Utah 'Survivor' contestants reflect on their days on the island

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 28 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

"Survivor: South Pacific" contestants join for the finale and reunion show on Dec. 18.

CBS

Dawn Meehan doesn't go many places where she doesn't get recognized as a contestant on "Survivor: South Pacific."

"Everyone has been so supportive," the South Jordan adoptive mother and Brigham Young University English professor said in a phone interview just after the episode aired where she was eliminated from the game. "It is a tiny taste of what it may be like to be famous."

Meehan was one of two Utahns and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who competed on the most recent season of "Survivor" on CBS.

Rick Nelson, a rancher from Aurora, made it to the final five and to Day 37 of the 39-day competition.

Both Nelson and Meehan were part of the nine-member "Survivor" jury who ultimately picked the winner of the $1 million prize.

Medical student Sophie Clarke was voted as the sole survivor, which was announced in the finale on Dec. 18. Benjamin "Coach" Wade and Albert Destrade were in the top three who made their case to the jury as to why they should win.

Meehan voted for Clarke and Nelson voted for Wade, even though Nelson was angry with Wade and Destrade for their assuring him he was safe and then voting him out.

It was what Wade said at the very end in admitting that he lied to several people that swayed Nelson. For Meehan, it was looking at the three "Survivor" mantras: outwit, outlast and outplay.

"I feel it's a game," Meehan said, adding that it was no different than a football game. The players tackle each other during the game, but they don't do that to each other in real life. And honestly, she expected more blindsiding than what happened there.

Meehan, who lasted 28 days on the island and lost 14 pounds, was part of the Savaii Tribe. Nelson, who lost 23 pounds, was part of the Upolu Tribe. He made an alliance with four others that helped carry him to the end. After the two six-member tribes merged, Savaii Tribe member John Cochran, a Harvard law student, switched loyalties, giving the former Upolu members an upper hand. The former Savaii members were voted off one at time.

"It was hard to leave the game," said Meehan, who wore her trademark striped knee socks on the day the episode aired in which she left the game. She still has the red and brown swimsuit and the rest of the clothes she wore on the show, which were laundered for her. "It was a really, really empowering experience."

A turning point for her was during the fourth episode when she helped the tribe win immunity during a challenge of weights being added to a pole across her shoulders. Two men and woman from each tribe competed, and she was the last one standing. Keith Tollefson was sitting to the side of her, helping to encourage her.

"The game turns for me (then), and I'm more confident in myself," she said.

For Nelson, it took some time to make peace with what happened.

"There's no do-overs," Nelson said in a phone interview on Dec. 19 after the finale aired. "I don't know if there is anything I could have done."

His wife got to visit the islands and they got to share a bear hug. "It was life-changing for her," he said of the days she spent there. They don't go on many trips because of the demands of their ranch.

Meehan had been thinking about the first tribal council of the merged tribes and how if she had given away her immunity to Cochran, the outcome might have been different. But she stands by her decision to keep her immunity. She said that it's easy to think "what if" after you've slept and eaten consistently.

Both Utahns felt they were fairly represented during the show.

Nelson's plan was to work hard and keep quiet. The cameras commonly showed him fishing or working around camp.

For Meehan, being Mormon came up on camera and on air.

"I appreciate that I was able to identify myself (as a Mormon)," she said. "So much has come of it." She has gotten mail from around the world.

"I'm glad I was able to play that game and get through it and still be who you are," she added.

Both mentioned the challenge of literally having to find their food each day.

"You can surivive with nothing," Nelson said of what he learned, adding that he has more of an appreciation for living in the United States. "We were so happy to catch a little fish."

At the end, Meehan and Whitney Duncan hid coconuts from the rest of the tribe members when they were being rationed and food seemed scarce.

After getting back to Ponderosa, where the jury members stayed after being voted off, the first thing Nelson wanted was an ice cream cone with chocolate on top.

"I thought there was no way they would have that," he said. Then a little while later a little kid came running toward him with the ice cream cone.

And even though they were out in the wilderness, none of them smelled to each other.

"I didn't smell nothing," Nelson said.

"You don't smell to each other," said Meehan, who still keeps in touch with many of the other contestants, including Cochran.

"In many ways, they are family," Meehan said.

Email: rappleye@desnews.com

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