Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Will Wahl reflects on being the show's only high schooler
With Survivor filming for seasons 41 and 42 indefinitely postponed 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.
High School. A special time in anyone’s life. But Will Wahl had a high school experience truly unlike anyone else in the entire world. Because he did what no one else has ever done, leaving in the middle of his senior year to go play Survivor.
And then after travelling to Fiji, enduring a tropical cyclone, competing against 19 adults, and making it all the way the day 34, Will had to go back to school like nothing had ever happened. “One day I’m starving on an island with cameras shoved in my face, and the next… I’m at senior prom taking pictures and pretending like everything was normal,” says Will. Only, as Will explains, “It wasn’t normal, not at all. I was practically crawling out of my skin for months upon my return. At one point I wanted to defer my college acceptance, grab a plane ticket, and run away. I didn’t know where, but I just had to travel.”
Perhaps it is not surprising that the first high school senior deemed mature enough to handle the Survivor experience has a very even-keeled perspective on his teenage journey into the belly of the reality television beast. In his Quarantine Questionnaire, Will looks back at his time on the island, shares how he feels about being on TV at 18, and reveals what he has been up to since.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.
WILL WAHL: Life has flown by since Survivor. Over the past couple of years, I attended and graduated from The Ohio State University (go Bucks!). I lived in Sydney, Australia over one summer and had the chance to travel up and down the Eastern Australian Coast. And before quarantine, I had my dream internship working in state government in Ohio. I even got an Alaskan Klee Kai puppy! But it all comes full circle as I find myself surviving a whole new challenge, my first year of law school at Wake Forest University. And, so far, it has been just as rewarding and memorable as my time on Survivor.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
I have two, the first was making it to the merge. I remember that morning so vividly. The Ikabula tribe was eating our typical rice and coconut breakfast while Bret and Jay were telling jokes to try and lighten the mood after the Tribal Council we survived the night before. And then we spotted it. We saw the boat pulling onto shore and we all knew what that meant. A feeling of relief, satisfaction, and excitement rushed over me as we got onto the boat and sped away to our next destination. As a super fan it was such a unique feeling, something I have never experienced at any other point in my life.
And the second moment was winning the first individual immunity challenge. I’m still not sure if I actually would have been voted out if I lost. I know Adam wanted me out, but I’ve been told by others that I wasn’t their first choice, so who really knows what would have happened. But regardless, that was definitely the first time my name was even brought up as a possibility. Funny enough, I had actually done that challenge (“When it Rains, it Pours”) in my living room and could barely get past 10 minutes, so it’s still a miracle to me that I was able to do that for over an hour and a half.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
I played the game in fear. I was afraid of being the first one voted off, I was afraid of not making it to the merge, and I was afraid of missing the Loved Ones visit. Fear prevented me from making bigger moves, looking for idols, and playing more aggressively. I felt like a walking target throughout the entire game, like I was constantly one wrong move away from everyone voting for me.
To be fair, I would have been an easy target. As the eighteen-year-old kid, I stuck out like a sore thumb. However, the way I let fear rule my game is a consistent regret of mine. When you play Survivor, you have to play without fear, without regret. If I ever get the chance to play again, I’d rather play my heart out and get voted out pre-merge than make it to day 34 again playing a game rooted in fear.
What’s something that will blow fans’ minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
During the Zeke vote out, I air wrote letters to try and trick everyone into thinking I was voting for Hannah. The Tribal booth was in direct eyeshot of where we were sitting so you could see people as they were casting their vote. I wrote down “Z-E-K-E” but then I wrote “A-H” above the ballot. That way anyone who was looking at me would think I was voting out Hannah. And from what Hannah and Adam told me, it worked. He ended up not playing his idol believing that I definitely voted for Hannah.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
Of course, a part of me wishes that I was more present on the show. But the truth is, and this is something that many Survivor players need to understand, that if you get voted out, then it is not your story. The story told is either the winner’s, or someone who makes it deep in the game. And, honestly, Adam and I were not working together much throughout the game. It was Adam’s story and I think Survivor did a fantastic job telling it.
And, in terms of my part in the show, the more time goes on, the more comfortable I am with my edit. I think it shows exactly who I was at that point in my life. I was a kid who wanted nothing more than to be accepted and respected. I was simultaneously very confident and very insecure, and I think that was reflected on the show. I still have not watched every episode of Millennials vs. Gen X, and I’m not sure if I ever will, but what I’ve seen is an accurate representation of Will Wahl as an 18-year-old high school student.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
Oh, let me tell you, it was a trip! One day I’m starving on an island with cameras shoved in my face, and the next… I’m at senior prom taking pictures and pretending like everything was normal. But it wasn’t normal, not at all. I was practically crawling out of my skin for months upon my return. At one point I wanted to defer my college acceptance, grab a plane ticket, and run away. I didn’t know where, but I just had to travel.
The best way I can describe it is that when I first went on Survivor, it felt like a dream. But as the days passed, Survivor became more and more of my reality. So when I finally returned home, that was the dream. My family, my friends, my teachers, none of them felt real to me. I was honestly expecting to wake up in a bamboo shelter to the smell of the ocean and a campfire. It took me several weeks to realize that wasn’t going to happen. And then it probably took me about a year and a half before I was fully myself again.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Absolutely not, it was my dream and I never regretted it during or after. But if there was ever a time I was closest, it would have been on Ikabula. For those that don’t remember, that was the swap tribe during Millennials vs. Gen X where we had to start from scratch. But honestly, rebuilding the shelter was not that difficult. The challenge was the bugs. They were just non-stop. They would buzz in your ears so you couldn't sleep. Our buffs offered no protection. And I was wearing shorts, so there was nothing covering my legs. By the end of the week, I had bug bites up and down my legs. Normally, I was one of the few people that could sleep through the night, and I didn’t complain much about the conditions. But Ikabula was certainly the exception.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
I sort of faded away from the Survivor community after my season. A lot of this was for mental health reasons, but now I’m just so busy. Law school has barely given me enough time to remain in contact with my biological family, let alone my Survivor family. The only person I occasionally connect with is Hannah, and we really only speak like once or twice a year to catch up on life. I do love everyone from my season though. They are all amazing people who had a great impact on me. I would not be the same without knowing each one of them.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why?
So, between seasons 33 to 39, I only watched episodes here and there. I would always start off watching them, but it would just become too real for me after a while. However, season 40 reinvigorated my passion for Survivor. I loved seeing all the winners I grew up watching. And, in that same vein, my favorite season is an old-school season. I know this is not a typical answer, but my favorite is hands down Survivor: Panama. The characters on that season were unlike anything I think the show has ever seen before or will ever see again. That final 7 is, in my opinion, the most interesting final 7 in the history of Survivor. It may not be a strategy heavy season, but it was good television and that’s honestly what makes it for me.
Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Honestly, there’s a lot! I played with Coby from Palau and Missy from Island of the Idols during a Survivor Zoom Charity event for Sunday and they were both a blast to work with, I think we’d have a lot of fun out there. I would also love to play against Greg Buis from Borneo. I know he’s such a wild card, but the superfan in me just can’t help myself. I feel at the very least we would bond over our coconut phones.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
There should be a single season with no idols, no twist, and no swaps. It would be a back to basics season, but Jeff wouldn’t inform the cast of this. I’ve seen this idea on reddit and I think it would be a great idea for at least one season. It would be fun to watch a cast theorize and stress about the advantages that could be in the game or the impending tribe swap that will never arrive. This could also have an impact on future seasons as the casts wouldn’t know whether they are on a season full of twists or if there are no twists at all. As a player, that would frustrate me to no end, but as a fan, I would love to see it!
Finally, would you play again if asked?
Absolutely! I would have said yes if they asked me 20 minutes after I got voted off the last time. But now I feel that I am in the best physical, mental, and emotional state in my life. If I ever got the opportunity to go back, I know I can pull out the “W” this time.