Mud, Sweat and Tears: Redemption Through a ‘Survivor’ Challenge

Visiting the set of “Survivor” is a truly unique experience. The crack crew goes above and beyond to give the press a no-holds-barred look at the show’s production. From pre-show access to the contestants, to visits to the tribe camps, to a seat at the season’s first Tribal Council, we’re allowed to see it all.

But such access comes with a price.

It’s an unwritten rule that every member of the press will eventually have to go toe-to-toe with the buff, tanned, and bruised force known as The Dream Team.

The Dream Team is a collection of twenty young men and women who help Challenge Producer John Kirhoffer fine-tune the reward and immunity challenges. They spend their summers running each challenge until Kirhoffer is satisfied with it.

I’ve squared off against The Dream Team before. In the summer of 2008 on a scorching plain located in the heart of Gabon, Africa we battled in the grueling “Temptation Valley” challenge. I was tethered to five of my fellow press brethren as we hurtled obstacles, trudged through swamps, and dug in the steaming sand.

I left that challenge with three things…

I left with an appreciation for how tough “Survivor” challenges can be. When the exhausting ordeal was over I was handed a cup of sports drink. The members of “Survivor: Gabon’s” Kota and Fang tribes got nothing. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to compete like that on an empty stomach and without a good night’s sleep.

I left with the unique experience of participating in a challenge that was called by Jeff Probst. Now don’t get me wrong, I like to poke fun at JPro as much as anyone, but there’s no disputing the fact that the man has three consecutive Emmys for a reason. I can only imagine that having Jeff call your challenge action is the reality show equivalent of having Harry Carey or Jack Buck call your home run shot in baseball. If Jeff ever does step away from “Survivor,” I pity whoever tries to fill his logo-adorned baseball cap and puka shell necklace.

And I left with an African leech attached to the back of my right knee. It wasn’t that big of a deal, a crew member quickly lopped it off with a machete. It didn’t really hurt and the ladies in attendance were impressed. Win/win!

The one thing I didn’t leave with? A victory.  We were decimated. The Dream Team lived up to their name, leaving us in the dust…and sand…and leech-infested swamp water.

So, while I was excited to visit Nicaragua to see what the “Survivor” crew had in store for their 21st season, the thought of the impending showdown with the Dream Team never left my mind.

As we went about our visit, some details started to leak about the challenge we’d be running. It would be an early version of a challenge that would be used later in the season. We also knew it would involve mud and hay. I used my knowledge of Nicaraguan history to guess that we’d be making some kind of adobe structure.

True to form, I was wrong.

To start off, the tribes will divide into three groups. Four players will be a relay team, two players will be a knot-untying team, and the rest will be the puzzle team.

mudpit hay

The challenge starts off with a player from each relay team diving into a mud pit, then doing a military crawl under a ropes obstacle. Once the players are out of the mud they’ll have to dig through a hay stack to retrieve a bag of puzzle pieces. After they’ve found their bag, they’ll hand it off to the untying team. Then, the second member of the relay team will dive into the mud. Once all four of the relay team members have retrieved their bags, the untying team wil go to work untying the knots that are keeping the bags closed. When all four of the bags are untied, they’ll pass the pieces off to the puzzle team. The puzzle was basically a Nicaragua-themed crossword. Once the team has completed the crossword puzzle they’ll use select letters to create a two-word phrase. The first team to unscramble their phrase wins immunity.

You read that last sentence correctly; the winner of this exhibition would indeed win immunity. The Press Team would win immunity from the teasing and prodding they were sure to receive from Mr. Probst and the rest of the crew. While the Dream Team would win immunity from whatever kind of punishment they’d surely be in for if they lost to the out-of-shape, overweight, past-their-prime Press Team. The “Survivor” crew will tell you that the Press Challenge exists to help the cameramen know where to set up, or give Jeff some practice before the show starts, or to make sure the challenge is balanced. But the truth is, the “Survivor” crew doesn’t want anyone coming in and showing up the Dream Team.

Also, the winning team would receive a case of delicious Tona beer.

NOTE: XFINITY TV does not encourage drinking.

Win or lose, I wanted Probst to give his take on how I performed. Unfortunately the way the schedule worked out, I was going to do my video interview with JPro the day before we ran the challenge. So, we decided to pretend the competition had already taken place. What follows is how Jeff assumed I’d do in the challenge.
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Frankly, it was a safe bet that history would repeat itself and it definitely makes for a more amusing video. But, a funny thing happened on the way to the Nicaraguan mud pit…

“I’ve got to say I was very surprised that the Press did so well,” Challenge Producer John Kirhoffer admitted. “I thought the Dream Team was going to smoke them.”

The first member of the Press relay team had a terrible time finding her puzzle pieces. As she dug into the huge pile of hay, several members of the Dream Team were able to pass her. It got so bad that the crew was worried that they had forgotten to put the bags of puzzle pieces into place. She eventually found them, but not before the Dream Team had built a significant lead.

I watched the second member of our team plow through the mud as I stood in the third slot (not unlike Albert Pujols). She made it through the course quickly, but all four of the Dream Team members had retrieved their puzzle pieces at that point.

I charged toward the mud pit and dove in head first. I must’ve hit it just right, because when I raised my head up, I was already halfway through the ropes course. I crawled through and pulled myself out of the slop.

Note: Before the challenge, the Press Team discussed digging into the bottom of the hay pile. Our reasoning was that the bags of puzzle pieces would eventually sink to the bottom of the stack. For some unknown reason, I decided to ignore this strategy.

With a full of head of steam, (well as full as it can be when you’re trying to keep your shorts up – mud is heavy), I dove into the pile of hay head first. Probst obviously approved of this tactic as he exclaimed, “That is how you do it!”

I dug through the hay as quickly as I could. Eventually I saw a glimpse of blue and grabbed for it. It was the bag. Success! I joined my other relay members and handed off my bag. The anchor for our relay team tore through the course as well. We were still behind the Dream Team, but we were definitely back in business.

The remainder of the challenge was out of our hands, but we had left it in very capable hands. The untying team made up a ton of time and narrowed the Dream Team’s lead. And the puzzle team managed to complete the crossword portion slightly ahead of the Dream Team.

Both sides hovered around their puzzles. But from where I was standing I had no clue which side was closer to completing the scrambled words.

It was then that I heard JPro say the words I had traveled 2061.4 miles to hear, “The Press Team wins!”

It’s a bit embarrassing to admit how elated we were by a victory that ultimately meant nothing, but we were downright giddy. Hugs and high-fives were exchanged and some good-natured ribbing was directed toward the Dream Team. Even Mr. Probst took a minute to rescind his earlier assertion that I would perform poorly…

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“As a perfect “Survivor” challenge would have it, it all came down to the puzzle,” Kirhoffer reasoned. “The puzzle was the catch-up mechanism and the Dream Team got stuck on that.”

And as disappointed as the crew was to watch their pride and joy drop a challenge to clearly inferior competition, they had to have been a little pleased that they had achieved their goal of creating challenges that older people could compete in with younger people.

The only question that remained was, how much berating would the poor Dream Team face from Mr. Kirhoffer after losing to the out-of-shape, overweight, past-their-prime Press Team? “It’s fairly quick,” Kirhoffer explained. “I say, ‘Now it’s up to you to buy the beer and put it on ice and deliver it to them.’ And that’s what they did.”

Don’t Forget: “Survivor: Nicaragua” premieres Wednesday, September 15, 2010 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS. And yes, the rumors are true, “Survivor” is NOWonWED.

More “Survivor” Fun: Meet the La Flor and Espada Tribes, check out our Pre-Season “Survivor” Rankings, and see what new twists and challenges “Survivor” has in store for us.

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