passionate, and have a purpose-driven life, living and dreaming for not only yourself but putting the interest of others as a priority, somehow God will bring everything together — and somehow dreams often become reality.
I find myself yet again living out my dreams. The most recent development in my world is a crazy idea that began in my heart, as a very vague idea/passion. This idea began, rather foggily, when I was a spring chicken way in high school. I love the earth. I love the dirt. I love plants. I love food. I love people. I knew that somehow those passions could come together into something marvelous.
Many years later, I found myself on an island, stripped of everything comfortable. It was just me. Some savages. God. And earth. I was very much aware of the earth in a way that I never had been before. I became aware that we are completely depending on the earth. Would the sea have shells, crabs, fish, seaweed today, or a freaking octopus? What about the papaya tree? Anything for me? It felt so right. I know, it's crazy! Starving was awful! However ,relying solely on what the earth gave was magical. It wasn't a grocery store. Or my cupboard or fridge. And it felt right.
Fast forward to 2020. The timing was right to cement the foggy ideas. I created a business plan to launch a community garden. It was very ambitious, and I needed support and partners. I approached my church, hoping that they would jump on the idea, and merged several of my greatest passions — Jesus, growing food, and teaching. The proposal was unanimously agreed on.
So, I find myself directing a vegetable garden of nearly 40,000 square feet. My mission is to provide fresh and healthy vegetables to whoever needs them. Volunteers work together to accomplish all the tasks. Young kids (and adults too) are learning the ropes on how to plant, nurture, feed, water, guide, and support plant life. In caring for the dirt, it's giving back food. It really is magical to watch a kid freak out with excitement when she sees the plant that popped up from the seeds she planted a few days before. Once I saw a girl sprawled out in the dirt — face down. She told me the dirt was healing. I couldn't have said it better myself.
All three of my kids think that all moms go to Survivor. They also think that Jeff [Probst] is their best friend. My middle child, Abi, has had a huge fan crush on Kara since episode 1 of David vs Goliath. She wasn't even terribly disappointed when she watched me get voted out: "Well at least Kara is still in the game." Okay! I'm still working on forgiving Kara for being so awesome!
So yeah, that was a long story about what's happening now. I couldn't be more excited for where I'm at.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
I never ever thought that I would be confident going into any Tribal Council. It was a glorious and exhilarating feeling walking into Tribal that first time. I somehow knew I could trust my people. Jessica was going home. Lyrsa, my closest ally, was going to be saved. I was a part of a majority alliance. In fact, I orchestrated that vote and blindside. Here I was, not just dreaming about playing the game. I was freaking playing it. And I had my hand in the right pots at the right time.
Foundations for that vote were laid from day one. Nick approached me — I was busy digging a community poop hole (apparently I was the only one that ever used it) — and he wanted an alliance. I was super enthusiastic, I had a genuine connection with Nick. But I was very nervous. I knew people would assume that we could be close, solely because of our Kentucky roots. So I told Nick that we needed to never be seen alone together. I promised if I heard his name, I would tell him.
Christian and I had a great connection out the gate as well. I really wanted to play the game with someone that knew the game better than I did. I am a huge fan, but I don't remember every move, every idol play, every alliance, every foiled plan. And that information comes in handy when your brain is fried. Plus, Christian is just an amazing human being. The thought of playing 38 days with him sounded fantastic.
I also had the most random connection imaginable. I'm pretty sure production never assumed that Lyrsa and I would hit it off from moment one. It was obvious to me that she was fiercely loyal. Brutally honest. Unapologetically herself. It was instant. And in those ways, we were cut from the same cloth. I found my ride or die. I told her we should each pick a final four buddy, giving us both equal buy in. She was also a hard worker and I admired her a lot for that.
I had multiple one-on-one conversations with everyone. Lyrsa made our friendship/alliance more obvious than I was comfortable with. So I was always quick to throw out her name as one of a few names that I would bring up. People were surprised that I was bringing her name up. But I earned their trust.
I heard lots of talk about voting out Nick. I told Nick. I heard lots of talk about voting out Lyrsa. I told Lyrsa. But I still didn't really have numbers to do anything about saving Lyrsa. That's when the magic started happening. The stars aligned. After we got back from losing the challenge, Gabby was freaking out. She mistakenly thought she overheard Bi and Jessica saying that they wanted to vote her out. Gabby was genuinely afraid. Fear is arguably the most effective tool in persuading voters. I jumped all over that fear. In fact, I was belligerent. I wouldn't leave the shelter until Gabby came with me.
Gabby was just glad I had the numbers to get any vote together that wasn't her. Christian was very enthusiastic about voting Jessica out. Lyrsa was clearly going to vote for Jessica. I just needed my buddy Nick. I didn't want to be the one to talk to him. I wanted Christian to pull Nick in on the vote. When Christian came back later to tell me that he for sure had Nick, I knew the plan was on. Thank God there wasn't enough time to scramble to another plan.
Walking into that first Tribal was surreal. The set was mind blowing. I could hardly believe that they built that thing for me to come into and draw first blood. I was pumped. I was actually trying to hide how elated I was.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
After the Jessica blindside, I let Nick and Christian repair the bridges with Davie and Carl. I didn't actively work towards reconnecting or explaining my thinking to either of them. Obviously, they took it personal, and never really trusted me again. I'm quite sure, thinking back now, that is when Carl decided to hate me in the game. I voted out Jessica, whom he looked at as a daughter.
Secondly, I trusted Alec at the merge, or at least kinda trusted him. I think I misread him. He looked me in the eye at one point and asked me if I had ever talked about voting him out. I honestly had forgotten that I had mentioned his name to Kara on Vuku. Probably because it was not an honest consideration. I also had mentioned throwing a challenge to Carl and Davie. We freaking had the numbers. Just made sense to me. But I wanted to vote out Kara. (They didn't want to throw the challenge or vote out Kara.) I then said I'd obviously be willing to vote out Alec. I'm sure that got back to Alec. He thought I was lying about never mentioning voting him out. I had honestly promised him final four. I don't think he took that seriously. Bummer for him. Bummer for me.
Also at the merge, I was trying to connect to as many Goliaths as possible in hopes of gaining some genuine fondness and relationship. I had confidence that the Davids were gonna be willing to stick together if we could just pull one over. That confidence really bit me in the butt. For one, I didn't reconnect with Nick one on one, I didn't talk with Davie, or Carl one on one either. Two, that confidence blinded me to the fact that I should have immediately campaigned to the Goliaths to vote out Carl, or Davie.
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
It's been mentioned by many of my Davids in previous media, but its worth bringing up again. I was ridiculously surprised that the first of my explosive moments didn't make it on the show. And I'm eternally grateful that it didn't make it on episode 3.
The day after the Jessica blindside, Davie, Bi, Nick and I took the raft out to the coral drop off to do some extensive fishing with the spear. I had managed to create an anchor with a perfectly shaped heavy rock and tied with some of the rope that we won in the first challenge.
I started spear fishing. And went until I was utterly exhausted, guessing around 15 minutes or more. When I decided to head back to the raft, it was nowhere in sight. I made it very clear to my tribemates that I could barely swim. I immediately, and incorrectly, assumed that they purposely left me out there. Clearly, I was not amused. In fact, I was furious.
Unknowingly, the rope holding the anchor had been severed by the rocking motion against the coral. They raft proceeded to float with the tide several hundred yards down the beach. Everyone on the raft thought I was the one leaving them. Because of my exhaustion and anger, I began panicking. I actually ended up needing to be rescued by production in the open water. They dragged me closer to shore and the raft.
Eventually. I see Davie walking towards me with my shoes. I begin screaming, yelling one profanity after the other. I was furious that they left me to drown. Apparently, Davie lost rock, paper, scissors and had to bring me my shoes. Looking back, I think we all laugh about it. We were all extremely surprised that it didn't air, 'cause it sure as heck was entertaining.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I think it was a very generous edit. My true personality showed, America got to see the real me. Couldn't complain in the least.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
The shock began immediately. Getting on the boat to head to Ponderosa they handed me a menu. I was immediately upset. I didn't want to be eating. I wanted to be starving. I was expecting to make it 39 days. The sight of a menu was devastating, primarily because it reminded me that my kids and husband were probably looking at a menu. In fact, it was the first time I lingered on thoughts of my family since flying out.
Adjusting to the thought of a dream crashing was difficult to surrender too. It was a dream long in the works. I didn't know how to live with a new reality that my complete belief of knowing I would win Survivor was crushed. Before Survivor, that belief consumed a portion of my daily thoughts and "purpose in life."
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Not during the game. Not soon after the game. But years later, I have entertained briefly that I regret it. Being on Survivor was costly to my marriage. Survivor became a huge strain on my marriage. I was obsessed in thought and time with Survivor for months on end after getting back. I dreamed about it. I talked about it constantly. I thought about it almost constantly. And lots of people recognized me.
My husband was incredibly supportive of my getting on the show. However, my obsession afterward with the experience, along with the attention from friends and strangers really affected my husband. Obviously, my family is way more important that an experience, way more important than a game, way more important than a TV show. I failed in conveying that to my husband. It's taken years to work through that.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
Definitely Gabby. I had some fantastic conversations in the game. I would always bring up controversial topics… yeah, I don't recommend that to any future players. For me though, I took advantage of being stuck on an island with people that were nothing like me. I wanted to know and understand differences. I wanted to appreciate everyone, and their views. It was an incredible experience and radically changed my view of humanity. We bonded over that genuineness on the island. And it grew exponentially more on Ponderosa.
I also talk and text with Lyrsa. Talk and text with Nick occasionally. Text regularly with Davie. Talk with Carl regularly… yeah, we don't hate each other. We are mature adults. I also keep in touch with Alec and Kara. I've texted almost everyone a couple times a year. I really love people. And I left a piece of my heart with each person on my season, or at least the ones I was privileged to play the game with.
Do you still watch Survivor, and, if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I'm a lifelong lover of Survivor. I enjoy the psychology behind the game. I love studying people. I love strategy. I love the adventure of being stranded on an island. This show is in my blood and touches every aspect of my life that I care about.
Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance (31) is my favorite season. The gameplay was out of this world. It transformed the game almost as much as Richard Hatch and Russell Hantz. (BTW, the Vuku tribe watched that season during our evacuation from the cyclone.)
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
I wanted to play with anybody that was crazy annoying — like Phillip Sheppard, Dan Foley, or anyone similar. I'll take crazy, especially if they were predictable. Why? Free million dollars baby! I remember in final casting I begged Jeff to find a new Phillip Sheppard for my season.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Final four fire-making challenge. Forces you to vote out the dynamic players sooner. As a viewer, that sucks. As a player, it exposes you.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
I would consider it heavily. My kids are older, they need me more now than they did three years ago. Plus, I am passionate about my farm. Of course, there's also the non-profit garden ministry that I am managing. If the timing was right. I'd jump on it. Realistically I'm not expecting Jeff to call. They tend to invite players back that their story arc was incomplete, or ones that were extremely memorable to the fans. From a production perspective, I don't think either of those criteria would be met. If they needed a redneck, or a mom, or a loyal player to make a season more rounded I suppose they might call me. I've got more game left in me though. I think I'd bring more to the table round No. 2.