It’s about the journey, not the destination: after nearly four years, WU student makes appearance on reality TV show ‘Survivor’

| Managing Scene Editor
Zach Wurtenberger stands with a gray hoodie and baseball cap. He faces Jeff Probst, in side profile.

Senior Zach Wurtenberger gets voted off of “Survivor.” Host of the show Jeff Probst relays the bad news.

When senior Zach Wurtenberger says he’s watched the reality TV show “Survivor” his whole life, he really means it.

“I was born about three or four months before the show started,” he said. “And my parents were fans from day one. So I was just always in the room.” When he got old enough to understand what was going on –– from “immunity idols” to “tribal council” –– he re-watched the episodes he was too young to grasp. He’s a self-proclaimed superfan of the show, a fact he’s not ashamed to admit.

So naturally, as soon as he turned 18, Wurtenberger dedicated himself to trying to get on the show. A natural speaker, Wurtenberger emphasized his speech and debate background in his audition tape. Talking to him, you can tell Wurtenberger is good. He’s smooth and charismatic, throwing in just enough pearly-toothed grins to make you feel at ease, but not coming off as fake.

He also knows he’s good. “I was always very confident that if I can just get [the casting team’s] attention, I know that I have what it takes to get on the show,” he said.

When the call did come, a year after he sent the tape, Wurtenberger nearly missed it. He was in the middle of his sophomore Spanish class when his phone started to buzz with an LA area code.

“I needed to excuse myself, but I couldn’t remember how to say ‘I need to go to the bathroom’ in Spanish, and that’s how you had to do it for that class,” he said. “I was raising my hand, struggling, like ‘yo necesita…’ and [the professor] was like ‘no, YO NECESITO’ and I was like, ‘I just need to get out of here!’”

The first call was just the beginning. After that, according to Wurtenberger, there was an intense, 15-step casting process. That in itself took a year. Then COVID-19 delayed the shooting plans, pushing it back another few months. By the time he stepped foot on the perfect beaches of a small Fijian island for Season 42, it was Wurtenberger’s junior year.

Of course, most college kids don’t just disappear for months at a time without explanation, and CBS requires the entire shooting process to be kept secret. Before the pandemic, when Wurtenberger was planning to be on Season 41, he told everyone that he was going to Australia. When it was delayed, he blamed wildfires. When it was pushed again, Wurtenberger got lazy with the lies.

“I was telling people different stories. [For] some people I just disappeared. I remember I came back like two months later, and people were like, ‘where were you?’ And I was just like, ‘oh, I lost my phone.’”

By the time the season was finally released, Wurtenberger was a senior, three months out from graduation.

Wurtenberger knew his strength for “Survivor” –– making friends and not being particularly intimidating –– as well as his weakness: athleticism. As he reveals to the cameras and a fellow “skinny guy” in the first episode of the show, he stands at five feet nine inches, 118 pounds.

In the first twenty minutes, as the show’s host Jeff Probst picks out characters to ask them dramatic, pointed questions, Wurtenberger draws a few chuckles from his fellow contestants. To the question “What does it take to win?” He matches the drama, answering “I think we’re about to find out, Jeff.” But when Probst asks him to elaborate, Wurtenberger immediately falls apart. “I don’t know. I was trying, man. It sounded cool—I think it was the delivery I miffed it on.”

Talking to Wurtenberger the day of the season premiere, he appears calm and collected. That night, he’s planning to watch with family and friends at a local bar. “I might be in the corner on my third drink,” he jokes.

As the first episode progresses a few hours later, however, I realize he may not have been joking. Wurtenberger’s team comes in last in a physical challenge which involves pushing a heavy boat and wooden chests up the beach, putting Wurtenberger at a disadvantage for solving a puzzle, which he does frantically and out of order.

Things get tense when, back at their constructed camp, Wurtenberger’s team catches him for stoking a rumor about another teammate selfishly looking for special tokens that grant immunity from being voted off the island. Suddenly, Wurtenberger’s own chances of not being voted off don’t look great.

The moment comes, minute 83 out of 86: Wurtenberger becomes the first person voted off the island on Season 42. As he walks off screen, his mic picks up a few final words, proving he’s a superfan until the end.

“I just got voted out of ‘Survivor.’ That’s kinda cool,” he says.

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