Michael Skupin, Jonathan Penner and Russell Swan were outlasted, but not outwitted or outplayed, during their seasons of Survivor. In 2001, Skupin fell into a fire and was airlifted out of The Australian Outback. Penner was evacuated from 2008’s Micronesia upon learning of a potentially fatal knee infection. And Swan was banished from Samoa in 2009 after a dehydration-related loss of consciousness in the middle of a high-stakes challenge, a moment that host Jeff Probst has described as the scariest incident in Survivor history.
But all three men have earned another shot at the Sole Survivor title, returning to the CBS reality competition for its upcoming 25th season, set in the Philippines — and while these fan-favorite competitors have been physically out of the game for years, some of them never truly left.
“The day [after my injury], I woke up and fully expected to be back in the game — and I’ve expected to be back in the game every day since then,” Swan told Spinoff Online about returning to Survivor for a second chance at winning the million-dollar prize.
For Swan, returning was about more than strategy and ambition; it was about reparation. The 45-year-old attorney recalled the deep despair he felt over getting medically removed from his season, saying, “I basically had hoped that I would have died, rather than dealing with not being on the show anymore.”
“This was about trying to heal myself from that psychological, spiritual blow of feeling I was an absolute failure as a competitor, as a man, as a provider,” he added. “It meant a lot to me to basically go in there and know that, no, I’m not some weak little punk. I’m capable of surviving the game.”
Skupin, whose fiery accident occurred more than a decade ago, during the show’s second season, didn’t have redemption on the mind when considering another go at Survivor. “When Survivor ended, I didn’t play the what if game. I never thought I needed to go back out to prove anything, to the world, to myself, or to my family,” he said. “I built up these walls that I didn’t need to play again and didn’t have anything to prove.”
Indeed, the “guy who fell in the fire” revealed that producers invited him back numerous times over the years, although the finalized casting never panned out in his favor. Skupin wouldn’t believe he was actually back in the game until he was actually back in the game. But when he did land on the Philippines beach, it was officially game on.
“It’s game on from the very first second, and it intensifies by the hour,” he said of how he felt upon reentering the game. “It all began coming back. It was a process for me, ripping down the walls, admitting how badly I truly wanted to play. For me, it really evolved. [Redemption] wasn’t the reason I went out there. But it became the reason, the longer that I got to play.”
Penner, meanwhile, as a three-time Survivor competitor, is the first to admit he was “already lucky enough to play twice,” and even luckier to score a third round. “I never played well enough to actually merit my standing as an all-star player,” he said. “Luckily for me, [the Survivor producers] put this idea together of guys who had been medically evacuated previously in the game and were all middle-aged, busted dads.”
Middle-aged busted dads or not, Penner and his fellow evacuees are already Survivor veterans, a fact that instantly puts the bull’s eye on their backs. But he didn’t feel threatened over his prior experience, at least not at first. (“None of them were going to look us in the eye and say, ‘You’re dead meat, old man,'” he cracked.) Instead, he viewed his history in the game as an advantage; he could adjust to “the rhythm of the world of Survivor,” an ecosystem that includes producers and cameramen in addition to competitors, much more readily than the newbies.
Not to say that the new players are short on survival skills and entertainment value, mind you. Beyond Skupin, Swan and Penner, there are two other familiar faces on the new season of Survivor: baseball hall-of-famer Jeff Kent and The Facts of Life actress Lisa Whelchel. Beyond the pseudo-celebrities competing for the million dollar prize, other contestants, like bartender Malcolm Freberg and former Miss Delaware Katie Hanson, are also in place to insure that Philippines will be much more than just some “busted dads” on another quest for glory.
“It’s going to be one of the great seasons, and not just because we’re on it,” promised Penner. “There are so many twists and so many personalities that come into play. It’s going to be truly, truly dramatic. It’s going to be great.”
Survivor: Philippines premieres tonight at 8 ET/PT on CBS.