Cedar Rapids resident brings novel appeal to ‘Survivor’ game

The reality show begins its 25th season on Wednesday

Diana Nollen
Published: September 16 2012 | 1:05 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 12:32 am in
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Denise Stapley of Cedar Rapids has survived “Survivor.”

That much we know.

How she fared in the Philippines will unfold beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday, when the reality show begins its 25th season on CBS.

A veil of secrecy descended upon Stapley, 41, her husband and their 8-year-old daughter after the mental health professional and certified sex therapist cast her line last fall to join the band of castaways.

Drawn to the show on personal, visceral and professional levels, she and her husband have been avid viewers since the very first season.

“As a therapist, it’s like (this) huge social experiment as you watch it. There’s so many different personalities, and you’re looking at how it challenges everyone. Mentally and physically, they just seem like they’re maxed out,” she says.

“For me, it’s just really interesting to watch the dynamics. Plus, I see the challenges, and as someone who never participated in any real sports growing up, it just looked fun, sitting on my couch. From an entertainment value and even from the clinical value, I love the show. I find it fascinating.”

Over the years, Stapley found herself yelling at the TV, second-guessing the contestants, thinking she could do better and wishing she could have that experience.

“Finally, two years ago, I got up the guts and applied, and hadn’t heard anything back,” she says. “I’m not one to give up that easy, so I applied again last fall, and luck of the draw, it was my lucky day and it worked.”

And there she was last spring, half a world away, surrounded by shark-infested waters, a plethora of poisonous vipers and tempestuous storms.

She thinks her job “brings a little novelty” to the band of 18 castaways, as well as the ability to communicate and read people.

Her opponents included retired baseball star Jeff Kent, 44, the National League’s 2000 Most Valuable Player in his San Francisco Giants days; actress Lisa Whelchel, 49, best-known as Blair on NBC’s “The Facts of Life”; a couple of beauty pageant winners; and three former “Survivor” contestants who had been airlifted from their previous attempts because of medical emergencies.

All were plunked onto an unforgiving Pacific island with little more than the clothes on their backs.

“You bring what you need for the game, and that’s it,” she says.

Unlike the castaways on “Gilligan’s Island,” the “Survivor” castaways have “no luxury items,” she says. “A lot of people say, ‘Where do you brush your teeth?’ There’s no toothbrushes. If you fall off a boat, you can’t expect to have anything like that.”

Preparing physically involved a medical checkup, vaccinations and keeping up her normal exercise routine of swimming and running, with a little bit of biking.

She also prepared herself mentally, approaching it much like a pregnancy, she says, where you read all the books, think it all through, then realize that when the time comes, all the best-laid plans “can go to heck in a hand basket.”

She can’t talk about the various contests, alliances, outcomes and awards, but perhaps the biggest reward is simply surviving.

“I learned I’m definitely tougher and stronger than I think, in terms of what I can tolerate,” she says. “No matter what, leaving your family for any period of time, I came home with an immense appreciation for my husband and my daughter and the sacrifices they made while I was gone — and the rest of my family — and just an appreciation for what we have.

“Going to another country and getting a glimpse of the life that they live, we have to be very thankful for what we have. It just really strengthened that for me.”

 

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