Ethan Zohn, former winner of Survivor: Africa, speaks at Doane
Jaden Hilkemann ’23 always watched the reality show Survivor with her dad. It’s their favorite. So as Survivor: Africa winner Ethan Zohn ended his Hansen Assembly Speaker presentation to the Doane community on Thursday, February 6, Hilkemann quickly texted her dad to tell him about the event. Not just its celebrity factor, but its powerful takeaways.
“It’s cool how when it came down to just having the clothes on his back in Survivor, he got to know himself and his value system,” the first-year student said.
Zohn weaved an inspiring and humorous message from his life journey, sharing the experiences of losing his father, Aaron, to cancer when Zohn was 14; becoming a professional soccer player; winning $1 million on Survivor: Africa and co-founding a nonprofit with the prize winnings; and surviving two battles with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Winning Survivor and beating cancer are the defining moments of his life, Zohn said, revealing his character and his response to crises, which he chose to use for good.
“Did you know the Hebrew word ‘challenge’ and ‘miracle’ share the same root word ‘ness,’” he asked the audience of about 100 people. “...When we are put through a challenge, it can bring out miraculous things in us.”
“When I got sick, my wonderful mother gave me this card with this message: ‘A bird does not sing because it has the answers. It sings because it has a song.’ That’s why I’m here today. This is my song.”
Zohn graduated from Vassar College in New York and played professional soccer in Zimbabwe and the United States. Living in Zimbabwe, he saw its beauty and its struggles. “What lies beneath the beautiful surface is poverty, broken souls, overcrowded hospitals and rampant HIV and AIDS.” When his team traveled to away games, he sometimes saw piles of crosses in cemeteries, which he learned were for people who died of AIDS. Zohn later lost two teammates to the disease.
When Zohn’s soccer career ended he landed an advertising job, which a hiring freeze eliminated before he even began. “I had nothing left to lose when I made the audition tape for Survivor,” he said.
If he had worried about failure at that time, he wouldn’t be speaking at Doane today, he said.. “If you can redefine the definition of failure - making it the experience of trying rather than the outcome of failing - life opens up to you.”
Survivor tested every part of him, Zohn shared. He was 27 and had only the clothes on his back and one luxury item: a little hacky sack from his father.
While filming outside of a hospital in Kenya, a group of children (whom he later learned were HIV positive) came up to the cast members and Zohn took out the hacky sack. “Suddenly we were having a moment,” he recalled -- laughing, playing, clapping. As he left, Zohn threw the hacky sack to one of the boys, whose gratitude was visible.
Giving the hacky sack away gave him far more joy than keeping it. “This is the moment that literally changed my life forever.”
When he won Survivor: Africa in 2002, he used his winnings to co-found the charity Grassroot Soccer, which uses soccer as a platform to empower young people to stop the spread of HIV in Africa. It has now expanded to 50 countries and has 2.3 million graduates. “Figure out what makes your heart break and go out there and do something about it,” Zohn urged students.
In 2009, life put Zohn in a survival game with much bigger stakes. While training for a marathon he developed “unbearably itchy skin.” After a lymph node swelled in his neck, he was diagnosed with a rare form of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant put the cancer into remission. But 20 months later, it returned.
“It’s hard to articulate how it feels to be seriously ill,” he said, turning away from the pictures on the screen taken during his cancer battle. He chose to use his crisis for good. Zohn became a national spokesperson for Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) and kept a video blog on People Magazine’s website.
Zohn underwent an experimental treatment and received a second stem cell transplant, this time from his brother, Lee. Zohn won his second battle with cancer.
Zohn noted the service aspect of the Hansen Leadership program and encouraged Doane students to figure out what they care about and use that knowledge to help others. Be a part of your community, he advised. Show up. Contribute. “If you’re already a part of a community, welcome the people who want to join...learn their stories and perspectives.”
And always be kind, he also stressed. “My goal is to make kindness normal.” He won Survivor by being “kind and selfless in a selfish game.”
The quote stuck out to Riley Spicer ’22, a member of the Hansen Leadership Advisory Board. “I liked his idea of not being afraid to fail and to be kind. ‘Kind’ often goes unnoticed but it’s so important.”
The event ended with a clip from Survivor: Winners at War. Zohn is one of the cast members this season, which premieres Feb. 12 on CBS.