Quick Note: I had a chance to sit down with all twenty of this season’s competitors in the days before “Survivor: Blood vs. Water” began. Starting Tuesday, September 3rd I’ll be posting exclusive interviews with each pairing. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@gordonholmes) for those interviews, behind-the-scenes exclusives, and more…
One of the highlights of my “Survivor” visits is always the Press vs. Dream Team immunity challenge.
Note: The “Dream Team” is Challenge Producer John Kirhoffer’s crack team of production assistants who run the immunity challenges to make sure they’re safe, fair, and entertaining.
These test runs really give me a feel for what it’s like to be in a Survivor’s muddy shoes. As I’ve said in the past, I’m always looking for an angle for how my mindset as a challenge participant can compare to an actual in-game competitor’s. Over my four previous set visits, I’d gone from being a wide-eyed newbie, to someone hungry for his first victory, to a grizzled veteran. But, there was one thing I was still desperate to experience…
An individual challenge.
Now usually there aren’t any individual challenges to test while I’m out there. But luckily for me, the 37 twists being used for this season included a Redemption Island duel (or tr-uel) on Day Four.
So, when John Kirhoffer asked if I wanted to participate in the first Redemption Island dress rehearsal, I jumped at the chance.
And it was a full-on dress rehearsal. We were going to do a walkthrough of everything that would take place during a Redemption Island shoot.
When I arrived at the super impressive Redemption Island set, I was sent to stand with the other Dream Teamers in the jungle. It was there that I met my fellow competitors and soon to be worst enemies, Stephanie and July.
The other Dream Teamers filed into the stadium and up into the bleachers while Stephanie, July, and I waited for our cue. I did my best to bribe my two opponents, but was unsuccessful. Apparently the lure of official “Survivor” Hall of Fame water bottles wasn’t enough for either one of them to take a dive.
Finally, a producer gave us the nod and we crossed the field and took our marks in front of “Survivor” host Jeff Probst.
My first impressions of the new Redemption Island set is that it is hot. Like, ridiculously hot. It’s also huge. The camera may only show the bleachers where the loved ones are seated, but there’s a much larger set of bleachers on the other side. And for this day’s challenge they were packed with crew members. To call this environment stressful would be an understatement. Hundreds of eyes, all pointed at the three lightly toasted combatants.
Never one to miss taking a shot at me, Probst pointed out, “Nice to see John finally hiring an older Dream Team member. Who is this guy?”
Never one to miss an opportunity to annoy a 40-time Emmy winner, I responded, “Jeff…it’s me, Gordon Holmes from XFINITY. I interviewed you yesterday.”
Sufficiently annoyed, Probst laughed and shook his head. He then went about introducing the season’s new twist. If a Redemption Island combatant’s loved one is still in the game, they are allowed to swap places before the duel. For the purposes of the dress rehearsal, Stephanie swapped with her loved one Andrew. She joined his tribe and he took the floor to face me in the challenge. July talked with her loved one, but decided to stay. I didn’t get a chance to confer with anyone. I assume it’s because my loved one is long gone in this scenario, but a part deep down in my psyche worries that it was because nobody loves me.
Then it was on.
The challenge was a reworking of one that had been done in “Survivor: One World.” The players would use metal rods to lift and guide wooden spools through a metal maze. Once the spool was through the maze, they’d place the spool on top of the maze. They’d then get another spool and do it again. Sound easy? Here’s the tricky part. The maze is held up by a spring. That makes for some shaky times. Hit the maze too hard and you could knock over your stack of spools and have to start all over again. The first two people to stack all ten of their spools would get to stick around. The third would be out of the game.
I tried to remember if Kim Spradlin had done anything specifically brilliant to win this challenge, but came up blank. All I could think of was, “slow and steady…don’t be the one who loses their stack.” Also, I figured it was OK to work quickly during the early stages when there was less of a chance of knocking over the spools.
We took our places, Mr. Probst hit his trademark lines, and we were off.
The biggest problem early on? That metal rod bends like crazy. I had enough trouble placing my first spool on top of the maze, I was dreading what it’d be like to place number ten.
But, I soldiered on. In fact, Andrew and I swapped the lead a few times in the early going. I even took some pride in the fact that my stack seemed straighter than his. Not bad for someone nearly twice his age.
It was about halfway through the challenge that I heard the sweetest words that have ever left Jeff Probst’s lips.
“July’s stack is down!”
I don’t know what happened. I didn’t see it. And frankly, I didn’t care. I just knew that she had bought me all the time in the world and I was determined to use it. As there was no difference between a first and second-place finish, I wasn’t going to do anything to risk coming in third. If Andrew slips up, awesome. If not, I hope he enjoys first place.
I immediately put things in deep freeze. I took my sweet time with each spool. I even took some time to use my rod to knock some spools into better alignment in my stack.
Andrew continued on at a solid pace and eventually won the challenge. I was only a spool behind him, July was several spools behind me. I cautiously threaded the spool through the maze, then cursed under my breath as the stupid bendy pole made placing the final spool an exercise in frustration.
When I was finally able to figure it out, Probst counted down from three, I was safe, and July was defeated. We shook hands and returned to our places in front of the arena. Andrew was given an immunity clue to give away. He chose to give it to his loved one Stephanie. Andrew and I were also given “Survivor: Blood vs. Water” buffs to commemorate our victories. All poor July got was the honor of being the first person to leave the “Blood vs. Water” Redemption Island in shame.
What was my big takeaway from the experience? I think the thing that stood out the most was how incredibly stressful it was. Everyone’s looking at you. You have no teammates to rely on or share the blame with in case of a mistake. And, as always, Probst was having a blast poking fun at us. I couldn’t imagine the stress I would have felt if July catching me would have cost me a million dollars. If July had come from behind and gotten the best of me in this exhibition, it wouldn’t have effected my life at all, but I was still a jittery mess. The only thing her win would’ve hurt was my challenge record.
Which is now an Ozzy-esque four wins and one loss.
Don’t miss the special 90-minute premiere of “Survivor: Blood vs. Water” on Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 8 p.m. ET.