Three-time U.S. Olympian Elizabeth Beisel is part of the cast of the 39th season of CBS’s reality TV show ‘Survivor.’ We’ll be recapping her game weekly… as long as she survives. ‘Survivor‘ is, of course, an edited, pared-down television program that condenses roughly three full days of on-island time into a one-hour program. There’s always more context to what we see, but our commentary is merely to have fun with what we’re shown, not to drag on any specific contestants.
— Elizabeth Beisel ⚓ (@ebeisel34) September 25, 2019
Segment 1: Secrecy Plan Goes Out the Window
In all of her preseason media, Beisel was very clear that she didn’t plan to offer up the information that she was an Olympian. And that plan stayed in play… for all of four minutes and 28 seconds into the season.
That lasted long!!!!!! 👻🙈 https://t.co/ly8QAsTwHm
— Elizabeth Beisel ⚓ (@ebeisel34) September 26, 2019
“Are you an Olympian?” tribemate Chelsea Walker asks almost immediately. To Beisel’s credit, she had maintained that her strategy was not to offer up the information, but not to try hiding it, either. And luckily, it seems to only work to Beisel’s advantage: her tribemates are thrilled to have an Olympic athlete in the mix, and she’s not the obvious physical threat, either, as her tribe features an Air Force basketball player (Missy Byrd) and a former NHL player (Tom Laidlaw).
From a story perspective, Survivor tends to have main characters and those who struggle for airtime. Beisel is clearly in the former in this episode (mostly for a twist later on), and gets a nice opening confessional.
“I am a competitor. It’s basically embedded within my DNA, because I’ve been a competitive swimmer my whole life,” Beisel says. (Side note: while speaking in voice-over, I assume Beisel is placing Chekhov’s Gun on a mantle…)
She goes on to talk about the difficulty of transitioning from being an Olympic swimmer to what’s next.
“It’s like, you’re at the Olympics and you’re at such a high note. And then you wonder, ‘will I ever get there again?’,” Beisel says. “This game has honestly made me as excited as I was for the Olympics, and I never thought I would feel that again.”
(Side commentary: a way to regain some of the excitement you had at the Olympics… you hearing this, Ryan Lochte? How about you, Michael Phelps? Either of you have some free time around season 41?)
From there, Beisel does mostly what swimming fans would have expected: she’s bubbly, she’s outgoing and she makes connections. She and Missy bond over playing instruments – violin and piano for Beisel and flute for Missy – while being high-level athletes.
“Why are we the same person?” Beisel jokes. This tribe somehow got the only two people in the world to do sports and music. What a fun coincidence. The two explore the tribe’s rocky beach-bay as Missy tells her story of surviving a brain tumor. Also, is it any surprise that Beisel is immediately buddying up to someone named Missy?
The rest of the opening introduces the opposing tribe, wearing purple. We’ll keep these recaps mostly Beisel-centric, but it’s worth noting for context later that the purple tribe’s Janet Carbin (with a moderate swimming connection as a chief lifeguard) attains hero status by making fire for her tribe – a major milestone in the early-game of Survivor. (File that away, because it has impact later).
Segment 2: Into an Alliance
When we return to the orange Lairo tribe, we see alliances beginning to form. Good news/bad news for Beisel. She’s clearly in the majority, effectively looped in with the younger, fitter group. That’s good.
But the show goes out of its way to build up the minority alliance as likeable: 60-year-old retired NFL player Tom, 41-year-old factory worker Elaine and admissions counselor Vince, who is 27 but fits in better with the older group based on a strong work ethic – Vince gets to talk about growing up in a low-income household and ultimately working his way to Stanford. (He misses an opportunity to brag about their excellent recruiting in women’s swimming & diving, so we know he’s probably not a SwimSwam commenter).
Segments 3&4: Explaining what Cumin is
This bit is very Elaine-centric, but Beisel does still get some airtime, mostly for her emphatic facial reactions to Elaine’s jokes. She also tries to explain to Elaine what cumin is. No kidding.
More good news for Beisel: her BFF Missy is on-fire to form an all-girl alliance – the ever-present Survivor strategy since the famous Black Widow Brigade from the Micronesia season. Missy loops in Elaine, and Beisel is now effectively in two different majority alliances without having to do much scheming herself.
Next time we visit the tribe, we see more of Elaine’s humor. Elaine is turning out to be Beisel’s best friend from an airtime perspective, because the factory worker is constantly joking and Beisel’s animated expressiveness makes her the go-to for laughter and reaction shots.
Then we leave the main tribe to watch scummy poker player Ronnie decide he wants Elaine out and then decide he wants to do that by pretending to be her best ally. Elaine predictably sees right through it, because Ronnie looks and acts like the least trustworthy person on the planet. Seriously, if they didn’t put his occupation up on the screen, you’d guess poker player instantly. That or snake oil salesman.
The challenge isn’t at all aquatic. Bummer. Beisel seems to perform well, though. It’s a long and elaborate obstacle course followed by a very difficult puzzle. Beisel is definitely at the front of her tribe most of the way through, and gets some hero time on the steeply-sloped wall they have to climb, hanging on a rope with one hand while pulling tribemates up one at a time with the other hand. Actually, I think that may have been a staple of Gregg Troy-led swim practices.
Orange chokes hard on the puzzle, but Beisel isn’t one of the three working on it.
But here comes the twist: one member of the losing tribe is being sent to the mysterious “Island of the Idols.” For game context: Survivor has a history of using secondary “islands” that usually combine two elements: (1) living completely alone apart from the tribe for a time and (2) having a chance at a game-changing advantage. The other sides of those two facets are that the person sent there (1) misses out on bonding/strategizing time with their tribe and can become an easy first target and (2) are immediately suspected of finding a secret advantage and can become and easy first target. Yikes.
And who is selected… but Beisel. Are we about to see another Katrina situation? Maybe Survivor just doesn’t like swimmers.
Island of the Idols: An Olympic-sized Gamble
Beisel arrives at the “island of the idols” and becomes the first cast member to discover this season’s twist: two legendary Survivor winners from the past, Boston Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine are apparently living on an island by themselves and offering sage advice to the members of this season’s cast. It’s sort of a Luke-Skywalker-in-The-Last-Jedi situation. And boy must those two be bored, because they’ve apparently carved giant statues of their own heads.
Beisel was selected by random draw to go to the island of the idols, but you have to think production is thrilled. She’s one of the most expressive reactors on the cast (which means she just has to make the jury, where facial reactions are the most coveted skill) and is flabbergasted to meet Rob and Sandra.
The lesson from Rob & Sandra is firemaking – a very, very essential skill in Survivor. Until a tribe has fire, they can’t really cook rice or food, and can’t boil water to make it drinkable. In addition, a new twist over the past few seasons has a fire-making challenge determining elimination at the final four – and since then, three of the four winners of that fire-making challenge have won the game.
Rob makes fire instantly, showing off as usual. Sandra takes Beisel up on a mountain to teach her the art of scraping magnesium, and presumably how to connect with the Force. They come back down, and Rob gives Beisel the ultimate twist: she can wager her own vote in the first tribal council in a fire-making challenge with Rob. If she wins, she gets a hidden immunity idol that could negate all votes against her at either of the next two tribal councils. If she loses, she doesn’t get to cast a vote tonight.
Beisel takes her time to think it over. It’s an unenviable position. Immunity idols have become more and more powerful in the game, to where you almost have to find one and play one right at some point to have enough buzz in front of the eventual jury. On the other hand, once it’s known that you have an idol, the target on your back is completely inescapable.
None of that really matters, though. Because going up against Rob in fire-making is like challenging Michael Phelps to a swim-off. Rob just made fire in like 30 seconds and he didn’t break a sweat.
“Boston Rob is probably the best firemaker in this world. He’s probably done hundreds of fires,” Beisel says. “But, the competitor in me is ignited.”
She takes the leap. We can’t really blame her – we all wanted to see it. Passing up the gamble is smart, but boring. Like taking out your 400 IM at a sustainable pace. Taking the chance is pure excitement. Like taking out your 400 IM in a lifetime-best 100 fly with 15-meter underwaters off of every wall.
Like the second IMer example, Beisel actually jumps out to a lead, getting fire first. But if Beisel thought Ye Shiwen closed her 400 IM hard at the London Olympics, she had another thing coming with Rob, who pretty well dusted her from there, building a better teepee and scorching through his rope with ease. In a private confessional, he hints that he would have negotiated if Beisel hadn’t jumped at the first offer. Perhaps he would have attempted firemaking sans flint? That would have been a pretty significant equalizer. Or maybe Beisel could have suggested competing instead against Sandra, who was always very good at burning peoples’ hats and GETTING LOUD TOO, but who has never been known as a major challenge threat.
Either way, Beisel returns to her tribe with no vote for tonight and a major decision to make on how much to tell her tribemates. On the other hand, she can pitch herself as a tribal asset now that she’s been trained in firemaking by Master Rob Skywalker.
Final Strategy: Did they actually buy this?
Luckily for Beisel, the bonds she’s already made appear to be carrying her back at camp in her absence. The tribe has mainly divided into two groups: the young folks are targeting factory worker Elaine. The older folks have combined with some of the younger players to target slimy poker player Ronnie. Beisel is kind of in the middle group by default, based on her tight bond with Missy, who is effectively setting up a secret women’s alliance within the two surface-level factions.
Beisel returns, internally struggling with how much to reveal. While she says she doesn’t want to lie about the island, she feels she has to. She makes up a story about being on an island alone, picking one of three urns and getting a note that said she gets no advantage. The story itself doesn’t sound great, but it is something Survivor has done before, so it’s not totally unbelievable.
— SURVIVOR (@survivorcbs) September 26, 2019
More concerning is the fact that it won’t be long before another player gets sent to the “island of the idols” and immediately realizes Beisel lied to them. At that point, she can open up all she wants with the truth (that she wagered her vote and lost), but the tribe is still going to suspect that she does indeed have an idol – if she lied the first time, why wouldn’t she lie the second time?
On the surface, it doesn’t feel like Beisel really has to lie about this. Revealing that Rob & Sandra are living on an island and taught her how to make fire probably makes her more of an asset to the tribe (in firemaking at least) than a threat. But in fairness to Beisel, she has no idea what the tribe dynamics were while she was away, and if she were a boot candidate, maybe she would be better off downplaying what happened on the island of the idols.
Anyways, the tribe actually seems to buy it. No one openly doubts it, either around camp or in a confessional. But the facial expressions aren’t great. Chelsea and gym owner Aaron (who looks exactly like what you’d expect a gym owner to look like) look fairly skeptical.
Beisel doesn’t tell the tribe about her missing vote, but it turns out not to matter. There aren’t too many fireworks at Tribal, as both sides think they have the clear majority. Beisel and her pal Missy make the pretty logical move to vote out Ronnie. First of all, the guy could tell you the sky is blue and you wouldn’t believe him. He oozes insincerity. Secondly, voting out a man allows the secret 5-person women’s alliance to hold the majority of the now 9-person tribe.
In the short term, the move does weaken the tribe, as Ronnie had a lot of physical strength for the team challenges, that usually emphasize power and strength. But when you have an Olympic swimmer, a pro hockey player and a college basketball player, who cares, right? The team challenges really come down to the puzzles anyway.
More good news for Beisel in a very up-and-down night: the majority alliance is 8 people, and host Jeff Probst stops reading the votes after Ronnie gets 6 and the outcome is already set. That means no one notices that Beisel couldn’t cast a vote, and her secret stays safe for at least a few more days.
Only Ronnie and Aaron are left out of the loop, so if orange loses again next week, the beefy gym owner is the obvious next boot. Beisel is actually set up pretty well moving forward… provided her lie about the secret island doesn’t blow up in her face.
Next time on Survivor: it looks like purple tribe’s Noura is feeling ignored and wants to challenge Beisel for the title of most animated player. But while Beisel was bubbly, she seemed to integrate pretty well with the tribe, and Noura just seems way too extra. If Noura is the trainwreck next week, then it can’t be Beisel, right? So let’s put our collective swimming hopes on the 36-year-old entrepreneur taking the infamous late-race piano next week.
One more Survivor tweet with yet another great Beisel expression:
— SURVIVOR (@survivorcbs) September 26, 2019