In the realm of Survivor, there is the good, the bad, and the legends—reputations of giants in this ultimate social experiment that fans have obsessed over for 20 years. Few castaways actually make a name for themselves in their first run—maybe enough to be called back, but seldom do they make such an impression that they are categorized as a “legend” in their first season.
Returnee seasons can help castaways solidify themselves as true staples of the franchise; they can also be the downfall of the legacy of a respected player. Survivor: Winners at War will be no different; 20 champions returning to prove that they truly are deserving of the title of Sole Survivor and fighting to be the ultimate champion amongst Survivor gods. While there are certain players who—no matter how they place—will not take a hit to their legacy (e.g., Sandra, Boston Rob, and Parvati), there are many more who have a lot to gain and a few who have quite a bit to lose.
Today, I will be looking at a selection of Winners At War castaways who could see a change to their reputation this season.
Yul Kwon (Cook Islands)
I’m just as surprised and excited as every other Survivor superfan that after 13 years, Yul Kwon is returning to our television screens. The winner of Cook Islands has been, for years, regarded as one of the best strategic players of all time. His move with the Immunity idol completely shifted the power balance in the 13th season and helped make legends out of characters like Jonathan Penner, Parvati Shallow, and Ozzy Lusth.
Because Yul has yet to return, we have not had a chance to see how he will do in modern-day Survivor. Is he really as strategic as we are giving him credit for, or was the all-powerful Immunity idol of yesteryear just the ultimate security blanket? The competition that Yul is up against this season, along with the pace of modern-day Survivor, could really prove to be difficult for someone who comes from the old-school mentality of “taking his Aitu four to the finals.” Should Yul go out early, will we still view him as favorably as we have for the past decade?
Denise Stapely (Phillippines)
The winner of the 25th installment of Survivor, Denise Stapely, may not be someone who immediately comes to mind when you think of spectacular winners, but she does hold a record that no other player has been able to touch. Denise is the only winner in the entire champion pool who has attended every Tribal Council and never been voted off. Should she win Tribal Immunity just once, or be voted off, she will lose her unique record and be cast amongst the rest of the commonfolk Survivor players. While this is an impressive feat, I’m sure Denise will take an Immunity win over going to Tribal Council any day.
Tony Vlachos (Cagayan)
I know, I know. No one can touch Tony, and no one can outdo Tony. I agree and hope that we are right… but hear me out. Let’s take out Tony’s showing in Game Changers, as that was about the equivalent as Tina Wesson in All-Stars, though I do believe that will actually help him this season by minimizing his threat level. The reason I put Tony on the list of players who have a lot to lose is because of how highly he is respected after his showing in Cagayan. A complete fluke, a game that should have never been able to reach the end anyway, Tony ran circles around his fellow Cagayan cast members and won with a 6-1 vote.
However, I look at Tony’s win very similarly to that of JT, who played the perfect game in Tocantins and was viewed as one of the most liked winners of all time. Now, let’s look at JT after his third run on Survivor—he’s not considered as high after making some really questionable moves in Heroes vs. Villains and Game Changers, so much so that he’s not even on this season. Now, of course, there are behind the scenes reasons with JT that can’t be compared to Tony; however, this still doesn’t take away from the fact that should Tony flop in season 40, his stock in the legends category could slowly drop. Without his sidekick, Trish, and the Tyler Perry idol, Tony may be lacking his bag of tricks and may find himself outnumbered and outplayed.
Kim Spradlin (One World)
When you think of mindnumbing seasons paired with spectacular gameplay by the winner, you probably think of Kim Spradlin. When you think of first-time players who made a name for themselves in the legends category, you probably think of Kim Spradlin. When you think of shining stars in a dark time of Survivor, the brightest shining star is Kim Spradlin. Often ranked as one of the Top 5 winners of all time, Kim is the sole reason I wanted to do this article. I do not believe there is anyone on this cast who has as much to lose as our dear Kim.
Should she do exceptionally well, she will solidify herself in the same category as Boston Rob, Sandra, and Parvati (a class of players in which she is already associated by many). Should she do poorly or flop, could we begin to realize that Kim, while strong, was just set up with a cast of terrible players and truly walked herself to the end? I want so badly to believe that Kim has social gameplay at the same level as the greats, now we will get to put that question to the test.
Now, let’s talk about those who have a lot to gain by returning for Winners At War.
Ethan Zohn (Africa)
Ethan, along with All-Stars champion Amber Mariano, is the farthest removed player of this cast, having played 16 years ago. He played in a time of no idols, no advantages, even in a time of no 20-person casts. Here for his third outing, I believe Ethan has a lot to gain for a few reasons. Firstly, I do think that the old-school players are at a disadvantage having not played in modern-day Survivor, as we saw a glimmer of in Second Chance. Secondly, Ethan is not viewed as a major strategic player; in Africa, he had a stable alliance with the strategic player of the season, Lex Van Den Bergh, and lucked out by Kim Johnson winning the final Immunity and taking him to the end.
Lastly, Ethan is recovering from a long-term battle with cancer—that alone could prove to make him underestimated amongst some of these big names. The point being, if Ethan can pull out a win or even make a deep run despite all of these factors playing against him, I think we will be talking about the Africa champion in much higher esteem than we do currently.
Sophie Clarke (South Pacific)
Paired with a very unlikeable Final 3 and a rather low-rated season, Sophie Clarke’s win has been cast aside in the annals of Survivor history. There’s not a lot of debate on whether she deserved to win, as much as just… who else was there to root for…Coach?! Since claiming the title in season 23, Sophie has proven herself to be quite familiar with the game and having a good grasp of the strategic complexities of it all.
Filling in on finale nights on Rob Has A Podcast, Sophie banters back and forth with Know-It-All and Second Chance contestant, Stephen Fishbach. If you’ve ever listened to her speak about the game and the analysis of other players, you will quickly understand that Sophie knows what she is talking about. These seasons frequently favor women as well, with 3 out of 4 all-returnee season winners being women. Sophie fits the Amber, Sandra, Sarah mold pretty closely—not too threatening coming in, not too big of a name to be targeted, but well-versed enough in the game to make a name for herself and potentially pull out another win.
Ben Driebergen (Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers)
If putting Tony on the “who has a lot to lose” list was a faux-pa, this is the “has a lot to gain” equivalent. People still roll their eyes and groan that Ben was handed a win in season 35, and this is exactly why he is on the list. With the reputation that he is undeserving and set up by production, Ben can come in and do one of two things. He can prove that the fans are right, and he doesn’t deserve to be in the caliber of winners, or he really does know what he is doing and deserved to take home the million-dollar prize.
Personally, I believe this was a Mike Holloway spot that was, once again, handed to Ben. But let us not forget that once upon a time, Boston Rob was cast because of Brian Hiedick being turned away, and Parvati Shallow was cast because Candice Woodcock turned down the offer. Maybe Ben will make a run and become a fan favorite overnight, though I’m not holding my breath.
Michele Fitzgerald (Kaoh Rong)
Let’s wrap up this list with our New Jersey beauty, Michele Fitzgerald, winner of the 32nd season of Survivor. Aside from Natalie White’s victory Samoa, Michele’s win may be the most contested victory of all time—even by production and Jeff Probst! The host was so let down by Michele’s win that he altered the Final Tribal jury format and brought back her runner-up, Aubry Bracco, two times already. If Kim Spradlin has everything to lose, I believe Michele has everything to gain. The youngest female on the cast, Michele has the opportunity to prove that she’s more than a pretty face who was gifted a million dollars by bitter jury bullies. Even if she doesn’t win, an idol play or even a big blindside could really shift her image in the world of Survivor. Is it too early to think she may be the new Kelley Wentworth? Only time will tell…
With the Edge of Extinction and just the fact that this cast is all winners, I do believe there is more to gain than lose for everyone here, certainly. Either way, someone will dethrone Sandra as the sole two-time winner, unless by the grace of God she can pull out an unprecedented third win, and will place their name in the Survivor Hall of Fame as the ultimate champion. Let the games begin!!
Survivor: Winners At War premieres at 8 pm on Wednesday February 12 on CBS.