Survivor fans have been waiting for an all-winners season of the hit CBS show for a very long time, and when the official cast list for Survivor: Winners at War was finally released, everyone was excited to see Ethan Zohn’s name among the list of returnees. With his positive attitude, he quickly became a fan favorite when he played (and won) Survivor: Africa back in 2002, and when he later appeared on Survivor: All-Stars in 2004.
Zohn’s been busy in the 16 years between All-Stars and Winners at War, from the nonprofit organization he co-founded to his appearance on The Amazing Race in 2011. Zohn played professional soccer prior to Survivor, and after the show, he reported for ESPN during the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Zohn has also been open about his post-show health struggles, as he battled a rare type of cancer called CD20-positive Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009 and 2011. In 2012, Zohn received two stem cell transplants from his brother, and he’s been in remission ever since.
While Zohn started off strong on Winners of War by forming an alliance with big-name players, he ended up getting majorly blindsided on the season’s fourth episode, and it also looks like he might be in some trouble during tonight’s episode. Zohn spoke with Men’s Health about his time on the show, how he prepped for his long-awaited return, and how his experience on the Edge of Extinction paralleled his battle with cancer.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On his shocking blindside:
Did you have any idea at all that Adam’s alliance was going to target you?
“I had no idea whatsoever that I was about to be voted off that night. Definition of blindside … I had a good thing going with my alliance (Rob and Parvati), and I had a little side thing going with Adam, and so when Adam revealed the plan to go against Parvati, we were just like, ‘Uhh no,’ because both Rob and I were working with Parvati, more than Adam. So we had to switch the script and go after Adam and it backfired for a lot of different people, most importantly me.”
What was your first thought when Jeff called you up to get your torch snuffed?
“I was so discombobulated. Watching it back is actually fun for me, because it was such a blur … Once I saw my name the second time up there, I was like, ‘This is the end for me.’ I had put in a lot of time and energy and motivation in getting ready to go play the game. And after 16 years, two cancer diagnoses, for me to get to the starting point was such a huge, huge deal. I don’t think people understand the complexity of my health challenges leading up to this point. So to be kicked off early and get sent to the Edge of Extinction was very disappointing, I had very high expectations for myself. I’m a former professional soccer player, a marathoner, an athlete and I like to win, so I would have liked to play the game of Survivor. The Edge of Extinction, we get to play but it’s a different game.”
When you were going to the Edge of Extinction, you said this powerful quote about the fact that you had been to a literal Edge of Extinction with your cancer diagnosis. Did that previous experience help you go into Extinction with more of a positive attitude?
“I like to think that I’m generally positive. I think what’s interesting about the Edge of Extinction is that it’s this weird world between life and death. So I think the parallels between living on the Edge of Extinction and going through cancer is kind of similar. You’re here on this island, you’re caught between life in the game and life out of the game, you’re isolated from your friends and family, you’re tired you’re hungry, you’re thirsty, you’re lethargic.”
“But the incredible thing about the Edge of Extinction is that you may have a couple chances to get back into the game, and that was all I needed. All you need is a tiny bit of hope. And that hope can come in a multitude of different ways: winning challenges, fire tokens, other ways to get back in the game. With cancer there is a clear parallel. You gotta just stay alive long enough because you just never know what’s around the corner. A new cure, a new drug, cancer research, whatever it is. But as long as you keep that hope alive, there’s a way out of this thing.”
On his first few days on the season:
Going back, when you first got the call to come back on the show, how did you feel?
“I was extremely excited as you can imagine, but I was also like, ‘I have to get off the couch and start getting into shape again.’ I was so excited, I knew this probably going to happen at some point in my life, that there was going to be an all-winners edition. And I remember, I was literally in my second stem transplant watching Heroes vs. Villains, and I was fairly confident that I would have been asked to play that season if I hadn’t been sick. So here I am, literally surviving for my life here in this hospital room watching my friends play another game, and I would have done anything to be out there, because to me that represents adventure and life and health. Being a healthy person in this world to me, is going out there and being able to compete at the highest level in a game that touches you physically, mentally, socially, spiritually, environmentally. And so I was like if I get out of this thing alive—which I had a 50% shot of—then I’m going to do everything in my power to get myself ready to go play this game again.”
We’re so happy you’re healthy and back on the show. On the first day, was there anyone that you expected to see or anyone you were surprised to see?
“Yes. I was completely dumbfounded to see Amber out there. They had separated us prior to the game as boys and girls, and then we get out there and we see the women show up. I expected that, but then I saw Amber. I was standing next to Rob and I tapped him on the back and was like, ‘Hey dude, you got your wife out here? Well done, well played.'”
Did you talk to anyone before the show started to get a feel on who might be on the season?
“I was researching on the internet pretty heavily, and there was a lot of fan theories and fans analyzing for us, and I love when people do that [laughs]. I was watching all the seasons of the people that I thought might be in there.”
“Parvati and I are friends outside of the game so we definitely spoke, but other than that I didn’t speak to anyone … There’s a lot of activity with the new schoolers now. They go to parties, charity events, social media-ing. So there’s a lot of pre-existing relationships that I think may or may not have played a factor in the game. But that’s not part of my game. When you get to the island the game starts, that’s when the game starts.”
On his rigorous Survivor prep work:
As a former athlete and a former Survivor player, what exactly did you do to train to come back?
“I live in New Hampshire, so when I got the call, there was snow up to my thighs outside. So my wife [interior designer Lisa Heywood] and I left New Hampshire, packed the house, moved to a ridiculously amazing health and wellness community called Serenbe near Atlanta so I could be outside and train and light fires. My wife was hiding idols in the forest for me, I was tying and untying knots, doing puzzles.
“I’m playing 16 years of catch up, and the game is moving at a rocket pace, and I am used to game where … there was no idols, there were no clues, there was no way to get back in the game, no fire tokens or currency, no Edge of Extinction, nothing. So I really had to play a lot of catch up and get used to this new gameplay and I just tried to do the things that I could.
“I read some body language books and some lip reading stuff. I really took this seriously, but it may not have looked it, because I got voted off on the fourth episode [laughs]. But I thought if I’m really going to do this and this is my last hurrah and I’m going to win this money, then I have to put in the time and effort.”
Food wise, did you try to bulk up, or did you try to lessen what you were eating so your body wouldn’t be shocked when you were starving again on the show?
“I hired Aaron Leventhal, he’s the strength and conditioning coach for the Minnesota Thunder. He’s also a former professional soccer player and we played together back in the day. So I hired him to give me a training plan, an eating plan, everything.
“This time, I really focused on eating. I cut out coffee, sugar, I stopped using cannabis. So that was a big thing for me because I use CBD everyday and cannabis is part of my recovery from going through cancer and dealing with all the anxiety. I started going to bed when the sun went down, I tried to rise when the sun came up. I did everything I could to get myself on a cycle and on a system where my body wasn’t going through shock.
“I actually asked the Survivor doctors if I could bring it out there, because I use it as a medicine, and it’s not illegal in all states. But it’s illegal in Fiji!”
On how CBD helped him with his post-cancer anxiety:
We previously covered your CBD usage, was it hard to stop using it for the show?
“Cancer is fairly easy to go through—when the doctor tells you to do something or you’re going to die, you pretty much do it, you don’t have any choice. But with surviving cancer and being a young adult with this whole world in front of you, that’s when it really gets tough. There’s uncertainty, there’s scars that need healing, you don’t know if the cancer is going to come back. There’s anxiety that your whole life is going to be different, who’s going to want to marry you, am you going to have kids, can you get a job or health insurance.
“All that stuff is just going through your head on a daily basis and I just got sucked into that life of fear and anxiety and it was hard for me to break out of that. But then I finally did and now I have to go on Survivor and be away from everything. I had gotten to a point in my life where everything was all good, so that was really difficult for me to be honest, behind the scenes. I might look calm and collected out there, but on the inside I was…it was war of the worlds going on.
“I became an investor in a farm in upstate Vermont that’s called MontKush, and we produce certified organic, high altitude outdoor hemp. I actually have a line of CBD tinctures that will be coming out in the summer. There’s also a TV show coming out that’s going to be about the farm, and the leads are Anthony Sullivan from OxiClean and Dave Christian [Ed: Zohn will also appear on the show, but he won’t be a main character]. I moved up there this past summer when I got back from Survivor and I lived on the farm and did everything a farmer would do.”
On that million dollar question:
In the off chance that you don’t make it back into the game, who is your pick to win?
“Let’s put it this way: I would like to see an old schooler win this game.”