A longtime fan lives the dream as a castaway on his favorite reality show.
Mike Zahalsky ’95 MMS’98 MD’99 is no stranger to testing his limits. From completing three undergraduate concentrations and medical training at Brown to building a successful urology practice in southern Florida, he’s not one to shy away from difficult endeavors.
Last year Zahalsky faced his biggest challenge yet: competing for $1 million against 17 other castaways on a Fijian island on Season 35 of Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers and coming within a hair’s breadth of the win. He took a break from his post-finale Los Angeles family vacation to provide a peek behind the palm fronds.
What prompted you to audition now?
I’ve always wanted to be on the show, but for so long I had three little kids, so it would’ve been terribly selfish to go. But last year I said, “Honey, one of these days I’m going to apply,” and she laughed. … So the next day I went to my office and made a 3-minute video. I sent in, maybe, the second take, and lo and behold—boom!
How long have you been a fan of Survivor?
My wife, Bari, and I have watched Survivor since the last episode of the first season and haven’t missed one since. You know how, jokingly, everyone has a “hall pass” in their relationship? My wife’s was Ethan, the winner of Survivor Season 3, who happened to live three blocks away from us in New York City. Fast forward a few years and we named our son Ethan—I’m just glad the kid looked like me.
What about Survivor kept you and Bari watching since 2000?
I think it’s probably the best family show on television. Survivor is fascinating because there’s the physical challenge aspect that kids love and there’s a mental aspect that adults love because it cuts you to the core of who you are.
How did you prepare for the competition?
I had run a marathon in January, but I worked on agility with a trainer three days a week, throwing beanbags, tossing rings, and running balance beams to prepare for the challenges. It sounds ridiculous, but that was the stuff that I knew I would struggle with.
What was your strategy to “outwit, outplay, and outlast” before arriving in Fiji?
Don’t make immediate alliances, stay under the radar, and don’t do the first puzzle. Literally three minutes after the first marooning on the island, fellow Healer Cole comes up to me and says, “I’m really big, you’re really smart, let’s make an alliance, and by the way, Joe [long-term adversary, brief ‘coconut’ ally] is already gunning for you.” Then the puzzle comes up and I’m told: “If you don’t do the puzzle, you’re going home. If you do the puzzle and mess it up, you’re going home.”
What, if anything, about your strategy changed once you were on the island?
I went in with the “Jeff Probst approach,” leading with kindness, having justifiable ethics. I had a problem with how people were playing the middle, prompting my “Statue of Liberty speech” when I played my idol. After that, my rule became, worry about the vote in front of you. Once my outlook changed, I started playing a much different and much more successful game.
During a late-in-the-season tribal council, you told Probst that you had a “final three” in mind. Who did you want to be in the final round with you?
I had a few final threes. My wife, Bari, is also a big Survivor fan, so when she came to the island, I introduced her to everybody. I asked if I should go to the final three with Chrissy and Ryan or Ashley and Devon and she confirmed what I was thinking: Chrissy and Ryan. Devon was just such a loveable guy that he might beat me, but Chrissy and Ryan? I would’ve been so good against those two.
Why was Ben allowed to wander unattended late in the game—a move that got him two hidden immunity idols?
Two things. First, I was looking for immunity idols as much, if not more, than Ben was. Joe called me out looking for immunity idols the first week of the game, [but]it’s not like I stopped looking. At the same time, everyone is so tired that they are literally lying in the shelter all day long. If none of them are willing to leave the shelter to follow Ben, it puts me in an awkward position. I don’t want to leave and look suspicious. I have to stay as an insider, despite the risk of Ben finding an idol.
How do you feel about finishing in the final five?
It’s gonna haunt me for the rest of my life. I was planning to vote for Devon and I was setting everyone up to not be mad at me. I even told Devon to vote for me. I should’ve just worried about the vote in front of me. I practiced making fire every day—I could make fire in under a minute. Whether I would have won that last immunity or not, even making fire against Ben would have been glorious.
Wait—you told Devon to vote for you?
Oh my goodness.
I know. You have no food. You’re malnourished. You’re not thinking straight. I have reasoning behind why I didn’t vote for Devon, but does it really make entire sense? No.
As a longtime viewer, what were the biggest surprises when you were actually on the island playing the game?
The loneliness. You’re in jail and you have nobody you can trust. It’s a very pretty jail, but you’re still in jail.
What were the best parts of being on a tropical island?
Bari came out for one of the reward challenges, so she got to be a part of the experience too. We’ve been together for 16 years and we know that we were meant to be together, but going through this made us even stronger.
Were there any great stories the viewers missed due to editing?
One of the most amazing moments I had was on day 37 of 39. Things are tense, there are only 48 hours left in the game, yet the last five of us have this moment where we’re on the beach looking for an idol and I find a sea turtle nest. The babies are covered in ants and dying and we saved 22 of them that day. It was amazing. It was one of the best days of my life—despite the fact that I got voted off.
Do you have any regrets about your gameplay?
I shouldn’t have played my idol. If I hadn’t played it, an idol wouldn’t have repopulated, Ben wouldn’t have found his first idol—it would’ve been a completely different game. That said, I’m glad that Ben won. He played a great game he has a story that will help hundreds of thousands of people with PTSD.
Which cast members do you keep in touch with now that filming is over?
Would you believe it if I said all of them? We’re all in a group text. My 14-year-old daughter loves all the cute guys from the show—she’ll have me FaceTime them for her friends.
What has the reception been since you’ve gotten back to Florida?
It’s changed my life in ways you wouldn’t think. The mayor of my town had a watch party for the season finale and I’ve gotten an honor from the county. It’s incredible. People stop me in the street every day.
How has that been for you?
I love it. It’s my 15 minutes of fame and I’m going to enjoy every second of it.
Any final words to Brunonians as they bid farewell to Season 35?
I would encourage everyone to apply to Survivor. According to the website True Dork Times, Brown alums make up the most Survivor players from all the Ivies.
Read our coverage of the entire season.