SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

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.

Survivor can leave scars. And we’re not just talking of the physical variety (although players from early seasons will happily show limbs still covered with marks). Many a player has left the game in emotional tatters as well. In her Quarantine Questionnaire last week, Lindsey Richter of Survivor: Africa explained how “the ridicule and embarrassment I felt after being on Survivor was devastating to me, and I sank pretty low.”

She's far from alone. This can even happen to people who never suffered the rejection of having been voted out. For proof of that fact, look no further than Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers fan favorite Ryan Ulrich. “I could not stop thinking about Survivor, but it was no longer in a way that brought me joy,” says Ulrich — who made it all the way to day 39 — of his time after returning home. “Not knowing definitively how I placed was absolutely terrible. I spent all of my time thinking about if I made the right decisions, what I should have done differently, and what the final vote was going to be. I felt very alone, and it was unequivocally the worst time in my life.”

And this is coming from someone who not only made it to the very end, but never had a successful vote cast against him (using an idol to block the only two votes for him all game). Ryan’s words show you that it’s not just on the island where the game of Survivor can mess with your head. “I just felt as though nobody could understand what I was going through,” says Ulrich. “And I could not even speak to anybody because I was strict about keeping the confidentiality of Survivor. I watched a lot of baseball that summer and just tried not to think about Survivor, but it was ultimately the lowest point of my life.”

In his remarkably candid Quarantine Questionnaire — and one to which scores of other former players will surely relate — Ulrich explains how he went from the ultimate Survivor superfan who lived out his biggest dream, only to watch the aftermath turn into a psychological nightmare: “Survivor used to be my outlet, something that I had to escape from everything and just purely enjoy. After I played, it no longer served as that escape, but instead became the source for why I was feeling so low.”

Credit: Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, what have you been up to since appearing on Survivor?

RYAN ULRICH: Three months after I got back from Survivor, I started law school at Northwestern. So, my life for the last three years has revolved around law school. It was a challenging yet rewarding experience. I met a lot of intelligent and great people at Northwestern. I always felt very fortunate to be there.

What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?

I remember getting that initial call and going through casting. I was incredulous to all of it. I remember the morning before filming started we were all in smaller speed boats getting mic’d up before we stepped onto that larger ship. I remember looking up, and Jeff [Probst] was directly above with a huge grin on his face. I stepped on the boat, saw the wall of cameras for the first time, and Jeff welcomed us to Survivor. I was emotional, it was unreal.

Finding the first immunity idol on the first day, and then finding one after the merge were huge moments for me personally. I was proud that had it not been for the fire challenge I would have had my day 1 alliance in the final 3. I was proud of the fact that I went to the most Tribal Councils out of anybody — I was at all but two the entire season — and I never had a vote successfully cast against me. Getting my dad, Steve, out there so he could see everything firsthand was a great moment.

I think from a broader perspective, I was proud that I never quit. I didn’t sit out for food despite my heart beating visibly through my chest, I never gave up in a challenge I was struggling in or knew didn’t favor my skill set. I kept fighting at Tribal Councils when I was on the outs and when the numbers were not in my favor. I was also proud of the fact that I wasn't scared to go all the way to the end. I think players sometimes play just to be on the jury, they get their Ponderosa video and they avoid the final Tribal. There is some security and comfort in that. I was confident in myself and if my game didn't get enough votes, then fair enough, but I was proud that I was willing to go the distance and speak on why I deserved to win it.

What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?

I think it is human nature to look back and want to do things differently. Our season was so hyper-focused on getting Ben out. He was deemed the biggest threat, and his reputation/threat level practically preceded him. So, in saying that, the first regret probably comes at final 9. First time I had been left out of the vote. I had an idol in my pocket and had a lot of avenues with different people. Devon and I were [in] lockstep. However, Ben managed to put a wedge between Devon and I — losing the trust, albeit for a short amount of time, was not good. It led to that alliance allowing Ben to swing between different alliances; at that point, the fox was kind of in the henhouse by letting Ben gain that footing. If Devon had come back to me and told me that Ben was spilling all these secrets, I would have most definitely turned the vote on Ben. That didn't happen though, and it was a good move on Ben; he is a fantastic player and he outplayed me.

I have a couple regrets at final 6. I still don't know if voting [for] Ashley was the right decision because I don't know how different hypothetical final three combinations play out. Certainly, nobody had the threat level or chance of winning as Ben did. I was devastated that Ben found that idol. I looked for it, but just didn't come across it. I should have taken that dead super idol, put it with the clues and wrapping I had and try to have him find it.

The last regret was at final 4, by not trying to get into that fire challenge. Everyone knows the manner in which it was introduced, and I just had not wrapped my head around all its implications. That is ultimately on me as a player. Looking back, I should have made an effort to get in there. I actually got into an argument with Jeff at that final 4 Tribal because he said that I was being taken to the end and the last spot would be earned through the fire challenge. I did not think it was a fair characterization of things and it was almost as if I was penalized for having strong social bonds.

With that being said, I should have gone for broke and tried to take Ben in fire. I figured that I had a better shot at outtalking Ben on day 39, then I did in beating him in a fire contest on day 38. It turned out to be a miscalculation on my end.

What’s something that will blow fans’ minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?

I thought a lot got cut from that final 7 episode, likely because there was so much going on. Devon dropping out when it was down to him and Ashley was a fairly bigger deal than the show let on. That challenge was not measured correctly and when Ashley went to drop her plate, it stuck to the side. So an argument ensued over whether it should be run back, but it was fairly quickly shut down. I think Ashley would have won anyway, but I don’t believe that challenge has appeared since.

The Tribal was absolutely nuts. At that Tribal, Ben told me he had an idol, and I then told Chrissy and Mike. At that point, Chrissy and I needed to keep Ben in, Lauren had the extra vote along with Devon and Ashley as allies with Mike in the middle. There was a brief moment where Ben asked me if I wanted to vote Devon, I said no because Lauren had the extra vote. Chrissy and I were gonna vote Lauren, but Mike still wanted to vote Ben. I think that point may have been shown to an extent in the episode.

So, we were gonna vote Lauren along with Ben, but Chrissy and I didn’t have the numbers, so we figured that it would be best to go with the group knowing Ben would be voting Lauren anyway. It was kind of a silly thought in hindsight because you never really know what a person is gonna do. When Lauren did get voted out, she pulled out the secret advantage she kept saying was back at camp throughout the Tribal, and she handed it to Mike, but production took it because it was dead at that point.

When we got back to camp, I told Devon that Ben was gonna vote [for] him and he would have been gone, but I didn't want him to go out because he dropped out of the challenge earlier in the day. He then promised to take me on reward that next day if he were to win. Low and behold, Chrissy and Devon got teamed up and won the challenge. Much to Ashley’s surprise, I knew I was going the second they won, and I was on a helicopter to a Fijian resort, which I then threw up all over from eating everything in sight.

Unrelated and lighthearted moments, but the back of my pants kept ripping. It was terrible. It was a daily occurrence. I only had one pair of pants. I prefer non-ripped pants. They legitimately would not stop ripping. Before every Tribal, I used to have to hold a flashlight for a wardrobe crew member who sewed my pants back together. She was very kind, and I am very thankful for her. Also, on day 14 after we won pizza, I gave a pizza review as a shout-out to Dave Portnoy. Adjusted for starvation, it was a 9.7/10. However, this never made air, which puzzles me because it seemed like a lock for an Emmy nomination.

How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?

Overall, I was fine with it. I think it is important to separate the game from the show, as they are two distinct entities. With any player’s edit, I believe that if you do not ultimately win the game, then the story on television is not going to be told through your lens. It was weird seeing how they spliced events that took place days apart to make it look like one shot, and put people into conversations and moments they were not physically in.

Do I wish more things were shown from my perspective? Of course, but if you ask any player, even those who win, they want more to be shown that did not make the final cut. If a player loses, there has to be at least some justification from the viewer’s perspective why they lost. Conversely, there needs to be justification why a player won. It is ultimately a television show that strives to present a narrative to the audience.

What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?

I had incredible difficulty with this. First of all, I was eating everything — I went from not knowing what cookie butter was to keeping some smaller brands in business with my patronage. I gained 30 pounds in the course of a month. I was 18 pounds heavier than my starting game weight. I had all sorts of medical problems. I had broken my toe out there on the swapped tribe, so I had to attend to that when I got back, two of my teeth were impacted so I had to get those pulled, I am pretty sure I had a UTI, my hair was incredibly thin, and my eyesight in my right eye changed. I also had some form of neuropathy in my foot, which thankfully subsided. Including all the cuts and bruises I had, it was absolutely brutal and I did not like looking at myself in the mirror because I looked so emaciated.

Mentally was probably even worse. I could not stop thinking about Survivor, but it was no longer in a way that brought me joy. Not knowing definitively how I placed was absolutely terrible. I spent all of my time thinking about if I made the right decisions, what I should have done differently, and what the final vote was going to be. I felt very alone, and it was unequivocally the worst time in my life.

To make matters worse, I was starting law school in a state that I had never once been to and I did not know a single person. I could not even watch the season back with my family, which was upsetting. I just felt as though nobody could understand what I was going through and I could not even speak to anybody because I was strict about keeping the confidentiality of Survivor. I watched a lot of baseball that summer and just tried not to think about Survivor, but it was ultimately the lowest point of my life.

Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?

Yes. I don’t know why, but I had just felt as though I let a lot of people down. The person who found me and has always believed in me in casting, the producers, Jeff, everyone who supported me, I just felt as though I let people down. I cannot adequately explain how obsessed I was with Survivor. Those who knew me would tell you that my Survivor fandom was a defining characteristic of my personality. I used to watch the episode multiple times a week, listen to every RHAP [Rob Has a Podcast] podcast about the episode, read every recap I could find, and think about the show incessantly.

In college, I did not have a television for a bit, so my friend let me go into his room, when he wasn’t even there, just so I could watch Survivor.  I was also an RA in college, and the meetings one semester were slated to fall on Wednesdays at 8 p.m.. The staff voted to move the meetings just so I could watch Survivor, which actually meant a lot; it was honestly more than a show to me.

I still feel incredibly fortunate that I was given a chance to play and I am confident that it will remain one of the most significant experiences of my entire life. However, some of my dreams turned into nightmares. Dreams of playing an idol correctly turned into the reality of misplaying it; winning the final immunity challenge turned into losing final immunity. Losing Survivor only hurt so much because it meant so much; it was the love of my life and it broke me. I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed, and the fact that I came up short haunts me. I have moved on to other things, and I do not really talk about it anymore unless prompted, but losing the game is always right there, always close to the surface.

The irony of the situation is never lost on me. Survivor used to be my outlet, something that I had to escape from everything and just purely enjoy. After I played, it no longer served as that escape, but instead became the source for why I was feeling so low. I do feel so lucky that I, out of so many people, got a chance to play. However, there was indeed a price to be paid for playing Survivor, and although I feel fortunate to have played the game I loved, I wonder what cost it ultimately came at.

Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?

I talk the most to Ben and Roark. Ben is my buddy. I have gone camping with him in Idaho and he has come to a New York Giants game with me in the Meadowlands. We text each other back and forth daily and we talk on the phone at least once a week. He really is an incredibly kind, modest, and caring person. I am fortunate to have him in my corner.

Roark is the other person I keep in contact with the most. She is one of the most intelligent people I have come across. I always knew I would get along with Roark and she remains one of my favorite people to talk with. She is a very impressive person and she is well-deserving of everything she has earned.

I still keep in touch here and there with Devon, Joe, and Patrick. Devon and I had an incredibly strong bond on Survivor and we always check in with one another every so often. I still love talking to Joe when I can. We get each other and he has a good, quick sense of humor. Patrick is my buddy, he is somebody who can always make me laugh.

Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why?

Not really, no. It is a tremendous television product and it was incredible to observe in person. However, the mystique is gone. The last season I watched in full was 36. I then got rid of my television and just tangentially followed seasons 37–39 based on what I saw on social media, but I could not tell you much in full about those seasons. Season 40 was the first season I watched in full since that time, but that was only to support and root for Ben. Survivor as a whole became too difficult for me to watch.

I’ll say Palau. I was 11 and 12 when those seasons were airing and watching Survivor at that age was so fun. I loved watching Koror dominate Ulong, the location was beautiful and it seemed like such an amazing experience. Palau really got me into Survivor. I loved Tom and Ian, Stephanie was from New Jersey, so I really liked her too. Tom’s game was arguably the best Survivor has ever seen, and that final immunity challenge in my opinion remains the most compelling moment in Survivor’s history.

Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?

There's obviously a handful. I think Ian from Palau would be an awesome person to play with. He was one of the reasons why I thought Survivor was so cool. I got to meet Mike Holloway from 30, he is an incredible person, a terrific player, and always will be a Survivor champion. Carolyn from that same season is somebody I think I could work well with. I was drawn to season 36 because they filmed right after us, so Kellyn and Donathan. Dom was absolutely terrific from what I saw, I have never met him, but he’s East Coast and I think we would understand each other. Rick Devens from 38 seems very witty and likable from what I saw too.

If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?

I don’t think I am going to say anything that hasn’t already been voiced by fans or former players at this point. With Survivor, I am a purist for the most part. Though I have always thought that the jury should be sequestered. I think Survivor has strayed away from what captivated so many people in the first place. I do not love all the advantage-heavy gameplay — I was always more intrigued by the social politics. Granted, the show has to evolve and stay fresh, so I understand the thinking behind it.

Finally, would you play again if asked?

Despite all the troubles I expressed and the amount I have beat myself up over the years, if the timing was right, I would consider one more shot. I just think back to who I was before the show, that young superfan, and the disbelief I had when my casting producer called me for the first time. I still have that dream of being on that stage and Jeff reading my name enough times to become the winner. I have become more protective of myself, so there would be some hesitancy. Although it seems more distant now than once before, I have not fully relinquished my dream of winning Survivor.

To keep track of our daily Survivor Quarantine Questionnaires and get the latest updates, check out EW's Survivor hub, and follow Dalton on Twitter.

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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"

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