No season of Survivor would be complete if we didn’t compile the all-time list of winners each season. With 38 seasons now in the rear-view, we just witnessed Chris Underwood, the 26-year-old District Sales Manager from Greenville, South Carolina, becoming the latest person to win Survivor…but where does this sit on the all-time list?
#1: Sandra Diaz-Twine – ‘Survivor: Pearl Islands’ – Season 7, ‘Heroes vs. Villains’ – Season 20
Sandra won the game not once, but twice. In my mind, there is no better or clearer argument. It is hard to debate against the cold hard fact that Sandra has now won Survivor twice. It can’t be called a fluke, and it was done in two different seasons, with two different groups of people. Even Richard, even Rob, couldn’t win twice. Nobody has, which by default puts Sandra in a league of her own. Is her strategy of “anybody but me” the key to winning Survivor? Only partially. It basically comes down to knowing, and using, your strengths. And no, her losing during “Game Changers” does not taint or tarnish the Queen’s legacy.
Sandra is not a physical threat, so is not often targeted early. She has a rare quality (Hatch and Rob had it too) where she knew when to speak, and also knew when not to. Information is power in Survivor, and her tribe mates were always kept on a “need to know” basis. She also possesses a strong ability to sniff people out, like she did with Russell very early on in Heroes vs. Villains. Until another player wins twice (will that ever happen?), it is hard to argue against calling Sandra the top Survivor to have ever played the game.
#2: Boston Rob Mariano – ‘Survivor: Redemption Island’ – Season 22
Dominant. Absolutely masterful. There is no better way to refer to Boston Rob‘s performance during this season than that. All winners require a degree of luck (can you imagine of Rob had started off on Zapatera instead of Ometepe?) but Rob re-defined what it meant to play a “social game.” Others described his control over his alliance as “cult-like” and indeed he brought a Final 6 with him to the end, all of which firmly believed that Rob was taking them with him to the end. Even that phrase – “taking them” – shows the control Rob had… nobody was taking Rob with, he was “taking them.” He kept control of the game by constantly checking in, and not allowing opportunities for his alliance to discuss things with one another. He made all the right moves, said all the right things. He simply put on the best strategic performance the game has ever seen.
Critics will point out that at the time Rob played, he was also the only person ever to have played the game four times. But he lost “All-Stars” to his future wife Amber (although he dominated that season and should have won) and he could have won “Heroes vs. Villains” if it wasn’t for the opposing force, Russell Hantz (and a goofy, inexplicable vote from Tyson). His resume puts him nearly in a league of his own. So what hasn’t he done that keeps him from being the best winner in history? See #1.
#3: John Cochran – ‘Survivor: Caramoan’ – Season 26
The man who earned being called only by his last name, Cochran is the unlikeliest of Survivor winners on many different levels. There has also been growing backlash against Cochran, as many let their annoyance of him get in the way of the big picture. First, his win has created a new “type” of Survivor winner: Looking at Cochran and comparing him to the types of people who have previously won, there is nobody like him. A life-long Survivor-obsessed, self-proclaimed Harvard nerd, Cochran came into this season with a surprising amount of confidence. His in-game awareness was off the charts and his physical demeanor made him nearly invisible to others early on. But then Cochran began winning physical challenges too.
Cochran never ran into too much danger all season, but it was because he had mastered the timing of Survivor: knowing when to strike, before being struck. He orchestrated big moves and was in control of the game from start to finish. His game was only the second “perfect game” ever (after J.T. in Tocantins) where a winner won by a unanimous jury vote while also never having a single vote cast against them the entire game. What separates Cochran’s game from J.T. is that Cochran orchestrated his game, whereas J.T. relied heavily on Stephen Fishbach to navigate his way to the end. A true student of the game, Cochran pulled off one of the most impressive and unlikely Survivor wins the game may ever see.
#4: Brian Heidik – ‘Survivor: Thailand’ – Season 5
After Richard Hatch miraculously won the first season of Survivor, the next three winners were Tina, Ethan, and Vecepia: all well-liked, stand-up “good” people and players. At that time, it was thought that no one “villainous” like Hatch could ever win again, now that people know the game and what sort of people to look out for. And then there was Brian Heidik. He manipulated, lied, and outplayed everyone. Like Richard, he seemed to be a step ahead of the competition and had it all figured out. Unlike Richard, he seemed to drift through the season without even caring, like it was easy. Maybe it was for Brian, the self-proclaimed “Ice Man.” He is so despised that he has never been asked to play again, which I for one thinks is a shame. His game is the blueprint that all “schemers” have hoped to achieve since. Now that I get a vote for the “Survivor Hall of Fame,” Brian will be on my ballot every single time. Survivor guru Dalton Ross of EW.com also had Brian on his ballot in 2012 and in 2013 Rob Cesternino added his name as well. Is there a Brian Heidik revival going on? Jump on the Heidik bandwagon people. He remains the last true “villain” to play a villainous, cut-throat game… and actually win.
#5: Kim Spradlin – ‘Survivor: One World’ – Season 24
2013 Survivor Hall of Fame inductee Kim Spradlin was another example of an ideal triple-threat – with a strong social, physical and strategic acumen – and cruised to victory like few have ever done in the show’s history. Like Yul, she found an Immunity Idol early on and never found a need to play it. Like Todd, she knew how to read the jury to tell them what they wanted to hear. Most impressive at all, she managed to win by taking two other respectable players with her to the end in Sabrina and Chelsea, and she still won. Along the way she won four individual challenges tying her all-time amongst female players with Jenna Morasca (Amazon) and Kelly Wigglesworth (Borneo). She made the incredibly complex game of Survivor look easy, and that folks, is not easy. As a first-time player, she played one of the best games a woman has ever played, although her understated style also resulted in a boring run of episodes down the stretch. Boring to an audience salivating for drama, but still about as near-perfect of a game that one can play.
#6: Richard Hatch – ‘Survivor: Borneo’ – Season 1
The original winner, and arguably (?) the best… Rich tops nearly every “Survivor List” as being the original snake, the original strategist and the father of the “alliance” that has become a staple of every reality competition show, even outside of Survivor. He is certainly the most important player ever to play the game, for his contributions to all of reality television and for birthing the Survivor strategic blueprints. But nobody would call the “Model T” the “best” car out there: Surely there have been faster, better models made since then, even though they all owe their existence to the grand-daddy. There have been better overall games played on Survivor, but few have been able to win over a jury while simultaneously being seen as a villain.
#7: Tom Westman – ‘Survivor: Palau’ – Season 10
Tom dominated his season, and is among the most well liked Survivors in history. It was hard not to root for Tom, and his game play in Palau changed the game forever… here was a guy who yes, played strategic, but somehow did it with a sense of honor and always looked people in the eye. The game continues to evolve, but Tom was a rare example and reminded us that you don’t have to “lie, cheat, and steal” in order to “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.”
#8: Parvati Shallow – ‘Survivor: Micronesia – Fans vs. Favorites’ – Season 16
Parvati, in this her second season, was masterful at keeping together her “girl-power” alliance. Her best move was the Ozzy blindside, one of the best in history. She was also up against Amanda in the end, which is a sure-fire way to win the votes. But Parvati is without a doubt one of the best female competitors the show has ever seen and had she been able to sneak some votes away from Sandra during “Heroes vs. Villains,” it could be Parvati who is known as the greatest player ever. She is definitely one of them.
#9: Yul Kwon – “Survivor: Cook Islands” – Season 13
Yul Kwon was intelligent, calculating, and well liked by his tribe – a rare mix for a Survivor winner. He had an Immunity Idol, yet never had to play it. His own tribe called him “Ringleader,” yet he went to the end and won. He is the rare Survivor winner who was well-liked despite the strategic moves he made and he was ultimately rewarded for his hard strategic game play. He is the text-book definition of the Survivor “triple-threat”: a strong social, strategic and physical specimen.
#10: Tyson Apostol – “Survivor: Blood vs. Water” – Season 27
Tyson Apostol, in his third try at the game, put in one heck of a performance. He gets kudos for winning the strategically rejuvenated “loved ones” season, the first of its kind. He came in a very big target but was able to shift focus away from him. He found two hidden Idols and controlled the game. Tyson ran into a bit of trouble when he had to draw rocks to stay in the game, but fate was on his side. Down the stretch, he won the last two Immunity challenges when he had to and won in a convincing 7-1-0 vote. His game was not without hiccups (he unnecessarily played a hidden Idol and drawing a rock isn’t an ideal way to advance), but it was a powerful strategic performance in a season like none other.
#11: Wendell Holland – “Survivor: Ghost Island” – Season 36
Wendell is one of the coolest, calmest cats ever to dominate the game. An emerging theme in recent seasons, Wendell benefited greatly by being on a winning tribe early in the game, and it’s there that he formed a bond with “The Dom-Father” Domenick Abbate. Each with an Idol in their possession, they would go on to control the game all the way to the end. But it was by design that Wendell played a “quieter” game than the more boisterous and animated Dom. While Dom was out-front, Wendell was building relationships that would ultimately crown him the winner.
He had great in-game awareness and there wasn’t a soul in the game that didn’t like or respect Wendell, even when he was just as responsible for slitting throats as Dom was. Dom may be the most qualified player ever to lose the game, but Wendell deserves even more kudos for attaching himself to Dom and somehow, someway coming out on top. Heck, Wendell is so laid-back, that he actually won a third Individual Immunity Challenge, but simply forgot to mention to Probst that he had finished his puzzle. He’s a physical threat, he’s mentally strong and the game has never witnessed such a calming presence. While most players battle paranoia increasingly throughout the game, Wendell never sweat the small stuff, and even though his Final Tribal Council performance wasn’t the strongest we’ve seen, Wendell deserves to be included in the rare air of upper echelon Survivor winners.
#12: Jeremy Collins – “Survivor: Cambodia” – Season 31
When looking at Jeremy‘s game, the most impressive feat was who he was up against: a cast of all-returning players voted in by the fans and given a second chance at the game. Still, he turned in a dominating performance. His game was the third ever Survivor “perfect game” in that he won by unanimous jury vote and had no votes cast against him the entire game… but his perfect game comes with an asterisk, because he did have three votes against him that were negated by one of the two hidden Idols he had found. But Jeremy relied heavily on strong players around him, instead of really willing his way to the end on his own. He second-guessed several decisions he made (like voting out Joe Anglim) and was almost done in by Kimmi Kappenberg, only to be saved by his alliance. He was never in any real danger save for that vote, and while he was a master of subtle strategic game-play this season – in a cast full of “go big or go home” players – he also benefited greatly from a strong initial tribe, the luck of the draw (his main alliance stuck together even through several early tribe swaps) and by surrounding himself with other strong players. For me, a great, awesome performance that falls just shy of the Top 10 of all time.
#13: Sarah Lacina – “Survivor: Game Changers” – Season 34
There is definitely a lot to like about Sarah‘s game, and it has to be factored in that she was playing among some of the all-time greats of Survivor. She was determined to play a more cutthroat game this time out, and boy did she ever. She made big, bold moves and swayed the game in her direction. She had a great social game, but it was helped greatly by the fact that she won the first five tribal Challenges, and didn’t have to go to a Tribal Council until Day 16. Her in-game social awareness was good but not great, as she mistakenly put all of her trust in Tai, who nearly sent her home had Cirie not intervened. But Sarah was unapologetic in her actions and had awareness in other ways, like when she spotted and nabbed the Secret Advantage right out from underneath Michaela during a Challenge. She decided at every turn to “play the game” instead of standing pat. It worked out for her in the end, and despite never having won an Individual Immunity, Sarah’s win was among the best female performances of all-time, especially in a returnee season.
#14: Adam Klein – “Survivor: Millennials vs Gen-X” – Season 33
Adam came out on top of what was one of the most competitive group of ballers ever assembled on Survivor. His was an emotional journey, but when it came to the game of Survivor, he was all business. Adam had the unique ability to relate to even his enemies, and his brotherly love-hate relationship with arch nemesis Jay stands as a great testament to Adam’s social game. That being said, Adam did find himself on the wrong end of several votes, and post-merge he had seemed to have burn a lot of bridges. But he ultimately navigated his way through the game by adapting and positioning himself perfectly behind other, bigger, threats. He found a few hidden Idols, but played them at incorrect times in incorrect ways. Yes, Adam became only the fifth person in Survivor history to win by unanimous vote, but his game was far from perfect, and of the other unanimous winners, Adam received the most votes against him out of them all. At the time of his win, Adam became the youngest winner ever, and when you consider who he was up against and the season that he played in, Adam definitely deserves upper echelon Winner status.
#15: Nick Wilson – “Survivor: David vs. Goliath” – Season 37
Explanation: Nick played a very interesting game, one that is a little hard to judge. On one hand, he played a “pedal-to-the-metal” game and proved to be a great strategic and social threat. He orchestrated a huge blindside post-merge that propelled him on-ward, and he ended up winning the final three Immunity Challenges that earned him a spot in front of the jury. He did all this, without receiving a single vote against him, falling short of the Survivor “perfect game” by losing three votes at the Final Tribal Council.
He also had a great story, was shown to be selfless at times, and if they ever did another “Hero” season, Nick would be ideal. So why isn’t Nick ranked higher? Despite all he did accomplish in the game (and it was a lot), Nick also seemed to be on the outside of several votes down the stretch and didn’t really control the game like other winners have. Ironically Nick would have and SHOULD have been the first boot, had not his fellow cast mate Pat had a freak accident while being transported back to shore from a challenge, which led to his medical evacuation. Nick fought from that point onward, for sure, but benefited greatly from the “Survivor Gods” early and often. Nick though, also deserves credit for winning a season that was chock-full of “next-level” players who were all in it to win it…so considering who he won against, that also moved Nick up a few spots.
Wondering who landed outside of the Top 15?
Here is the Rest of the Best:
#16: Todd Herzog – “Survivor: China”
#17: Tony Vlachos – “Survivor: Cagayan”
#18: Natalie Anderson – “Survivor: San Juan del Sur”
#19: Chris Daugherty – “Survivor: Vanuatu”
#20: Denise Stapley – “Survivor: Philippines”
#21: Ben Driebergen – “Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers”
#22: Jenna Morasca – “Survivor: Amazon”
#23: Jud “Fabio” Birza – “Survivor: Nicaragua”
#24: J.T. Thomas – “Survivor: Tocantins”
#25: Bob Crowley – “Survivor: Gabon”
#26: Mike Holloway – “Survivor: Worlds Apart”
#27: Danni Boatwright – “Survivor: Guatamala”
#28: Aras Baskauskas – “Survivor: Panama”
#29: Sophie Clarke – “Survivor: South Pacific”
#30: Michele Fitzgerald – “Survivor: Kaoh Rong”
#31: Earl Cole – “Survivor: Fiji”
#32: Amber Brkich (Mariano) – “Survivor: All-Stars”
#33: Ethan Zohn – “Survivor: Africa”
#34: Tina Wesson – “Survivor: Australian Outback”
#35: Natalie White – “Survivor: Samoa”
#36: Vecepia Towery – “Survivor: Marquesas”
#37: Chris Underwood – “Survivor: Edge of Extinction”
Explanation: Chris might go down in history as the most controversial winner the game will ever know. Sure, he made the most of his last few days in the game leading up to his 9-4 win, but he was only in the game for a total of 13 days! The other 26 he spent on Edge of Extinction, and while that’s no cake-walk, it says nothing about his legacy as a winner. Chris is also the first winner in the game’s history to have been voted-out, only to return and win the game. That alone puts him behind every other winner, who somehow managed to win the game. Yes, you have to adapt to the rules and twists or your season, but a key ingredient to what makes Survivor Survivor, is the ability to win jury votes from people that you had to vote out of the game. The masters can do this flawlessly. The upper echelon of winners can at least manage their juries. A mediocre winner somehow finds him or herself at the end, and scrapes out a few votes. The worst among them bypasses this completely, and deserves a place on this list, but just barely.
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Photo Credit: CBS/Monty Brinton/Robert Voets