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Mike Gabler '93 bumps the fist of "Survivor" host Jeff Probst following a challenge. 

'Survivor' season 43 winner Mike Gabler '93 shares his favorite SFA memories, winning 'Survivor' and life after the island

Story by Nathan Wicker '19
Photos courtesy of Robert Voets/CBS

Mike Gabler '93From campus corridors to the tense nature of tribal councils, Mike Gabler '93 not only accomplished the challenges of graduating from our beloved university but also emerged as a strategic force by claiming victory in the unpredictable rigors of "Survivor" season 43. Read about the profound effect competing had on Gabler's life, the agony of keeping his win a secret and how his alma mater set him up for success.


Q: What years did you attend SFA? 
A: Fall 1989 through December 1993

Q: What degree(s) did you earn from SFA?
A: Bachelor of Arts, December 1993
Major: Speech communication
Minor: Marketing with an emphasis in international business
I was also a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, 1992 light heavyweight fight-night champion and SFA Orientation leader in 1993.

Q: What is your favorite memory of your time at SFA and why? 
A: I always loved the fall when school was back in session. There was always a fun energy and lots of excitement to see old friends and to attend new classes. I also enjoyed times with friends going to Lumberjack football games, watching the Ladyjacks basketball team, La Hacienda, Crossroads and Bullwinkles.

Q: In what ways have your experiences at SFA prepared you for achieving success?
A: What I liked most about SFA was the size of the university. I got to know all of my professors personally and got to participate and lead in a variety of groups that might not have been as accessible at a larger institution. The faculty really cared about us and shared their own real-world experiences that made learning relevant and interesting. Drs. Jim Towns, Miles McCall, Tim Clipson and Ms. Lone B. Whitliff still stand out to me after all these years. SFA was a terrific place to prepare myself for a successful future.


Q: You mentioned in the first episode of season 43 that you are a regular viewer of "Survivor." What is it about the show that created such fandom for you? What inspired you to compete on the show?
A: I love "Survivor" because you never know who is going to rise and win. It is an organic adventure that no one can predict. To be successful, you must be true to yourself and push yourself to find new edges outside of your comfort zone. It is a human story of perseverance and a wonderful show to watch with family and friends. We have been watching since the beginning of the show 20+ years ago!

Q: "Survivor" poses a combination of physical and mental challenges. How did you prepare prior to filming?
A: As soon as I sent in my audition video, I began working out, doing yoga and getting into top shape. I even bought a slackline and got pretty good at it. Mentally, I read books by Chris Voss, Nelson Mandela, Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, David Goggins, Soren Kierkegaard, and others. I drafted about 30 pages of notes and created boxes of notecards pertaining to how I would tackle the game at various stages. In order to win "Survivor," you must be mentally, emotionally and physically prepared. That game is designed to rock your world and does not disappoint. Like life, only those who prepare can be ready to seize opportunity. Inspiration is nice but fleeting. Motivation comes and goes. However, dedication is your rock and what kept me laser-focused during my training.

Q: What was your most memorable moment or unexpected twist from "Survivor"?
A: There were so many incredible moments on "Survivor." If I had to pick one, I would say winning the first individual immunity of Season 43. We walked out of the jungle, Jeff Probst, host of "Survivor," was standing there, and behind him was an enormous obstacle course as big as a football field. It was 100 degrees and as humid as Nacogdoches in August. As I reviewed the course, I felt I had a good shot to win it if I ran my best race. I prayed, "Dear Lord, help me be my best today," and then gave it my all.

Q: What are some behind-the-scenes aspects of "Survivor" that viewers may not know?
A: They really do not give you any food; there are no toilets (you go in the ocean); it gets cold in the jungle at night; they film you 24/7 (except for bathroom breaks); and Jeff Probst is as nice and cool as he appears on television.

Mike Gabler '93Q: What did you find was the most challenging about competing on "Survivor" and why?
A: What I found most challenging on "Survivor" was the journey into my "self." The longer I was out there, the stronger I became — physically, mentally and emotionally. I channeled my heroes to help keep me strong. I kept my focus on winning the money for others because I knew many people in need were counting on me. As mentioned prior to the game, I planned to donate the entire $1 million prize to veterans' charities to combat PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, depression and addiction and to promote suicide prevention. Sadly, 21 veterans a day take their own lives. We must do better as a nation to help bring our veterans all the way back home. Veterans make up 1% of our population and protect the other 99% of us. While I never had the honor of serving, it was my honor to serve those who served us. This thought fueled me on those tough days in the jungle. A person can endure anything if they can find meaning in their suffering. I knew whatever I was going through was nothing compared to what our heroes have endured, and knowing that I could help them if I won made me steadfast in my determination. I was relentless.

Q: Describe the moment you were named champion. What did that mean to you?
A: It was surreal and humbling. I was grateful for the amazing people I got to play with on the show. I was grateful to host Jeff Probst and CBS for the opportunity. I was grateful to God for keeping me strong and allowing me to help a population near and dear to me. In a time when we are so divided as a nation, I was grateful to be able to do something to bring people together. "Survivor" is a microcosm of the United States — made up of diverse people — and to be able to connect with people in a meaningful way, the way I'd like to see it done in our country, was important to me. In the end, the cast of season 43 played hard, and we made "Survivor" and television history by donating the entire prize to help people in need.

Q: What was the most valuable lesson or rewarding aspect of competing on "Survivor"?
A: The journey into my "self" was priceless. As a flawed human, I knew "Survivor" would test me mightily. The adventure pushed me on every level. I learned to be more thankful for my life and all the important people in it. I learned that I am stronger than I thought. Through extreme hunger and discomfort, I was able to push my edge farther than I ever had.

Post "Survivor"

Q: Have you been able to watch your season since winning? If so, what was it like watching the events play out?
A: After season 43 aired, I took a break from "Survivor." It was a lot to process. Then, one weekend, when my family was out of town, I watched the entire season again by myself. It was great seeing my old castaway friends reaching deep and battling together. It was a great experience. I was so blessed to have so many great people on the cast with me, and we are all friends to this day.

Q: What was the reaction of family and friends like when they found out you were the winner? Did they know immediately after filming, or was it a secret until the show's broadcast concluded?
A: "Survivor" films in April and May and airs many months later. When I returned home in June, I was 30 pounds lighter. When my wife, Joanna, saw me, she cried. I looked feral. (I was feral!) Prior to the show, we had discussed what we would do with the money if I won. Joanna had signed all of the same nondisclosure contracts that I had signed, so I was able to confide in her. At the airport, I looked at her and said, "We won!" Then, I said, "… and I hope you're still okay with what we discussed about the money because I did that, too!" We had a laugh, dried our eyes and had to sit on that information until Dec. 14!

It was very hard coming back from a big adventure and having to wait six months for the story to be told. Once season 43 finally started, it was a blast seeing friends and family watching me rumbling, bumbling and stumbling to the end. I appreciate that so many people got to be on that amazing adventure with me. Forty three was an incredible season.

Q: How has winning "Survivor" impacted your life?
A: "Survivor" has been an incredible blessing for me. One of the great things I love about "Survivor" is how relatively flat it is in that everyone is a fan and once in a while a fan gets to play! Therefore, the "Survivor" community is really fun, grounded and cool. "Survivor," like anything you do where you put your heart and soul to the test, helped me become a better person. Plus, the $1 million is helping so many people and their families that it warms my heart every single time I think about it.

Q: What led you to donate the entire $1 million prize to charities supporting veterans, first-responders and humanitarian organizations?
A: To be able to go on the show I love and to compete at a high level was amazing. To be able to pay it forward was even more profound to me. Our heroes who run toward danger to protect us need our help. I am grateful that this opportunity has been able to shed light on this important cause and that it has been able to help so many people and their families. My grandpa always said, "Talk is cheap, and it takes money to buy whiskey." In short, put your money where your mouth is. It is not enough to call attention to something important — you must put action to it.

View the full list of charities

  • Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions
  • Special Operations Warrior Foundation
  • Illuminated Warrior and Family Foundation
  • Special Forces Foundation
  • No Fallen Heroes Foundation
  • Ranch Church
  • Bonefrog Labs
  • Idaho Guard & Reserve Family Support Foundation
  • Heroic Hearts Project Inc
  • Battle Dawgs
  • Give Kids The World
  • Rescue 22 Foundation
  • K9s For Warriors
  • Pararescue Foundation
  • Operation Healing Heroes Foundation
  • Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies
  • Healing Patriots
  • Camp Freedom
  • Mental Joe Apparel
  • Koterra
  • Project Echelon
  • Advocates of Healthy Minds
  • Waymakers Missions
  • The Born To Run Foundation

Q: "Survivor" pushes its contestants into difficult situations that require a great deal of perseverance, determination and decision-making. What words of advice would you give SFA students and alumni who are facing difficult situations?
A: Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, "To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in the suffering." What matters most is how you walk through the fire in life. Grace and wisdom will come to you after much failure and folly. A life worth living should not be easy. Strive for a strenuous life. Attitude is everything. Whether you think you can or cannot, you are correct. The key is having the guts to go for it and the discipline to make things happen! You must anchor infinite possibility with necessity in order to actualize your dreams. You want to be successful? Dream big and be disciplined in the things that are necessary to accomplish your dreams. No one will do for you what you need to do for yourself. Lastly, do not waste time. Life is short. Life is now! Live it!