Survivor Winner Explains Decision to Not Tell Jury About Donating Prize

It may not have been the Final 3 we were hoping for, but there was still one huge surprise in store during Wednesday’s season finale of Survivor 43.

After the two major frontrunners, Jesse and Karla, were expelled from the competition, Gabler, Cassidy and Owen became the three contestants given the chance to pitch their case to a jury of their peers. When all was said and done, Mike Gabler, the heart valve specialist from Idaho, became the second oldest winner in series’ history by a vote of 8-1-0. (Read a full recap here.)

Despite the rather surprising outcome, Gabler intelligently spoke his truth and was able to pinpoint specific things he did in the game to win the jurors’ votes. The man’s social game and likability backed it all up, helping him cinch the win, money and title of Sole Survivor.

Then, during the After Show, he did something wild. He announced his plans to donate all of his winnings to the Veterans in Need Foundation in the name of his father, Robert. (How’s that for a Survivor first?)

Below, Gabler talks to TVLine about his big charitable decision, masterful fire-marking skills, season-long beef with Elie and so much more.

TVLINE | How hard was it keeping the secret all of these months that you won Survivor?
MIKE GABLER | Oh man, Nick, it was crazy. You go on this big life adventure. You take off one day, you come back a couple months later and so much happens, right? You change as a person, and you have this incredible adventure and you have to keep it under wraps, which was really hard.

TVLINE | You selflessly donated the entire check to charity. Did you plan on doing that before production began?
I did. A good friend of mine, a roommate from college, was in the military. We were just kicking it around one day. He’s a big Survivor fan. We were like, “You know, if I could make it to the end, it would be amazing to do something with the money.” We were kind of saying it almost tongue in cheek. And then we really started thinking about it, and I talked to my wife. I said, “You know, if I do get to the end, are you okay with me trying to do something big with this money?” She was on board 100 percent. Now, when I came back, it was a little different. I was like, “Hey, darling. I did get to the end.” I did tell my wife. I had to tell somebody, right? So I told her, “I did get to the end and by the way, are you still OK with our decision to donate that to charity?” And she was which is awesome.

TVLINE | Why did you wait to tell the jury about your plans to donate the money until after the votes were read? 
Good question. I didn’t want to cloud their judgment on the win. I didn’t want to use that to help me win. I wanted to win on my own merit and then make the decision, and it was the right decision. I’m glad I did go that route because I was able to get seven out of the eight votes, and then drop that in Tribal. It was really touching. You saw the organic responses with Jeanine, with Ryan and with Cass, with everybody. It was really cool and I’m glad that it worked out that way.

TVLINE | Going into the final Tribal, what did you think your odds were against Cass and Owen?
I felt pretty good. I did. Three very strong players, three very different stories. We even talked a little bit on the beach in the morning, we were like, “Gosh, we all got here in totally different ways, from different tribes.” With their immunity wins, I had an immunity win, our relationships and everything, I think it came down to who was going to be able to tell their story the best at Tribal. Owen and Cassidy have great stories, there’s no doubt, but I think I just had a couple more relationships with the jury than maybe they did. As I looked up at the jury, I was like, “I was in an alliance with you, with you, with you.” At some point, I was with everybody, so I felt that by calling on that history, it would ring true for me.

TVLINE | Your fire-making skills were impressive and you beat the record! Was that something you practiced before the show?
I’m an outdoorsman. I like to go hunting, camping, hiking. I like to do a lot of extreme stuff like that in the outdoors. Now I will say this: It was different making fire in the jungle than it is in the northwest where it’s a little bit drier. But early on in the game, I didn’t want to come out and play with fire. I could make sparks. That’s what I wanted to keep up my sleeve. Sami was a flame-throwing fire maker. I mean, he was really good. And I was like, “Okay, I’ll gather wood. He can do that.” But part of his target on him when he did get ruled out was his ability to make fire. People were like, “Now might be a good time to take him out,” because no one wanted to meet him in fire, and no one knew I had that skill until I needed it, which worked out perfectly for me.

TVLINE | How important was getting Jesse out for your game? Could you have beaten him in the end?
If I had won [the final immunity challenge], if my stack had not fallen over (I was three bowls away from pulling that one out at the end), Jesse and I had real conversations about me taking him to the Final 3, and me putting myself in fire against Owen. And then, if I won that to be sitting next to Jesse and Cass in Final 3, I felt very strongly that anybody I sat next to… they were all rock stars up there. If you look at everybody on the jury, everybody was really good. And they all had their own stories to tell and everything, but I thought my story was strong enough to stand on its own. And even if I was up against that savage Jesse, I think I could have gone toe-to-toe with him, if need be. I think Cody’s vote was probably in play. I’m not sure who he would have voted for after we gave our pitch. It could have been Jesse, it could have been me, but I think I would have had a good shot.

TVLINE | Is there any one move you see as a game-defining one?
I have two, and one was at the merge feast. I’d been waiting for days with that information about my bag search. You know as well as I do from being a fan of the show that when new people come together and someone throws out a name, that name has a lot of sticking power. When I was out there at that feast, we’re talking, Karla brought up, “Hey, why don’t we get down to business and start talking some strategy.” And that’s what I just pulled the pin on that, rolled it out there and threw Elie’s name out in front of everybody. And sure enough, that was a good move. That helped solidify me with some Coco members and a couple of Vesi members at that exact merge point, which was really important.

Coincidentally, the next day in that first immunity challenge when Cody and I broke that record, it was special because it was an obstacle course. I’d gotten to partner with Owen to get through the whole thing. We barely made it. Then we had the grip challenge that Cody and I outlasted the record on. But what was cool is I was holding on and the whole group, everybody that had been knocked out of the challenge, was right behind us. They were cheering for us, and soon I gathered strength from heroes and things and even my dog, I just got this endorphin explosion. I knew I could hold on and that gave me a lot of confidence. I think it showed a lot of people the type of competitor that I could be.

TVLINE | You mentioned Elie. What was it about that relationship that made it crumble?
The game is designed to fracture friendships because we started off… she’s cool, right? Everybody likes her. She’s fun. I liked her personally. But once we lost that first immunity and had to go and vote out one of our own, immediately, Nick, you start looking around going, “OK, now there’s five of us.” We lose again. How’s it gonna go? And you start scrambling, and she moved over towards Jeanine. I was hanging out with Sami. Owen’s kind of in the middle. We’re both pulling him either way. And Baka ended up winning like five in a row, I think. We didn’t have to send anybody home, but it was always there. I think Cody said it best. It went from being a beach party to playing on Survivor immediately. Once you go to Tribal Council, the game is on.

TVLINE | What’s something fun that happened out there that we didn’t get to see?
My daughter was a senior in high school, and I missed her senior prom. I’d been counting the days in my head, and it was weighing on me heavily. I was really feeling it. And Elie and Jeanine, even though at that point we were adversaries and were plotting against each other and sharpening the knives, we had a little timeout. They said, “Let’s do a Baka prom night.” So we went down and looked for some hermit crabs. We got a coconut together. We got some water. We ate a feast, maybe a mouthful or two of some snails. Then we just did a dance on the beach in the moonlight, and had our own Baka prom. I hope somebody puts that out as an extra because it was pretty cute. It was cool. It was like a two-hour reprieve from the game, and it just showed the good people that were on Season 43. Even though we were going after each other, we cared about each other.

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