After spending 39 days in the Fijian wilderness as a castaway on the 37th season of “Survivor,” Alison Raybould, chief resident at the UNC Department of Medicine, is back in Chapel Hill and experiencing life as a local celebrity. During last Wednesday’s episode, Raybould secured a spot as one of the competition’s final eight contestants, getting one step closer to taking home the show’s $1 million prize. Before Raybould heads out to Los Angeles for the show’s live season finale on December 19th, she took time to reflect on her preparation, strategy and life after the island.
Zach Goins: How did you prepare yourself for life on the island?
Alison Raybould: From the moment I decided to apply, I treated preparing for “Survivor” as a second job. I would come home from call shifts and study old episodes of “Survivor” – legitimately, I took notes on effective strategy. I am a former college athlete, but I definitely ramped up my training with boxing, sprint workouts, circuit training, and swimming. I was less focused on the survival aspect because I figure I could will my way through any of the insanity. And I knew that fire represents life, especially in light of the Season 36 final four fire making twist, so I got to work learning how to make fire! One of my best friends from residency taught me how to make fire. I then practiced this multiple times a week so that I got pretty comfortable with flint. Fun fact – I am actually pyrophobic and had never even lit a match on my own. The Bunsen burner was my enemy in chem lab. Even to this day, I prefer flint and a machete to a match for my fire needs.
ZG: What part of the game were you least prepared for?
AR: As a super fan of this game, I knew exactly what I was signing up for. I was prepared for the starvation, the fatigue, and the psychological turmoil. I knew that some seasons are hit with terrible weather, but I have to say, the first 14 days were truly miserable. It poured buckets of rain the whole time with horrific winds too, and we faced two cyclones. But even in those moments of sheer misery, I was still smiling because I was playing “Survivor.”
ZG: What was your main strategy heading into the season? Did you know what kind of player you wanted to be?
AR: I thought a lot about whether or not I reveal being a physician with my tribe, as I worried it would cause me to be an early threat. The theme of David vs. Goliath forced the Goliaths to not only explain their accomplishments but also to own those achievements, and this was something that I contested the first day on the barge. I wanted to be the underdog that everyone rooted for, yet here I was being told that I was some awful giant who needed to fall. With that being said, even before the theme was revealed, I knew that I had to share the details of my profession with my fellow castaways because I wanted my strategy to hinge on forming genuine connections. I figured I could use the stories from the hospital – both humorous and tragic – to bond with my tribemates and gain their trust. I felt like I would be telling plenty of other lies in the context of game play; I did not want to also lie about my personal make-up. In addition, I see my profession as a true vocation. I did not know how I would account for the preceding decade of my life if I did not share my profession. I also knew I wanted to be a workhorse, a hustler in challenges and the type of person that people generally liked. I love the social manipulation, but I think it would feel inauthentic from me.
I also knew that the “surfer bro” archetype historically finishes within the top five and this archetype’s closest ally can fair just as well. With that being said, going into the game, I was hopeful that I would connect with the person of this archetype. Fortunately, when I was out there, this hope came true, and Alec Merlino and I instantaneously bonded day one while digging a hole for the shelter. We locked in our alliance pretty quickly after that, and from there, we were deliberate in how we communicated with each other. We made sure to not spend too much time together so that no one on Goliath would know how close we were. We would wake up in the middle of the night for strategy discussions, and we had a code for alerting each other that we needed to chat. As much as I genuinely connected with Alec, I also knew that he could protect me and could potentially operate as my meat shield. He was truly a challenge beast, so I was hoping that if we were ever in trouble, people would focus on him as a physical threat and target him instead of me. I think that this philosophy played out in the most recent episode. I was crushed to see him go, but if it hadn’t been for his physical prowess, the Davids would have been gunning me down at final 10.
ZG: You didn’t get much screen time early in the season, but pretty much since the merge you’ve been involved in all the action, do you feel like your gameplay has been properly represented in the final edit of the show?
AR: I had a really difficult time with my early “purple” edit. I was visible during the premiere and then had limited content for roughly four episodes. I believe this was a product of not going to tribal council early on and because I was trying to fly under the radar, “vibe with the tribe,” and not make too many waves at the outset. You do not get credit for big moves pre-merge. But I must admit I found the lack of visibility in the early episodes frustrating because I felt like I was playing the game hard from the moment we stepped onto the barge. I had so many close relationships that were not highlighted initially, many of which are proving to be relevant in the end game that we are now seeing as we approach the finale. My relationships with Kara and Mike, both of whom are still on the island, were alliances that I solidified around day two or three. I remember a critical moment with each of them that I was certain would make the final edit, but ultimately and painstakingly, these moments were cut. Regardless, production does an extraordinary job with a insurmountable task. How do they condense 72 hours of material for each contestant into 42 minutes? It is nearly impossible, but they are doing a beautiful job. Plus, I am happy that many of my other castaways who were voted off earlier had appropriate character development before leaving the show. Everyone puts their heart and soul into this experience that they all deserve to have their story told.
As for the representation of my gameplay, I do believe that most of what has been shown has been accurate. I wanted to use my empathic personality to gain people’s trust, and I think this was best demonstrated when I comforted Gabby at the well. I spoke strategy to her when the other Goliath members of Tiva did not. Extending an olive branch to her early on when she was feeling vulnerable helped me build social capital that I could cash in on later, and based off of the most recent tribal council, I needed this social capital. I made a concerted effort to have a strategic conversation with every single person on the island, even if they were not in my alliance. This is because the best Survivor players are adaptable. I knew that I needed people to like me or at least know me in order to be willing to work with me. I also was hustling to find idols. Going into the game, I knew that women historically find idols less than men, a dismal 15 percent of idols go to women compared to 85 percent of idols to men, and this stat bothered me significantly. I was doing everything in my power to upturn this stat by finding a clue or an advantage, and although I have yet to find one, I know that this has not been a product of lack of effort.
I think the one bit of my narrative arc that has not been fully built up until recently was my threat level. By being selected as the strongest Goliath female to represent my tribe on day one on the barge and then winning the first tribal immunity challenge as the one who stepped up for the puzzle on day three, I had inadvertently shown my strengths a bit too much. In the last episode, Mike White called me “Wonder Woman.” This was just one example of the incredibly kind language people were using to describe me. Natalie and Elizabeth both called me the total package, and multiple players compared me to one of the greatest “Survivor” players of all time, Kim Spradlin. While very flattering in real life, labels like these can be problematic in the game of “Survivor.” After winning the first individual immunity, I believe I went into “threat level midnight,” to quote Michael Scott, and the most recent episode definitely demonstrated my threat level ascending. Now, in order to be successful, I must continue to downplay my threat level, which in truth is something that I had been dealing with from the very start.
ZG: What was the hardest move you had to make, strategy-wise? (That we’ve seen so far, of course)
AR: Emotionally, the hardest move was voting out Alec. He was my day one ride-or-die. I earnestly believe that there was no closer relationship in the game than ours. We were completely transparent with each other, and trust like that is exceedingly rare on “Survivor.” The morning of that epic immunity, Alec knew that his name was on the chopping block. He fought like hell for six hours on that perch, but his body ultimately gave out, and Christian proved to be an extraordinary competitor. After the challenge, Alec and I strategized on how best to make a pitch to Christian and Gabby. I made an impassioned plea to Christian to “use me as a cautionary tale” of what it looks like to not make the move soon enough. I was incredibly proud of this speech, and I know that we nearly were successful in convincing Christian to flip. Right before tribal, Christian confirmed his decision to vote out Alec, and Alec gave me permission to write his name down. He said that he did not want me to lose my game by fighting for him. While on screen, it seemed that the Goliaths rolled over and offered up Alec to the Davids, I believe that the work I put in with Christian and Gabby during the Alec boot really laid the groundwork for the next tribal council when they chose to vote with me and take out Carl.
Strategically, the hardest move I made was to vote for Christian instead of work with the strike force at the John boot. That day, Mike came to me with a heartfelt pitch as to why we should not flip on the Goliaths. Mike was my second closest ally in the game, and he had never asked me for anything at this point in the game. In order to prove that I wanted to work with him, I decided to vote with the Goliaths and for Christian. However, I felt quite uneasy about this. But at that point in the game, I was at the top of the Goliaths and had extremely strong relationships with Alec, Mike, Kara and John as well as working relationships with Angelina and Dan. I just couldn’t see why I would go from the top of an alliance of people I felt that I could beat to the bottom of an alliance where I would be keeping the biggest threat, Christian, in the game.
ZG: What has it been like watching yourself on TV? Do you have watch parties with friends or anything like that?
AR: It has been very surreal watching myself on TV. I did not do this for the fame. I just felt called to play this game. I was looking for a challenge unlike any other and wanted to test the grit that I believed I had from years of rigorous training.
The best part of watching myself on TV is getting to share this incredible, transformative experience with the people that I love. My mom flew in for the merge episode, when I won individual immunity. After I won, Jeff [Probst] commented on how my body seemed to be having a visceral response and asked me what was going through my mind. In that moment, I could only think about my family watching me win immunity and was overcome with sheer exhilaration and joy. To then watch it back with my mom at my side, it was truly a magical experience.
For the premiere, I invited the whole Department of Medicine at UNC to my watch party. It was incredibly moving to see how many people came out to support me. Since the premiere, I have kept my watch parties pretty small. But a group of my closest friends join me every Wednesday, and it means the world to have them there. I do plan on having one more public watch party before the finale. It will be for the December 12th episode, but I am still working out the details. Super fans, stay tuned!
ZG: Have your friends, family, coworkers, etc. made a big deal about seeing you on national TV?
AR: We joke that I am a local celebrity, but I don’t really see it that way. I just got to be a part of this really cool experience and credit for that goes to the remarkable support system within my friends, family and at the hospital. I know that this “celebrity” will all fade, and honestly, I look forward to my next great adventure within the field on oncology.
ZG: So, obviously you’ve got a big couple weeks coming up with the finale. If you end up taking home the million, can we still expect to see you around UNC Hospitals, or will you be living lavish somewhere?
AR: I will definitely keep working at UNC! Over the last four years, UNC has become my heart and my home. I am incredibly passionate about what I do, and I do not see a million dollars changing that. I cannot wait for my next great adventure as a Heme/Onc (hematology/oncology) fellow. Seems like UNC is stuck with me for another three years. Plus, those student loans already take up a big chunk of the million.
ZG: Would you be open to returning for another season of Survivor?
AR: I would return in a heartbeat. My dream is to come back for a Heroes vs. Villains season as a hero. Hopefully, the public still sees me as a hero by the end of the season.
ZG: What advice do you have for anyone looking to get on the show?
AR: I would tell anyone thinking about applying to just do it. I made the decision to apply when I was 30 hours post-call in the MICU, because all good life decisions are made after 30 hours without sleep. When I finally sent in my audition tape, I felt excited at the potential and simply proud that I actually did the thing that I said I was going to do. So often in life, we have pipe dreams that we never act upon. Life gets in the way or we make excuses for why we will do something tomorrow. With “Survivor,” I just felt compelled to play this insane, beautiful, complex and challenging game. I was one of the lucky ones plucked from thousands, and I regarded the experience as a true gift. For those who have a similar dream to me, I would just tell you to be true to yourself. Authenticity is what will impress people the most!
“Survivor: David vs. Goliath” airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.