QUICK NOTE: The good folks at XFINITY sent me deep into the Fijian wilderness to bring you an exclusive look at “Survivor: Game Changers.” While I was there I conducted interviews with “Survivor” host Jeff Probst and the entire 20-person cast. I also captured exclusive photos and other behind-the-scenes tidbits. So, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@gordonholmes) for up-to-the-minute updates.
No visit to “Survivor” would be complete without three things; a sunburn in the part of my hair, bug bites in places where I didn’t know I had places, and an exhibition immunity challenge that both sides take a little too seriously.
For those of you who are new to my little adventures, it's important to know that "Survivor" employs a team of young, fit, tan, buff production assistants affectionately known as "The Dream Team." Their main job is to hang out on a tropical island and practice the challenges. This is done to make sure everything is fair, relatively safe, and entertaining.
Just so we’re clear; these people are professional challenge performers.
So, whenever we show up for a junket, Challenge Producer John Kirhoffer invites us to square off against his team of athletic cyborgs in a friendly contest. However, not unlike when Apollo Creed battled Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV," we all take this exhibition very seriously.
The Dream Team takes it seriously because they don't want to be shown up by a bunch of out-of-shape computer jockeys. And I take it seriously because after being blown out in my first-ever challenge in Gabon, Africa I've managed to put together an eight-challenge winning streak.
And I brag about that streak… a lot.
Quick Aside: Yes, I know it’s poor form to brag and it’s even less poor form (lesser form?) to brag about something as silly as a winning streak in a series of exhibition contests. But…you know…I have poor form.
Another Quick Aside: There were too many press members to have a straight-up press vs. Dream Team match-up. So, to honor the then-upcoming Summer Olympics, we decided on a Team Canada vs. Team USA battle. On one side, we had the good folks from “Entertainment Tonight Canada” and on the other we had myself, Parade Magazine’s Josh Wigler, Entertainment Weekly’s Dalton Ross, “Scorpion” star and “Survivor” super fan Scott Porter, and members of CBS’s publicity team. Dream Team members would fill in the empty slots on both sides.
Two teams of seven people will sprint across the beach and retrieve a boat. They'll push the boat into the water, then paddle it to platform and retrieve a set of keys.
From there, they’ll abandon the boat and return to the beach by climbing over a series of obstacles.
Once they’re back at the beach, they’ll have to dig up two bags of puzzle pieces.
Once both bags have been retrieved, one member of the team will have to open a series of locks with the ring of keys. When all of the locks have been opened, the final bag of puzzle pieces can be removed from a chest.
Finally, the last two members of the team will have to complete a ship steering wheel puzzle. The puzzle is in three sections; an outer ring, the spokes of the wheel, and the handles of the wheel.
The first tribe to complete the wheel, mount it on a spindle, and then raise their tribe's flag will win immunity. Err…bragging rights.
Note: Due to some tide issues, this challenge is a little bit different than the one the actual Game Changers will compete in. They’ll have to dock the boat at one point and then send a single swimmer out to retrieve the keys.
Another Note: This challenge is very similar to the opening challenge in “Survivor: Blood vs. Water.” You know, the one where Gervase almost passed out and yet still managed to scream “Don’t let that fool you!” when it was over.
OK, my goal in all of this (aside from continuing my precious winning streak) is to learn what it's like to be in a Survivor's shoes. I've run plenty of obstacle courses in past challenges, so I decided against the first leg. And, the unlocking portion just seemed like a thankless position. You can't win the challenge, but you can certainly lose it. So, I decided that I was going to tackle the puzzle. I'd done puzzles in the past, but I'd never done just the puzzle. The final outcome would all be on my shoulders.
Josh Wigler decided to be my puzzle partner. We figured between his having recently watched every season of "Survivor" for his acclaimed "Rob Has a Podcast: Evolution of Strategy" series and me actually having been in attendance for the original running of this challenge that we'd have an edge over the other team.
We were wrong.
We remembered that the puzzle pieces that went around the circle were kind of like jigsaw pieces, but other than that we were stumped. So much for being "Survivor" experts.
“Survivors, Ready? Go!”
For the first time in my challenge career, that phrase didn't apply to me. Jeff Probst said the magic words and our team sprinted off to the boat while I just stood there and watched. It was terrible. All Josh and I could do was hum our psych-up songs to ourselves. (Josh's being "Crossroads" by Bone Thugs N Harmony and mine being Shinsuke Nakamura's NXT theme music.)
What was worse was, once they paddled off into the distance, we had no way of knowing how well they were doing. From the best I could tell, it was close but we were slightly behind. Our Canadian opponents were able to maintain that lead through the digging portion.
I did my best not to panic. I might not have remembered the intricacies of the puzzle from "Blood vs. Water," but I certainly remembered that these kinds of challenges always come down to the puzzle. Always.
I managed to maintain my confidence up until the point that the Canadian team flew through the lock unlocking section.
To make a bad situation worse, our lock unlocker (CBS legend Robert Winsor) was having some serious problems. Probst delighted in giving Bob a hard time as he tried key after key. He only stopped his tirade to announce that Team Canada had completed the first part of the three-stage puzzle.
An observer would later tell me that while I kept cheering Bob on, I looked like I was going to vomit.
Fortunately, Bob eventually figured it out. Josh and I attacked the first bag like a couple of men possessed. We completed the outer ring in no time…or so I thought.
I was trying to dig into the second bag when Josh suggested that we calm down and make sure the pieces in the ring were lined up correctly. You see, if the holes are in the wrong place, the handles won't fit in and we'd have to start over.
I knew we were way behind. I hadn't heard Probst call out an update in a while. It's possible he was talking, but I had zoned him out. For all I knew we were seconds away from losing. But, I begrudgingly agreed with Josh. And he was right. One of our pieces was actually in backwards. We would have been dead in the water if we had continued.
We tore into the second bag and were greeted by pieces of spokes, all in different sizes. I started furiously screwing them all together, paying no attention to what their final length should be. Once again, Josh was the voice of reason. He urged me to slow down and think about it.
I took a second, looked at the pile, and realized there were an even number of male and female components.
I said, "Line up the male pieces from smallest to biggest." We did.
Then I said, "Line up the female pieces from biggest to smallest." We did.
From there it was obvious that the smallest male piece went with the largest female piece and so on down the line. When we were finished we had eight perfectly even spokes.
As we screwed them into the hub, we heard Jeff announce, “There’s no way Team Canada is going to catch Team America now.”
Without a hint of sarcasm in my voice, I responded, “Seriously?”
Quick Aside: A member of the challenge crew told me that the lining-up-of-the-spoke-pieces method could conceivably make the puzzle too easy in the future. I broke a puzzle!
With our spokes in place and our holes properly aligned, the eight handles were easily put in place. We attached the wheel to the spindle and gave it a mighty spin to bring home a win for Team USA.
And, in the ensuing victory celebration, Dalton Ross was sure to yell out, “Don’t let that fool you!”
It wasn't until after all of the hugs and high fives that I started to appreciate the unique perspective my silly little streak has given me. I want to win anytime I compete in anything, but the streak adds a real sense of urgency. Maybe it isn't as intense as the urgency someone feels when they know they're one Tribal away from elimination, but it's urgency nonetheless.
And yeah, it's poor form to brag about an eight-challenge winning streak becoming a nine-challenge winning streak. But like I said, I have poor form.
Terrible, terrible form.
Don’t miss the two-hour season premiere of “Survivor: Game Changers,” Wednesday March 8, 2017 at 8 p.m. ET.
Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @gordonholmes