By Dalton Ross
March 04, 2020 at 09:00 PM EST

Survivor

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Never underestimate the heart of a champion. That was the lesson learned on the latest episode of Survivor: Winners at War. The four residents of Edge of Extinction were given the challenge of climbing up and down a massive hill 20 times to retrieve 20 logs of wood to receive the reward of a Fire Token. What seemed like a simple task was anything but. All four players were driven to their absolute limit — none more so than Ethan Zohn, who passed out during the competition and was attended to by the Survivor medical department.

But if history has proven anything, it is that you can’t keep Ethan Zohn down. He smashed the competition in Survivor: Africa and then smashed cancer not once but twice. Ethan picked himself up and half-walked, half-crawled his way to finish the task, accompanied by his Edge-mates on his final walk up the mountain. It was an incredible sequence of events, and the latest inspirational moment from a man who has provided many of them over the past 19 years. We spoke to Ethan to get his thoughts on that brutal afternoon, almost being pulled from the game, and what happened next. (Also make sure to read our full episode recap as well as our other interview with Ethan about his brutal blindside from the Sele tribe.)

Robert Voets/CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You had 20 logs you had to bring down in that brutal Fire Token task. When did you start to feel faint in the process? When did it start to hit a level where you weren't just tired but realized it was something more dangerous?

ETHAN ZOHN: I think it was around 10 or 12. First of all, it's me and three women, and Natalie's a work horse. As are Amber and Danni. At first, I really thought I had this. This is no problem. Maybe I wouldn't be able to compete with Natalie, but she set a pace that was ridiculously fast and I was trying to keep up with her the whole way. And at first, I was in first place, then second place, then third place, then I was in fourth place, and then I started panicking. And then whether it was just dehydration, we hadn't eaten, it's piping hot — I hadn't necessarily put my body through that much physical activity. You don't understand going up this fricking side of the mountain. There was, I don't know, 80 stairs that were just death to go up and down.

I don't know if you've noticed, but I don't necessarily have the gluteus maximus that you need to deal with hundreds of stairs. I just have hamstrings, I have no ass. And so I don't know what it was. I've run marathons, I've done Eco Challenge, I've played Survivor, I've done 24-hour races, lifted weights, everything you could imagine. And for some reason, it just did not sit well with me, this challenge. And I got to a point where my depth perception got really weird. So it's wet and it's rocky and the rocks are sharp, and you're navigating around them. You go up and over and down through crevices, up the stairs. And so it's full body activity, and there got a point where I was lifting my leg up to put it over the rock, but then it was three inches short every time and my depth perception was off.

It got to a point where I literally could not focus and the doctors stepped in and they're like "You're looking a little bit wobbly and weak. What's going on here?" I wanted to keep going. They sat me down and when I sat down, that's when I think I passed out. So I sat down, and I guess once I took a breather or a breath, and I'm like, "I'm out."

So did they give you fluids? Food? IV? What happened there?

They definitely gave me a sugar tab. They gave me water. They gave me salt tablets and a sugar, glucose tablet. I felt, I'd not say instantly better, but I definitely felt better soon after they gave that to me. It's really weird how the show works. The whole show is about being devious and pulling the wool over people's eyes and telling little lies and trying to get your little advantage. But for some reason, when that doctor came in and started giving water, I didn't think that was necessarily fair. I didn't want to get the help unless everyone else was getting the help.

And so I remember telling the doctor, I'm like, "If you're giving me sugar and salt, you need to give them sugar and salt. It's not fair, and give them fresh water out of a bottle." So for some reason, that's where my brain went. Meanwhile, I should be like, "F--- that. I'll take everything I can get trying to get ahead in the game!"

So how long did you have to rest up before continuing? I know you probably can't put an exact time frame on it because you were half out of it.

Yeah, I want to feel like it was half an hour, 45 minutes maybe.

And how afraid were you that they were maybe going to pull you from the game? How much was that going through your mind?

Oh my God, I was crying and was like, "Do not pull me from the game! I'll be okay. Trust me. Just give me a minute. I'm going to be okay." I knew my body. I probably just should have rested. I just probably should have stopped every hour and taken 10, 15 minutes because we had no perception of time out there. You're judging your time based on the sun, and I didn't know what time we started. You got to get done by sundown. That was the rule, I think. They said 20 logs by sundown and I'm like, "F---."

So we just went sprinting at first and in the end, I think we all finished two hours before sundown so I could have paced it out a little bit better and that would have been the proper strategy. But you get your ego involved and you want to be first and you go up too fast. Danni was the smartest one. Everyone else started walking real fast. She was really slow and methodic. She's like, "We got all day for this. Don't worry." I was like, "All right." I tried to beat her, but it didn't work.

How brutal would that have been if you go back to Survivor after everything you’ve been through and get medically taken out?

Yeah, that would have been the worst. This is already bad that I'm passing out on national television. It looks like CBS is trying to kill the cancer guy here! These challenges are legit, seriously. I don't know how to get the general public to understand the magnitude of what it was like out there and the challenge. I don't know if I've seen an endurance challenge to this magnitude ever in history of Survivor. I've watched every episode. When's the last time they have people doing six, seven hour challenges from back in the old days, hands above the head type stuff?

So what did it mean for you to then complete that task? You go down, you have medical, you get back up. We see you, not even walking up the stairs, but literally crawling up the stairs. What did it mean for you to finally get through that?

Well, it meant the world to me and it was comforting, surprising, emotional that the other three competitors, people who want me off the Island, we all rallied. So I finish the challenge and I had one more log to go. Everyone else was done already. We're all doing this for one Fire Token. We didn't really know what the Fire Tokens are used for at the time. There's some stuff on the menu, but I'm like, "If we're going to be doing this for one Fire Token for the rest of the season, this is going to be a serious whatever." But the fact that these fellow competitors, but now are my family out there, my tribe, helped me up that last one, they all took an extra trip up and trust me, no one wants to go anywhere. No one wants to take an extra trip up that f---ing hill.

So the fact that we all came together and they supported me and carried me up there was a moment I'll never forget. I've had these epic moments in Survivor: Africa, the hacky sack one and here with this one, it's the same. I'll never forget that moment. When we all should be hating each other and not getting along and wanting to vote each other off, here we are doing the exact opposite, supporting each other. Carrying me up the hill was just epic, I think.

How did you feel later? After you finished the task, that night, the next morning — how were you feeling, physically?

I was a little embarrassed, obviously, because it's not the best moment of my life out there, but I had a hard moment. I was a little embarrassed, but on the flip side, I was happy that they were there. I don't think if they were there, I would have finished, to be honest. I probably would have just chucked it in. It was so hard, and my body was not responding well to that challenge. But after, we all hung out in the water a little bit. We were just dead. Don't forget, we have no food and the Edge has no food. There's no food on the Edge really. Couple fish here and there. We got rice. We got to go up to the top of the hill to get our rice, first of all. We did that in the morning already.

I don't think I even have enough muscles on my leg to get sore the next day, but we were just all tired, beat, sore, but then the emotional moment of completing a task like that is just transformational. It's like the marathons — all your emotion pours out. I was really happy it was over and I was just dreading that If this is what they're doing to us for one Fire Token, I can only imagine what's coming later in the season.

Also make sure to read our full episode recap as well as Jeff Probst's take on the Fire Token quest and our other interview with Ethan about his brutal blindside. And for more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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