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.

“I think that I didn’t expect how kind people would be,” Meehan said, citing a flood of messages she’s received since the cast was announced and she was allowed to tell people where she had gone for much of her summer.

Nelson has also had a great deal of support from his wife of 31 years. He said that after years of trying to get on the show, it hit him that he hadn’t really asked her about how she felt or given thought to what it would mean to take off for a deserted island.

“That was the scary part for me, leaving my wife,” he said.

But when he asked her, she was supportive of his “Survivor” dream, on one condition.

“(She said,) 'Please don’t be the old guy walking around in your underwear on TV.' I might disappoint her on that one,” Nelson said, chuckling.

Since they both followed the show nearly religiously, Meehan and Nelson had braced themselves pretty well for the contest. Nelson said it was what he expected “and then some.”

“In the back of your mind … (you think), 'Do they kind of give you a little cookie here and there?'” he said. “They don’t help you at all. … It’s the real deal.”

Meehan said she had prepared so much, there really wasn’t any more that she could’ve done. She called her preparation for and experience on the show ”the most gratifying thing aside from having our kids.”

It’s having those kids that she thinks really sets her apart from other contestants.

Between teaching students, pulling together a family of six adopted children and participating in foster care, Meehan believes she has some crucial people skills for succeeding on the show.

Nelson focused on his ranching background as helpful for him. He’s already a survivor when it comes to facing the wilderness.

“When that sun goes down and you’re away from your family and not eating real good, it kind of comes down on you if you’re not used to it,” he said. But Nelson’s used to it.

Both contestants learned some valuable spiritual lessons in their grueling physical experience. In a game marked with lying and backstabbing, Nelson learned about other people.

“There’s still a bunch of really decent people out there,” he said.

Nelson, who has served on the activities committee in Aurora 2nd Ward, Salina, Utah Stake, tried to maintain a general, good-person image himself.

“I wanted to treat people the way I want to be treated,” Nelson said. ”Being decent and not lying can still win the game.”

“My religion played just such a significant role in the experience,” Meehan, who teaches Sunbeams with her husband in the Founders Park 8th Ward, South Jordan Utah Founders Park Stake, said. She added that she tried to be mindful of what she said and did while she was competing, but she knows she might not please everybody.

“I’m sure there will be people who say ‘Hey, I would do this differently.’ We’re of the same religion,” she said. She hopes people will understand that there is diversity within the LDS Church. Not every church member would handle themselves the same way in competing on “Survivor.”

“It’s a game,” Meehan said. She cited BYU football games as an example, where football players tackle each other left and right. The church preaches against violence, but the tackling is fine when it’s just a game. “My guess is they’re (the players) not walking around crunching people.”

Nelson said he just did his own thing, following his “do unto others” philosophy.

“I don’t know if I’m a good example or not,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m just me.”

Both agreed that they learned about growth and potential, and they had learned that they could pull off some pretty tough stuff.

“That’s just not something a 41-year-old woman does every day,” Meehan said.

Nelson said he discovered “that I can do what I gotta do to get through.”

In the meantime, while they wait for the show to finish airing, they each have plans on what to do with their experience.

The Utah Foster Care Foundation plans to have Meehan become a spokesperson of sorts for foster care, and adopting from foster care when the show’s over. Meehan also plans to share her experience with as many people as possible — and in spiritual settings, too.

“I feel like the game parallels life so much,” she said, adding later, “There are so many great metaphors.”

Nelson is bracing himself for fighting the urge to do it again, because “it was a riot.” He knows that when host Jeff Probst looks at the camera at the end of episodes in coming seasons to challenge viewers to try, Nelson will want to.

“It was well worth the 14 times of putting in,” he said. “I really want to put in again.”

Nelson joked that his wife won’t let him try out for “The Bachelor.”

“I’m going to have find something else for my bucket list, I guess.”

For more information about Dawn Meehan, Rick Nelson and the 23rd season of "Survivor," visit www.cbs.com/shows/survivor.

Email: hbowler@desnews.com

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