One took home the grand prize, the other was a victim of a tribal split; but both had the experience of a lifetime and enjoyed instant fame.
Ethan Zohn, FDU Division I assistant mens and womens soccer coach, and Carl Bilancione, BS77 (T-H), DMD81 (T-H), were contestants on Survivor: Africa, the latest version of the wildly popular reality-based CBS television series. In the end, Zohn outlasted everyone, bagging the $1-million prize along with a new truck.
This third version of Survivor placed 16 strangers together for 39 days in July and August in Kenyas Shaba National Reserve. The contestants were divided into Samburu and Boran tribes, referring to two local tribes located near the reserve in north central Kenya. Not quite jungle or savannah, the areas remoteness enhanced the players isolation. Teams and individuals competed against the elements and each other for rewards and immunity from being voted out of the game.
It is such a brilliant game; you are always thirsty, tired and hungry, explains Zohn. You have to keep alert because you never know who you can trust 100 percent. Fellow contestant Bilancione feels, It was a great psychological experiment that calls for you to get along with 15 strangers.
Zohn and Bilancione, in different tribes, did not interact until the game was completed. Post-filming get-togethers provided the opportunity to discuss the FDU connection and reminisce about their African adventure. Of newly minted millionaire Zohn, Bilancione says, Ethan is a truly nice guy.
After the 39-day saga, Zohn knew he was among the last two, but he didnt learn the final vote until mid-January, the night the climactic show was broadcast. It was such a great feeling to win it all, he says. I think I showed that you dont have to be an evil, back-stabbing person to do well in this game. You can be a nice, genuine honest person and become the ultimate survivor. As host Jeff Probst pronounced, Zohn won the game with his strength, his smarts, but mostly by sticking with his principles.
Originally from Lexington, Mass., Zohn says he received his first lesson in survival at the age of 14 when his father died of colon cancer. It was this experience, says Zohns mother, that gave him his intensity and made him very focused on his goals. He combines that intensity with unrelenting adherence to fair play and good sportsmanship, qualities on display during Survivor. I wanted to win the game with dignity and self-respect, he says.
A 1996 graduate of Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Zohn played professional soccer as a goalie for the Highlanders Football Club in Zimbabwe, the Cape Cod Crusaders and the Hawaii Tsunami. Under FDU Head Soccer Coach Seth Roland, he was twice a member of the U.S. National Maccabiah soccer team.
A coach at FDU for four years, Zohn this year helped bring the mens soccer team to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. The team finally succumbed to eventual champion North Carolina in triple overtime. Maybe some of his survival skills rubbed off on us, jokes Roland.
Zohn currently resides in New York City and commutes to the Teaneck-Hackensack Campus during the season. When not on the bench for the Knights or in the nets for a professional team, Zohn is an aspiring inventor who has done free-lance work since 1999 as a brand name strategist/developer responsible for creating names for newly invented products.
Fellow survivor and FDU alum, Carl Bilancione, was born in Chelsea, Mass., and grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Selden, Long Island. After graduation from FDU, he joined the Navy for three years and then opened his private dental practice in Winter Park, Fla. A die-hard Yankees fan, Bilancione has been happily married for 21 years and is the proud father of two children. He credits sharing the same dreams with my wife as the secret to his success. He runs marathons and has parlayed a passion for photography into becoming the official photographer of the Downtown Athletic Club of Orlando. He also is the official team dentist for the Orlando Magic professional basketball team. When I was 12 years old, I read the Walt Disney biography, Bilancione says. Disneys philosophy was If you can dream it, you can do it. Well, I do it and shoot for the stars every day.
The Call of the Wild
It started as a joke, says Zohn, describing how he and his friends decided on a whim to get him on Survivor last spring. I saw the other shows and thought, This is easy. I can do this. The first hurdle was to produce an eye-catching video, so Zohn shot a three-minute video spoofing the movie Being John Malkovich. He titled it Being Ethan Zohn.
His movie-making abilities paid off. Zohn was among the 800 applicants chosen from 55,000 aspiring contestants. I then had a 20-minute interview that I thought I bombed, he recalls; but when the field had narrowed to 48, he was still in the running.
Bilancione, in his application and video, presented statistics showing that dentists have the highest rates of both suicide and divorce. Ive been a dentist for 20 years and been married for 21. If I can survive that, I can certainly survive Africa, he declared.
Flown to Los Angeles for physical tests and personality profiling, Zohn and Bilancione received the news in mid-June: they had made the final cut. They were told to be ready to leave for Africa in about two weeks. To prepare, I gorged myself on stacks of butter, says Zohn. I ate a jar of peanut butter every day and as much fat as I could possibly put into my system.
For Bilancione, a diet was part of the reason for his interest in the show. I wanted to lose weight, photograph Africa and win the game. He achieved two of those goals, losing 18 pounds and negotiating with the producers for approval to take photographs. I was allowed to bring my cameras, and I shot 36 rolls of film, which the producers developed. I received the photographs after the last episode. Above all for Bilancione was the opportunity to travel. I always dreamed of going on safari and taking pictures; when this opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance.
Fun and Games
After a grueling, seven-hour trip through the desolate Kenyan wilderness, the 16 contestants were dropped off in the Shaba National Reserve, 40 miles north of the equator. The unrelenting heat, the desolate stretches of dry scrubland and the omnipresent insects quickly provided a reality check for those who thought this would be childs play. When I arrived in Africa, I immediately realized how incredibly hard this would really be, Zohn says.
Once the teams were chosen Bilancione was in Samburu, Zohn was in Boran the stakes began to escalate. Both groups trekked for hours in hundred-degree temperatures, carrying awkward clay water jugs, heavy cornmeal containers and canned food until arriving at their camps. With nightfall looming, the tired tribes secured their areas from the other danger lurking in this location: the wildlife. To prevent unwanted intruders like lions, hyenas and leopards from preying on them, the tribes made makeshift fences out of acacia tree branches. The survivors were advised that the risks were real, and weary contestants took turns on vigilant night watches.
Once settled, water became the most pressing need, forcing the participants to follow maps on a two-mile quest to murky watering holes, shared with the denizens of Kenya. At one point, survivors journeyed to their water source to find elephants had marked the spot with large droppings. The water had to be regularly boiled to kill bacteria. People dont realize that CBS wasnt there handing out water bottles, explains Bilancione. But water at least was there. Fire wasnt.
After unsuccessfully rubbing sticks, Bilanciones tribe finally started a flame by using the lens of a telescope from provisions. Fire and water are two of the most basic things needed for survival. Being in this game makes you realize how simple our needs really are, says Bilancione.
The alliances began to form almost immediately. Zohn forged tight bonds with three members, all of whom reached the final stages of the game. Bilancione wasnt as fortunate. He and his tribe mates broke into two sides of four, with the over-40 contestants against the 20-somethings. Unfortunately, our tribe had a generation gap.
Competitions and challenges were often imaginative. One immunity challenge called for the players to drink a shot glass of cows blood mixed with milk. The locals rely on the nutrients from the milk and blood to maintain a healthy diet. Zohn, a vegetarian, gulped his share down as fast as the others. He says, I knew I had to sacrifice some parts of being a vegetarian for the show, and I was OK with that.
While the conditions were tough, contestants couldnt help but feel the spell of Africas natural beauty. Majestic mountains surrounded their encampments, lending a sense of peacefulness that helped soothe often-frazzled nerves; sooth but not completely relieve. Players commonly say the toughest challenge in fact is not the natural hazards but the internal strife and constant mind games. Bilancione describes it as the ultimate psychological experience in which players are always on edge.
You have to remember that youre always playing the game, Zohn explains. Your head is clicking all of the time because people are spreading rumors, planning and plotting. I was used to pushing my body to the limit, but the added mental and emotional strain really made things difficult.
Being constantly filmed was initially disturbing to Zohn, an often-labeled introvert. At first you notice the cameras, but after a while, you just go about your business. I thought for the most part the camera did a good job of presenting us as we were. But even though the show is tabbed reality TV, both Zohn and Bilancione are quick to admit the situation is still a far cry from the real thing. Its simply a game with real hardships, deadpans Bilancione. And Zohn points out that while he played a game, the tribes in Kenya live that existence. It was weird because this is how some people really live their lives. Being there made me really appreciate how easy we have it in the United States.
The end came too soon for Bilancione; he lasted only three episodes. After his tribe lost an immunity challenge, Bilancione and a member of the opposing alliance each had four votes against them. A tense question-and-answer tiebreaker ended with Bilancione the first to give a wrong response. I was disappointed that I could not deal with the young people (in my tribe) as well as I deal with apprehensive patients in my practice, says Bilancione. The consolation for being voted off was not so bad, however. Bilancione was billeted at various African resorts and hunting lodges. Everything was top-notch. We went on safari and were given first-class treatment.
Week by week, contestants voted one another out of the game. The twists and turns were dramatic, with none more pivotal than when three members of each tribe were switched to the other tribe. Despite losing two of his biggest allies in that switch, Zohn persevered and reached the final four. Strategy often proved pivotal. For example, Zohn won back-to-back individual competitions at one point, but then, out of fear of appearing too strong, decided to lay off a bit.
The climactic episode, which was watched by 27 million viewers on January 10, featured two final immunity challenges and a couple of tense votes that eliminated two contestants. Zohn and Kim Johnson, a retired teacher, were then left to the mercy of a jury of seven cast-out tribe mates who would decide the contest. After a series of probing questions, the jury declared Zohn the victor.
Unbelievable! said Knights Head Womens Soccer Coach Pete Gagliotti, after watching the final episode with other members of the athletics department at the Rothman Center. Were very happy for him. Its a great accomplishment and something we all knew he could pull off.
Part of the Territory
Celebrity and fame go hand in hand with appearing week after week on a hit television show. Despite his early departure, Bilancione continued to be popular in viewer polls and online discussions. Strangers would recognize me on the street, he says.
Zohn has had to get used to an even greater share of the spotlight. As the series unfolded, he says, Id be sitting watching people talk about me on TV. They were describing me like I was a cartoon character.
After he won the competition, Zohn was featured in just about every major news publication and appeared on numerous television programs and radio broadcasts. Its been pretty crazy, he says. Theres a lot to take in, and it feels very strange. He promises not to let the hype alter him. Im able to put this in perspective, he says. Im getting attention because I won on a popular show, but there are so many more important things going on in the world. Ill have fun with this, but I also realize what its worth.
What will he do with his new million? Zohn says he wont buy a luxurious car or designer suits. I like my life the way it is, and the money wont change me. Since soccer has played such an important role in his life, Zohn feels the need to give something back. Soccer is my life and has been good to me.
Zohns soccer skills were directly responsible for one special reward in Africa. After winning a competition where footwork and coordination played a huge role, Zohn went into a nearby town and started a pick-up game of hacky sack with some local children. Following the game, he gave the kids his hacky sack, his only luxury item allowed to him in Africa. I was really happy because I made a connection with some of the children through soccer. This experience solidified Zohns resolve to contribute to a soccer league for inner-city children.
As for his return to FDU this fall, Zohn says hes really not certain. Seth Roland and I have joked every year for the past four years that Im not returning. But I always wind up coming back.
Zohn and Bilancione both feel gifted to have enjoyed such a wild adventure in Africa. How many people get to just drop out of their lives for seven weeks and totally shirk their responsibilities? asks Bilancione. Zohn agrees, I have had experiences few people get the chance to have.
And they both treasure the special friendships forged under the hot African sun. One of Zohns closest friends on the show, goat farmer Tom Buchanan, attended the NCAA Tournament when FDU played in North Carolina. Tom cheered everyone up when the team lost in overtime. The players were very excited to meet him. Bilancione has plans for a camping and hunting trip with fellow contestant Frank Garrison. And, of course, there is the bond now formed between two members of the FDU community, who shared a unique and life-altering experience trying to survive in the African wilderness.