Ethan Zohn Teases 'Absolute Chaos' to Come on 'Survivor: Winners at War'

Scott Fishman
Ben Driebergen and Ethan Zohn on 'Survivor'
Q&A Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

A lot has happened in the life of Ethan Zohn since he won Survivor: Africa in 2001. The successful reality competition alum survived cancer twice, and also used some of his million-dollar prize to help fund Grassroot Soccer, an organization that combines his passion for the sport and humanitarianism.

Zohn’s journey comes full circle in the form of returning to the Emmy-winning series for its milestone 40th season, aptly titled Winners at War. He stands among 20 legendary winners looking to secure $2 million, the largest prize in reality show history.

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Legendary Winners Return in 'Survivor: Winners at War' Premiere (PHOTOS)

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“My wife and I went back to watch Survivor: Africa when I realized I was going to be on this show because I wanted to see if I remembered correctly,” he said. “What kind of human was I out there? We went back and the game was being played at a glacial speed underwater, slow motion. With the cancer diagnosis and the challenges I had to face at age 45. I’m 27 years old back then, former professional soccer player, single, I was on top of the world. Nothing could stop me."

“I’m now an old, neurotic Jewish guy, married with two cats. I’m in a different place in my life. Just to get myself in a place mentally, physically, spiritually to take on something like Survivor because it’s not just you go out there and play. You’ve got to get yourself in shape. You got to get your brain set. You’re away from your family and friends and everything you’re accustomed to. There is no contact with the outside world. I’ve been living a nice comfortable life for a while. To get away from that was difficult for me.”

Here, Zohn further catches us up on what has been going on in his world and what it took to get him back in the game.

Ethan Zohn on 'Survivor'

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

How did your mindset going into this season compare to your last experiences on Survivor?

Ethan Zohn: I was a little concerned or curious about how the game will be played. I never played with idols, clues or ways to get back into the game or blindsides or this new currency in the form of fire tokens. I’ve been watching the game progress into something that is completely different than what I played. So the game isn’t better or worse as of right now. It’s just different to be playing catch-up 16 years later. They showed it in the first episode. There are a lot of people where the game is moving at a speed at which we are not accustomed to, you would say.

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Are you sassy like Sandra or strong like Jeremy?

Viewers found out in the premiere how much of a motivator potentially being able to come back to the show was in your cancer fights. That is surely inspiring. 

It was 2009 when I was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. I relapsed in 2011 and have been in remission since 2013...If I did get the call, I wanted to be ready. For me, just getting to the starting line from day one was a win for me. Anything else after that, mentally in my brain, was icing on the cake. For me, it’s the things I had to do to get medical clearance. That was one whole thing.

I live in New Hampshire with my wife. We moved to the middle of the woods and got the call last January. You can’t train in a frozen lake with snow up to your waist. We moved away and to Atlanta since my wife had some work there. I could be outside, swim, hike, do everything I needed to do to get ready. I definitely took it seriously. I thought, “If this was going to be my last hoorah, I’m going to do it right.”

What were your initial thoughts about how the Sele tribe came together? 

Initially we thought men versus women. Then we stood there with the guys there and then the girls were in. I thought this would be nuts. I’m happy with my tribe. Obviously, I played with Rob in All-Stars. We didn’t necessarily get along there, and I hadn’t talked to him for 10 years. But he was a familiar face. Parvati was a familiar face. We’re friends outside the game.

Other than that I didn’t have many connections. I didn’t have any connections on the other tribe. I didn’t know anyone really other than Amber. It was good for me. We had a good, old school crew for me. It was me, Rob, Danni. That felt a little comfortable when the teams shook out. I think we looked pretty good. Jeremy’s strong, Ben’s strong, Rob’s strong, I’m strong. Natalie was strong until we voted her out.

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Ethan Zohn on "Survivor"

Photo: Timothy Kuratek/CBS Entertainment

We saw you wearing the Grassroot Soccer shirt in the premiere. An organization near and dear to your heart. What was it like to draw more awareness to the great work being done by its efforts over the years? 

The whole reason Grassroot Soccer exists is because of Survivor: Africa. I got to play Hacky Sack with kids in little town of Wamba as part of a reward challenge. You were allowed to bring luxury items. I brought Hacky Sack, which was the one item I could bring from home. I thought I could communicate with these kids in a foreign land just through the sport of soccer. It was a weird situation where I had this real world experience within this cutthroat game of Survivor. I end up giving the Hacky Sack away to one of the kids.

That idea came to mind that I would win the show, use money to start Grassroot Soccer with friends of mine as a cofounder. Survivor All-Stars came around, and maybe a thousand kids may have gone through the program. I’m wearing the shirt on All-Stars where 27 million viewers a week were looking at that thing.

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That's quite the platform and reach you have used for good. 

Fast forward to now and we are in 50 countries, graduating 2.3 million kids from the program and I’m wearing the shirt again, which is awesome. Survivor is not only creating fans around the world, but it has also saved lives. Expanding on that more was in 2009, when I was sick and another cast member was sick: Jennifer Lyon, who had breast cancer.

She ended up passing away. She was the first real death in the Survivor family. We created Survivor Stand Up to Cancer. A partnership with Survivor and Stand Up to Cancer. We auction off the props each year after the show on eBay for Stand Up to Cancer. It’s really exciting as well. Some of the money raised from Survivor Stand Up to Cancer helped fund a drug that I took that saved my life. How crazy is that. The show is a worldwide phenomenon, but what people don’t know is how many people have benefited from this.

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Which original cast members could return?

How would you sum up what we will see for the rest of the season? 

Absolute chaos. Buckle up. Put your seat belts on. It’s going to be a wild ride totally full of twists and turns, bumps, highs and lows. Just chaos.

Survivor Winners at War, Wednesdays, 8/7c, CBS