Mike Gabler was born in September 1970, in Meridian, Idaho, USA, and made headlines for all the right reasons in March 2023 after winning “Survivor”, and donating the entirety of his $1 million cash prize to almost a dozen charitable organizations that support veterans. Apart from being one of the oldest contestants to ever compete in the reality TV series, this noble gesture made Mike the first person in the show’s history to donate his winnings to charity.
Helping veterans is a cause close to Mike’s heart, as his father Bob served as a Green Beret in the Army Reserves. In an interview with VA’s Veterans Experience Office, Mike explained: “I’ve had the opportunity to serve, but never the honor of serving. But it was my honor to be able to serve those who served us, and it was very important to me to be able to do something special.”
Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS) and Healing Heroes: Veterans and First Responders are just two of the non-profits that reaped the benefits of Mike’s generous donation. As it happens, Mike had already decided to donate his prize before filming began, but never spoke a word of his intentions to the rest of his “Survivor” castmates.
At the final Tribal Counsel, in which each remaining contestant had to explain why they deserved to be winner, Mike merely pointed out that no votes had been cast against him during the show. The jury, believing that this was as good a reason as any to be crowned champion, chose Mike over the other two contestants.
Despite being decades older than the rest of the contestants, Mike’s love for the outdoors helped him out greatly in “Survivor”. With camping, hunting, and fishing amongst his favorite hobbies, the Idaho native was well-equipped to deal with almost anything that came his way, and he also formed a helpful alliance with fellow contestants Sami Layadi and Owen Knight; together, the trio soon became known as the “Baka Boys”.
— SURVIVOR (@survivorcbs) December 17, 2022
Prior to becoming an unlikely reality TV star, Mike worked as a heart valve specialist for decades. These days, he works for Edwards Lifesciences supporting Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR), which is described as “a minimally invasive heart procedure to replace a thickened aortic valve that is unable to fully open”.
Apart from having a father in the Army Reserve, several of Mike’s uncles also fought in the infamous Vietnam War. Bob would often invite his fellow surviving platoon members to the house, and Mike vividly remembers seeing a Green Beret with a prosthetic arm, as well as hearing their gruesome stories about the wars they’d served in. Thus, at a young age he became concerned for the welfare of veterans. Many of his high school classmates, some of them good friends, later served as Navy SEALS in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mike currently lives in Meridian with his wife Alli and their two daughters, who are both in college. Despite having over 13,000 Instagram followers, the “Survivor” champion has shied away from becoming an influencer, and prefers to use his social media to post pics with his friends and family, and give fans occasional life updates.
For viewers who are unfamiliar with “Survivor”, the reality TV series premiered in May 2000 on CBS, hosted by Jeff Probst. The show is the American derivation of “Expedition Robinson”, a popular Swedish series that was created by Charlie Parsons in the late 1990s.
The premise of both series are the same: every season, a group of strangers is placed in a far-flung location where they must fend for themselves. The main goals of the contestants are to make fire and find an adequate shelter, as well as plenty of food. Throughout the season, there are a number of challenges designed to push the contestants to the limits of their physical and mental abilities; in exchange, they win rewards, especially immunity from elimination.
Initially, the contestants are split into separate groups which merge halfway through the series. As the weeks pass, contestants are voted out by their peers until only one remains. The “Sole Survivor”, as the winner is entitled, wins an attractive $1 million cash prize, and enjoys a temporary taste of fame. To date, over 600 contestants have competed for the prize, and seasons have been filmed in exotic locations such as Kenya’s Shaba National Reserve. and the Pearl Islands of Panama.
It’s not unusual for contestants to appear in more than one season. For example, Tony and Sandra have gone down in the show’s history for being the only contestants to win twice. To this day, heated fan debates exist regarding who is the “ultimate” winner, and who are dubbed the “King” and “Queen” of “Survivor”.
Like any self-respecting reality TV franchise, “Survivor” has also provided viewers with hundreds of memorable moments over the last two decades. For example, Jonny Fairplay, who competed in Season 7, won a challenge by claiming his grandmother had died and gaining the sympathy of his fellow castmates – and who can forget when Jenna and Heidi stripped for peanut butter and chocolate in Season 6?
Although each season comes with its share of controversy and drama, one of the show’s most shocking moments came in 2017, when Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith as transgender during the 34th Season. A couple of years later, Dan Spilo was the first contestant to be ejected from the show after behaving inappropriately towards his female cast members.
The unsavory incident was lambasted by thousands across social media and news outlets, and forced Jeff Probst to give an interview with American Weekly, in which he confirmed that the show had been working with diversity and inclusion representatives, therapists, publicists, lawyers, and human resources teams.
However, “Survivor” has managed to weather every scandal, and become staple viewing in millions of American households. Season 44 was filmed in June 2022 and premiered in March 2023, with around 4.8 million viewers tuning in for each episode.