KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Much of East Tennessee native Gavin Whitson’s life has revolved around the opportunity to compete on “Survivor.”
The 23-year-old native of Erwin, Tennessee, has watched the show since its first season and began sending in audition tapes at 18, the minimum age for “Survivor” castaways.
“I would make different email addresses just so I could send in more tapes,” said Whitson. “I was doing everything I could.”
He started working out after high school to get in shape for the show.
In 2018, he moved up his wedding date, so he could compete on the show’s latest season, “Survivor: Edge of Extinction.”
“It was a month before the wedding and then I find out the date that I’m leaving is two days before my wedding,” said Whitson. “So now we’re in this huge predicament of ‘Am I going to go play “Survivor?” Am I not getting to get married, or are we going to move the wedding around?’”
After finding a new venue and caterer, Whitson married Carly, his girlfriend of five years, on May 20, 2018, before he left for the show’s filming.
“It went great … I think everything happened for a reason,” he said. “I’m a firm believer of that because we ended up getting married on the day we started dating five years before. I think everything happens for a reason … You couldn’t have asked for a better wedding day.”
Whitson is one of 18 castaways who will compete for the grand prize of $1 million on “Survivor: Edge of Extinction.” It premieres at 8 p.m. on CBS on Wednesday.
Whitson, who works as a YMCA program director, plans to use his Southern roots and accent as a part of his strategy on “Survivor.”
“I think based on people who’ve played in the past, typically the people with the Southern accent, they’re seen as honest, loyal, trustworthy, and I was going to play those characteristics up to these people, because I wanted to feed into their expectations,” he said.
“That way they thought they had me pegged, if that makes sense.”
Whitson said his time growing up in East Tennessee also helped him on the show because it taught him respect and how to communicate.
“I just think that’s one of my main things,” he said. “Just being an actual decent human being whether they show you respect or not. If you give it off to them, then that’s something you’re going to get in return.”
Each season boasts a different theme with multiple twists and turns, and “Survivor” 2019 is no different.
The first twist for castaways occurs on the “Edge of Extinction” premiere, where Whitson and the other new castaways find out four “Survivor” veterans will join them.
Those players include Joe Anglim (“Worlds Apart,” ″Second Chance”), Aubry Bracco (“Kaoh Rong,” ″Game Changers”), Kelley Wentworth (“Second Chance,” ″San Juan del Sur”) and David Wright (“Millennials vs. Gen-X”).
Whitson is on the Kama tribe with Bracco, Anglim and six other newcomers.
“I think the first thing that happened was just the pit in my stomach dropped to my toes, because that’s something that I wasn’t expecting,” said Whitson, recalling when he first found out about former “Survivor” castaways.
“And those are four of the best players to ever play this game, so I have a ton of respect for them, but now it’s not necessarily the people I want to play against. … It was different, you know. It was a plot twist.”
Another change gives players who are voted out a choice. They can go home or go to an area called “Edge of Extinction,” where they have a chance to get back in the game.
Whitson will have to outlast the 17 other players to win the $1 million. He said he believes his drive sets him apart from the others.
“A lot of people who get cast are fans, but this has been my dream since I was 8 years old,” said Whitson.
“If you asked me if I wanted to win the lottery or play ‘Survivor,’ I was going to play ‘Survivor.’ That’s really all I wanted in life. I’m not sure how dumb that sounds, but that … was my main goal in life was to play ‘Survivor,’ so I know that I wanted it more than anyone out there.”
Whitson joins several other East Tennesseans who’ve competed on “Survivor.” Those players inspired him over the years, too. He recalled seeing Fountain City’s Tina Wesson win in 2001.
“It’s an honor even to be associated with those people ’cause I remember watching Tina in her first season, and just the fact that someone from Tennessee was on there like that proved to me that it was possible.”
Most recently, Knoxville model Michael Yerger competed on 2018′s “Survivor: Ghost Island.”
In addition to Wesson’s win in 2001, she and her daughter Katie Collins competed on “Survivor: Blood vs. Water” in 2013.
Benjamin “Coach” Wade went on the show three times: 2009′s “Survivor: Tocantins,” 2010′s “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains” and 2011′s “Survivor: South Pacific,” where he finished as first runner-up.
Hali Ford took part in two seasons of the show — 2014′s “Survivor: Worlds Apart” and 2017′s “Survivor: Game Changers.”