Arts & Culture

Local contestants weigh in on Survivor: Winners at War experience

Sarah Lacina of Cedar Rapids and eventual Sole Survivor Tony Vlachos of New Jersey participate in a fire-building challe
Sarah Lacina of Cedar Rapids and eventual Sole Survivor Tony Vlachos of New Jersey participate in a fire-building challenge to see who would be among the final three contestants vying for $2 million in “Survivor: Winners at War.” Lacina placed fourth overall in Wednesday’s three-hour Season 40 finale on CBS-TV. (CBS Entertainment)
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They came so close. And while winning $2 million would have been game-changing, Sarah Lacina of Cedar Rapids and Denise Stapley of Marion were pleased with placing fourth and sixth, respectively, on “Survivor: Winners at War.”

The 40th season of the CBS-TV reality game of strategy, strength and stamina was filmed last May 22 to June 29 on Fiji’s Mamanuca Islands. The final voting took place there, but because of coronavirus restrictions, instead of gathering in Los Angeles for Wednesday night’s winning reveal, all of the contestants were watching from home.

Lacina’s close ally and fellow police officer, Tony Vlachos of Allendale, N.J., was named Sole Survivor at the end of the three-hour finale.

The social-distancing reveal “was definitely different,” said Lacina, 35, a Cedar Rapids police detective. “We watch every episode on Wednesdays, and then when it’s over, you get up, you go to work the next day, and that’s the routine. Then at the end of the season, you have this big finale reunion, everybody’s out there together, hanging out, and it’s like the end cap to the season.

“(Wednesday) night, we ended at home with the episode, and it’s over. It feels like it was just a regular episode. So next Wednesday, when there’s not an episode on, it will feel weird because we really didn’t get that closure,” she said.

“It was such a big season, and obviously we would have loved to be out there for it, but it’s just the times we’re going through right now.”

Better to Relax

Stapley missed getting together, too, but embraced relaxing at home with her husband and daughter.

“It’s strange,” she said. “The first time being out there, the finale is exciting and it’s the culmination of everything and there’s that ritual to it. But it’s also really stressful. When you’re out in L.A., you’re doing all the press and you’re always ‘on.’

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“So even though there’s a part of me that was really sad I didn’t get to go out for the finale and get to see people and to reconnect again, there was another part of me that was, ‘Gosh, I get to just relax.’ I got to put on my ripped jeans and tank shirt and just relax and truly watch it. ... It was really wonderful, and actually quite relaxing to watch it.”

Before the comfy clothes, however, daughter Sydney, 16, cooked dinner and made them all dress and pose for photos, as if they were in Los Angeles. “Then we changed,” Stapley added.

Like all 20 contestants, Lacina and Stapley, 49, a mental health therapist, had already won $1 million in previous seasons, and even though this anniversary season offering the biggest monetary reward, each player still received a payout. Show rules won’t allow them to say how much.

Grueling Experience

But Lacina and Stapley both said the most valuable take-aways were the lessons learned and friendships forged during the grueling 39-day competition.

Their austere existence was devoid of creature comforts and full of physical and mental challenges, from building shelters and scrounging for food, to trying to win immunity challenges that would prevent them from being voted off the island in that round.

One of the most dramatic moments during the finale came on Night 36, when four of the final six had immunity, so they had to vote either Lacina or Stapley out of the game. Lacina won that vote, and survived the next round, too.

When it came down to deciding the final three, she was pitted against Vlachos, her ally from two previous “Survivor” outings. They went head to head in a fire challenge, each having to build flames high enough to burn through a rope and raise a small flag. Vlachos won that round, and the next, to take home the top prize.

Early-on in the competition, Stapley made her mark as “the Queen Slayer,” ousting two-time champion Sandra Diaz-Twine, who opted out of the game completely and returned home to Riverview, Fla.

‘Peace of Mind’

A big part of Lacina’s legacy came during the finale, when she spoke candidly about the gender bias she and the other women felt on the show.

She also spoke about the guilt and self-doubt she carried from her previous two “Survivor” competitions, where her “cutthroat” strategizing felt like she was stabbing friends in the back. She played her game differently this third time, lifting that weight off her shoulders.

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“It’s the greatest take-away I have,” she said. “Two million dollars is great, but peace of mind is priceless.”

Stapley, however, didn’t see what she had brought back, until later.

“When I came home this last time, I came home so drained,” she said. “I came home exhausted and tapped out. What I didn’t realize was, I didn’t know how significant that mantra of ‘endure and let go,’ how meaningful that was going to be for me. It’s a part of who I am, and it’s something I can use with my clients, and grow from that.

“I was born to do difficult things, and I can do those as long as I want to, as long as choose to. But’s it’s also OK to say, ‘I’m good, I’ve had my fill, and that can be OK.’ ”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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