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Finding Faith in the Jungle

Russell Swan almost died on Survivor, but even though he didn’t win, he learned he was meant to be in that jungle.

Finding Faith in the Jungle

“Russell, you with us? Talk to me, Russell. Wake up, mate.”

A voice I didn’t recognize floated toward me from a long way away. I lay on my back in a muddy jungle clearing trying to sort out my thoughts. An oxygen mask covered my nose and mouth.

The voice spoke again. “I don’t feel comfortable keeping him in. Not with his heart doing what it’s doing.”

I squinted. Jeff Probst, host of the TV show Survivor, stared down at me, his anxious face shaded by a baseball cap. That’s when it hit me what was happening.

I was a Survivor contestant and I’d just blacked out during one of the show’s grueling physical challenges. Two medics crouched beside me taking my blood pressure. My mind moved slowly, but I knew I had to try to speak and stop Jeff from saying what he was about to say. I lifted my head.

Jeff knelt and looked in my eyes. “Just so you’re clear on what’s happening, Russell, we’re going to have to pull you out of the game.”

Finally my mouth worked. “Man, come on,” I protested. But it was too late. My dream, the chance I’d prayed for, my whole sense of myself and God—everything I thought I knew—was evaporating before my eyes. I tried to put on the brakes, tried to tell Jeff I was just dehydrated after 15 days scraping by in the Samoan jungle.

Jeff was compassionate but unwavering. “Russell, I watched you black out in front of me two times,” he said. “There’s no way you could have stayed in this game.” He stepped back. The medics wrapped up their work. I lay my head back in the mud and wept.

I remember like it was yesterday the first time I saw Survivor 10 years ago. I was channel surfing one night. Suddenly I came across the weirdest show. A bunch of people stranded on some tropical island competing for a one-million-dollar prize. Contestants started with nothing, just the clothes on their backs and a few primitive tools. They had to find food, water, shelter.

At the end of each episode one contestant got voted off the island, usually because he or she wasn’t making the grade in some way. It was like that book Lord of the Flies. Except Lord of the Flies is fiction. These were real people. People like me. I didn’t know why at first, but I was hooked. I watched every episode.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no couch potato. I’m an environmental lawyer. It’s my dream job, what I’ve wanted to do ever since I watched raw sewage dumped into my favorite childhood fishing hole. My wife, Caroline, and I have a spirited six-year-old daughter, Nilah. I don’t spend much time in front of the TV. In fact, Survivor appealed to me because of all the ways it con­nected with my active life.

I was an only child raised by parents who divorced when I was a teenager. (They later got back together and remarried, but that’s a different story.) I’ve been a self-sufficient high achiever my whole life. Survivor seemed like the ultimate challenge for a guy like me, physically, mentally, spiritually. I couldn’t stop wondering what I’d do in an extreme situation like that. It became my measurement of who I was as a man.

I applied to be a contestant nine times. Imagine my surprise that ninth time when a Survivor producer called my cell phone and said, “Russell, pack your bags. You’re going to Samoa.” I took it as a sign from God. He wanted this for me as much as I did. Caroline? She was just as enthusiastic. She knew this was a dream I’d had for years.

I packed, kissed Caroline and Nilah goodbye and boarded a plane for Los Angeles. The minute I touched down the show took over my life. A producer escorted me to a hotel where my luggage was confiscated and I was stuck in a room with no cell phone and no television. (I was told I’d get my luggage back when filming ended in two months.)

I endured long days until I was taken back to the airport and put on a plane for Samoa. Only then did I meet my fellow contestants and see the isolated jungle landscape where we’d be fending for ourselves for the next six weeks. It was mud, trees, vines and tropical beaches as far as the eye could see.

From the show’s base camp we were taken by rowboats to the start of the game, a sandy beach backed by jungle. There we divided into two “tribes” of 10 and trekked into the trees, where we had to find food and water and build shelters with nothing but our bare hands. Cameramen followed us everywhere.

Each day our foraging was interrupted by physical challenges devised by the producers—tests of strength, endurance and resourcefulness. It was exhausting, especially since we found almost no food. Some days I was lucky if I got some papaya or coconut. I tried to stay strong. I was even elected my tribe’s leader. But as we neared the end of our second week I knew my body was flagging.

Our tenth night in the jungle it began to rain. Tropical torrents inundated our camp, dousing the fire we’d been using to boil the island’s undrinkable water. Rain fell all night, all day and into the next night. We slept in mud. The morning of the fifteenth day the rain finally let up and the sun came out boiling hot. We were exhausted, starving, parched. Whatever excitement had kept me going at first was long gone. I missed Caroline and Nilah like crazy.

But this was Survivor and we had a challenge to complete. A member of each tribe was put inside a giant hollow ball constructed of sticks. Two other tribe members had to roll the ball blindfolded through the jungle to a clearing, with the person inside the ball calling out directions.

At the clearing four blindfolded contestants had to move another, smaller ball through a maze on top of a tilting table. My tribe put our lightest member inside the ball and I volunteered to be blindfolded. All the way through the jungle I felt the previous days’ lack of water, but I shrugged it off.

This is what you came here for, Russell, where you asked God to send you, I told myself. Time to show what you’re made of.

By the time we reached the clearing I was woozy, but still I pressed on. We halted and I felt my way toward the tabletop maze. I stumbled. “Hold on,” I mumbled. My hands found the maze and gripped a corner of the table. My head spun inside my blindfold. I heard my teammates call out to me, but for some reason I couldn’t respond. The voices blended and…next thing I knew I was flat on my back, the medics bent over me.

The tears that started when Jeff Probst walked away quickly dried up. Now I was angry. This was not part of the plan. If God really had given me this opportunity—and I knew he had, how else could I explain being selected out of thousands of applicants after all those years trying?—then why would he let me fail now? It wasn’t fair! It made no sense.

I let my head flop back into the mud and stared into the sky. The blue was intense, somehow brighter after those endless days of rain. I thought of the strange beauty of this island, the untouched beaches, the coral reefs I’d seen on swimming challenges, the black volcanic rock, the clear, warm ocean.

It was God’s handiwork, all right. He’d sculpted this island and somehow he’d directed my steps here. I closed my eyes. A breeze stirred the trees. What if God had sent me here for some other reason? Not to prove myself but to learn something else? Was there somehow a lesson in failure? Was that the reason?

The instant I asked the question I knew the answer. I’d become so obsessed with this television show and so caught up with the idea of winning that I’d forgotten what actually makes me a man. Or I should say who makes me. Lying there in that mud, defeated, I saw my utter dependence on God as clearly as the blue Samoan sky.

I could have felt bad it took this strange adventure to teach me that. But at that moment all I felt was peace. I was escorted back to base camp and treated for dehydration. I remained on the island until the show finished filming, then I flew home healthy and even crazier with impatience to see Caroline and Nilah.

A year later I’m still feeling the blessing of that blackout. I could have died that day on Survivor. Since then I treasure every moment of life, every moment with my family. People have written from all over saying how inspired they were by what happened to me.

Can you believe it? Inspired by defeat! I believe it. I learned that day in the jungle that in God’s eyes we’re all survivors. Sometimes we just have to learn to lean on him to figure that out.

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