Two LDS contenders on 'Survivor: South Pacific'

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 14 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

"Survivor" contestant Dawn Meehan stands with all of her family, including six adopted children from varied backgrounds, in front of a local church.

Family Photo

As we say goodbye to summer vacations and summer filler television shows, we see a changing season: School is in and fall television welcomes Mormons once again. The two Utah residents competing on CBS's “Survivor: South Pacific,” Dawn Meehan of South Jordan and Rick Nelson of Aurora, are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It can and will be said again and again: This isn’t the first time there have been LDS contestants on a reality show. Some contestants in recent memory have included two men on ABC’s summer competition, “Expedition Impossible."

Mormons have hardly been strangers to the deserted island competition through its 22 seasons so far. Neleh Dennis (“Survivor: Marquesas”) made ripples not only as the runner-up, but also for her very Mormon euphemisms like, “Oh my heck.” Tyson Apostal, whose two-year mission was mentioned in his CBS profile, competed in two seasons. Ashlee Ashby ("Survivor: Palau") talked about her experience in seminary in her profile. Even Kelly Wiglesworth, a runner up in the original season of the show, was “Mormon-raised,” according to the Las Vegas Sun.

Meehan and Nelson, though competing at the same time, come from very different backgrounds. Meehan is an English professor at Brigham Young University and the mother of six adopted children. With short hair and happy eyes, she comes off in her interviews as very amiable, full of smiles and ecstatic to be on "Survivor." Nelson is a father of two, loves being a grandpa to one, and is a rancher in a little place called Lost Creek, near Aurora. He’s recognizable by the cowboy hat, handlebar mustache, a drawl and he’s often cracking jokes.

The two contestants are even in opposing tribes, but they do have another thing in common. To call them avid fans of the show would be an understatement.

“To me, it is the best game. I mean, it’s the mother of all reality shows,” Meehan said.

Nelson, who has followed every season, first applied around season eight. He applied 14 times total.

“That sounds pretty desperate, doesn’t it?” Nelson said with a hearty laugh.

After being cut many times, he won the casting call contest sponsored by Sears and finally made it into the show.

“This time …. man, I was pumped up,” he said. “Thankfully they didn’t call me up and say, ‘You can’t go.’”

Meehan had actually applied before as well. She was cut last-minute from the cast of “Survivor: Nicaragua.”

Both contestants consider their casting as an achievement of a long-lived goal. Both called the whole casting process exciting — and getting cut only made them try harder.

“For me the adventure part, the exciting part, was getting cast on the show,” Meehan said.

Both caught a case of "Survivor" fever and neither gave up or stopped preparing.

Nelson prepared by way of 10-mile bike rides and 3- or 4-mile runs. He said he ate everything he could and added that he thought people were crazy showing up skinny, pretty and TV-ready. They are there to survive.

Meehan did 10 months of two-a-day workouts from weight training to cardio. She said she can now hold her breath under water “longer than anyone should.” She also read any material she could get her hands on that she thought might help her.

Her husband would tease her, joking that she was going to learn to surf reading a book. But her husband, children, colleagues, ward and even students have been very supportive of her endeavor.

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