Cedar Rapids returns to 'Survivor' spotlight

Previous winner Stapley will be cheering on current contestant Lacina

Diana Nollen
Published: February 26 2014 | 5:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 4:10 am in
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Cedar Rapids police officer Sarah Lacina, 29, will have a million-dollar hometown cheerleader in her corner when her "Survivor: Cagayan" odyssey begins airing on CBS at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Season 28 brings the popular television test of strategy and stamina back to the Philippines, where Denise Stapley walked away with the big prize a little more than a year ago. The scrappy sex therapist from Cedar Rapids won over her competitors to be voted Sole Survivor in the Season 25 finale Dec. 16, 2012.

The only thing that payday has changed is her bank account. She says her life really hasn't changed otherwise.

"I went back to work, I still have my practice, my family life is still the same," says Stapley, 43, who is married and has a 10-year-old daughter. "As a family, the biggest way itís changed is that we have a different sense of security.

"Our lifestyle hasn't changed. If you didnít know it, you wouldnít know it. We have the same house, the same cars, the same everything."

Their only splurge has been a family a trip to Hawaii this past Christmas.

FAST TAKE

What: "Survivor: Cagayan" premiere

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday (2/26) on CBS-TV

Who: Cedar Rapids police officer Sarah Lacina on the Brawn (Aparri) Tribe

Details: Hooplanow.com/2014/01/22/c-r-police-officer-takes-survivor-challenge/#axzz2sHFi8mPy

Cast bios: Cbs.com/shows/survivor/cast/214796/

Regular air time: 7 p.m. Wednesdays

Stapley's "Survivor" win has opened up opportunities to do more charity fundraisers and educational events, which she calls her chance "to pay back and pay forward that amazing experience I had."

She also has stepped out of her comfort zone to do some motivational speaking.

"Public speaking has never been my first love," she says with a laugh. But after surviving almost constant rains on a remote island and the show's physical and mental challenges -- not to mention a nasty unidentified-bug bite -- she's learned to roll with just about anything.

"We are so much more capable than we think we are," she says, and she's applying that to her everyday life, her speeches and when applicable, to her mental health counseling practice.

"I'm much more willing to go out and try new things, even if itís planning a trip or public speaking," she says. "I would have figured out a way to get out of them before, but now I'm much more open. If I can make it happen, I'll make it happen."

Not one for roughing it beforehand, she's signed up for a woodsy mother-daughter camping adventure next summer.

She's been able to bank things money can't buy, as well.

"I walked away with these very unexpected gifts -- appreciation, determination and lasting relationships" with her "Survivor" colleagues, she says. "It changed my appreciation for what we have and for the community I live in."

She's also buoyed by the support generated for the Philippines in the wake of November's devastating typhoon, and the resiliency of the people. "What I appreciate on that level" has grown, she says.

The weather was the biggest obstacle she had to overcome during her "Survivor" stint, where it rained for 16 days.

"We were never dry," she says. "We were damp at best and soaked at worst. We can all relate to the Floods of 2008, with the rain and destruction. It's a very hopeless and helpless feeling. The biggest challenge was to stay focused." She kept telling herself, "Itís just rain -- itís going to stop eventually."

Being gone from her family for seven weeks was tough, too, but she knew her husband and daughter would be fine. Her husband was flown to the "Survivor" island for a too-brief reunion, as part of a challenge reward.

"I climbed him like a coconut tree," Stapley says. She didn't win that challenge, so he didn't get to stay overnight and was whisked away. "I didn't want to let him go," she says. "It was hard to see him go."

She and her family will gather around the TV at home to watch Lacina in action, shouting out advice to the screen that Lacina will never hear. Like the rest of the viewing public, Stapley has no insider idea of how this season will play out.

Stapley likes being left in the dark, just as she was very happy not knowing what she might encounter in her own "Survivor" adventure.

"It was more comforting for me to embrace the unknown," she says. "Ignorance is bliss."

Lacina's season was filmed last July and August, and while Stapley heard rumors that Cedar Rapids was home to another contestant, she didn't reach out to Lacina until about a month ago, with a simple congratulations and "welcome to the family." Nothing more.

"It will be fun to talk to her at some point, and hear how this has impacted her," Stapley says. "I have no idea how she did and no idea how long she lasted. ... I've heard nothing but good things about her. She'll represent (Cedar Rapids) solidly."

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