Survivor Tom's Winning Strategy
by Angel Cohn
On Sunday night, firefighter Tom Westman was crowned the winner of Survivor: Palau. He did it by being a mostly nice guy, except when he had to muscle around alliance-mates Katie and Ian a little bit. But the humble 41-year-old and oldest Survivor winner ever learned a bunch during his 39 days in Palau including how to kill a shark and the importance of listening to his wife. TVGuide.com sat down with the new millionaire to find out how he feels about winning, why he got so annoyed with Ian and if he's really as chauvinistic as Jenn claimed.
TVGuide.com: Congratulations. How's it feel to be the sole Survivor?
Tom Westman: It really is wonderful. I'm a bit of a fish out of water right now, but it is a nice pond I'm swimming in.
TVG: You sound a little overwhelmed.
Tom: Yeah. I think even stranger than the moment of winning was walking out to the red carpet where the cameras were set up and the lightbulbs were going off. It was almost like I'd contracted to go on Fantasy Island; this was the thing I'd chosen and they'd set up this bogus red carpet for me to be on.
TVG: It's real. What did your kids think?
Tom: I knew that this was going to be watched by my children, and as young as they are now, I knew they were going to judge me on how many times I got to wear the shark necklace. That was my other motivation. I also knew that they'd eventually understand how I played the game, and whatever reputation that I carried out of the experience was going to be based on whether I was underhanded or just downright evil. I couldn't do that.
TVG: Your strategy just seemed to be to just play strong.
Tom: Yeah. That was my wife told me, just be yourself out there, you have good social skills, you are athletic and strong. Play it as yourself and people will like you. That was good advice.
TVG: See, that's why you should listen to your wife.
Tom: I do listen to my wife. She is also the one who downloaded the application and sent me on this adventure.
TVG: So she's the big Survivor fan.
Tom: She is. She got hooked first and I was against it from the beginning. I was like, "What is this? This is so silly." As I passed the TV one week, I was like, "Wait a minute, what's the annoying naked guy still doing on the show?" Then I sat down and started watching and realized it wasn't Gilligan's Island, it was about who could survive a social web. Some people, when they found out I was going [to Palau], didn't get the game and were thinking I was doing a cheesy reality show where it is all about who can eat 10 bugs the fastest.
TVG: Well, you did have to eat those gross baluts.
Tom: That was all just part of the game, and I didn't find any difficulty in that. As a matter of fact, my sister's coworker is Filipino and brought me six baluts. A friend was throwing a Survivor party that night and I brought them along. My buddy and I ate a couple each.
TVG: Really? By choice?
Tom: It is funny, if I was in the Philippines on vacation and found out that was the local delicacy, I am the type of person who would have had it. Anything for the experience.
TVG: How cool was it that you killed the shark?
Tom: With a machete! When we were sitting around the fire and somebody said, "Did anyone ever do this on Survivor before?" And Gregg said, "Dude, nobody did this anywhere before." That was crazy. I have a friend who goes shark fishing all the time, and it is killing him that his friend who doesn't fish will always be known as the shark slayer.
TVG: What did your firefighter friends think?
Tom: The support from them has been incredible and also, I've given them great fodder. There is nothing like a firehouse kitchen to keep you humble. Any foible I had or any low moment is just amplified, but that is all part of the love.
TVG: So what are they teasing you about?
Tom: They love the whole age factor. They keep playing it up. "You're the oldest Survivor ever to win."
TVG: Your tribe won the most immunity challenges, and you won the most individual challenges ever. That's impressive.
Tom: I'm proud of both things, but I am really proud that I was one of the instruments of the team building in Koror from those early games. Encouraging people to find that in themselves. As a lieutenant in the fire department, that is what I do; I have younger people whom I guide. But I don't hold their hands or swing the ax for them. I train them and give them confidence and encouragement, and they step up to the plate.
TVG: Weren't you nervous about coming out as the strong leader?
Tom: Oh yeah, there wasn't a day that I didn't know there was a target on me. It came down to being true to myself and my protection was my alliance. So I kept that tight and when it started to get shaky, I hobbled it back together.
TVG: With a little bullying.
Tom: Not so much bullying, but just straight talk. Ian approached Katie when she was wavering about a women's alliance. His thing was to get emotional and appeal to her and my strategy was to appeal to her own best interests knowing she wanted the million dollars. I explained to her, flip on me and you'll never get my vote on the final jury.
TVG: Why were you so angry at Ian for considering voting you off?
Tom: Ian and I had a handshake and a vow that I trusted in believed in. I said early in the game to Ian, "I'll never take you to the final two and you'll never take me. It would be too risky for either of us. We're both going to take Katie, and now it is a matter of which one of us takes her." The bond was that he and I would eliminate everyone on the beach and then we'd drop the gloves and have a mano a mano battle.
TVG: Which lasted almost 12 hours.
Tom: It was interesting because after maybe the third hour, Jeff [Probst] questioned us saying, "How long do you think this is going to go?" I think they thought we might have lasted three maybe four hours on the outside. Because of the pain involved, they didn't think anyone could go further than that.
TVG: Well, you proved them wrong.
Tom: Right. I said to Jeff, "A lot longer than you do." He said, "You don't know how long I think this is going to go." And I said, "I know you don't have any night lighting out here." He said, "Why, you think this is going until dark?" I said, "Jeff, I believe this is going until tomorrow morning." He kind of smirked at me and the next thing you know production was setting up the flaming barrels. They underestimated just how stubborn Ian and I were going to be on that one. To me it was the million dollar perch. I thought I could beat either of one them, but my thing was to stay up there until I passed out.
TVG: So what did you think when Ian jumped off and told you to take Katie?
Tom: I didn't think he was in his right mind at that moment. I questioned him twice and then Jeff even asked him, do you know what you are saying? I was kind of like, "Listen, Ian, you don't have to do that." I had made a deal earlier around the fifth hour when I said, "You jump down and I'll take you." I was kind of trash talking because I said, "I'll beat either one of you, I don't care who I take." He was more interested in the redemption.
TVG: What did you think of that?
Tom: I was very happy with it. Not just in Ian finding Ian, but happy in the fact that I was going to the final two and getting my shot at a jury vote.
TVG: So all is forgiven?
Tom: Yeah, Ian is a pretty extraordinary young guy, and so much that he does in his life is selfless work for other people. He found himself up there with lots of time for thinking and meditation. He saw himself as the villain of Palau, and that is not who he is and not who he wants to be remembered as. He decided [he would leave] in a gracious manner, which was quite effective. He immediately won back everybody's love and support.
TVG: Jenn was hard on you about being chauvinistic. What did you think of that?
Tom: I've got a friend who is a strong feminist and warned me, "If you show any chauvinism out there, I'll kill you when you come home." So I asked Jenn, "Did you really feel that?" She said to me, "You weren't chauvinistic; it was just that you were so strong and you were a male, so it did seem like you were doing everything for the ladies." That was their choice. Until Stephenie came to our beach, I don't think that any of those girls were aware that a woman could open a coconut. After my friend's warning, I just wish Jenn had chosen another word.
TVG: Have you talked to that friend?
Tom: Yeah, she said that I didn't come across that way. It seemed like I was kind to everybody and just looking out for everybody's interests, not in a condescending way. Also, they showed very little of our fishing, and the funny thing is that I was pretty poor at it.
TVG: Wait, you weren't good at everything?
Tom: [Laughs] There you go, I'm outing myself. Jenn was one of the best fishermen, or fisherpersons... But she was one of the best fishers on the boat.
TVG: What are your plans for the cash?
Tom: I'm setting up those college funds. I'm an idiot with money to begin with, so I'm basically going to put it in my wife's and accountant's hands. I've been warned that if you can drive it, drink it or wear it, it is not a smart investment.
TVG: Good thing you won a new car.
Tom: I did. The funny thing is that, everybody who knows and loves me was probably more thrilled about me having a new car than about me winning the money. The piece of junk that I drive around to get back and forth to the fire house is... "unreliable" would be a kind word for it. I think they are dying to see me pull up in that SSR, which will actually start every time I turn the key.