'Survivor' Season 35 Player Profile: Meet Cole Medders

Survivor 35 Cole Medders - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of CBS

Welcome to the Survivor: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers preseason! THR's Josh Wigler reports from his exclusive visit to the show's shooting location in Fiji, where he interviewed host Jeff Probst, as well as the 18 new castaways battling it out for the million-dollar prize.

Click here to make sure you're all caught up on our stories from the island, including our weekly podcast series "First One Out," an in-depth look at all of the new players, culminating in an interview with the first person voted out of the season.

The first Healer on the field: Cole Medders, a wilderness therapy guide from Little Rock, Arkansas. At least, he once hailed from Little Rock. The 24-year-old was born and raised in Arkansas, but now he fully exists out in the wild, a mountain man in every respect — and it's all thanks to a childhood trip to the place he lives now.

"When I was a freshman in high school, my dad took me to the Tetons in Wyoming," says Cole. "That was the first time I had ever been in the mountains or outdoors for any extended period of time. It ignited the fire in me. I couldn't get enough of it after that. I spent every weekend in high school after that out camping with my buddies, climbing some kind of rock — not on the level that I do now, but scrambling around and scrambling in the hills and doing what I could do in Arkansas."

Eventually, he scrambled away from the hills of Arkansas and returned to Wyoming, settling down in the city of Lander. "I definitely traded up," he says about his new home. "The culture is incredible. It's a bunch of like-minded young people who are skiiers and rock climbers and mountaineers. Everyone's living life on the edge. When you all go out, you punish yourself doing these things, then you come back together and you all go out to the bar and have a beer and unwind and tell your epic stories from the day. Definitely work hard, play hard." Zoe Zanidakis would approve.

Cole is almost always outdoors, at least when he's not living out of his van. "I can fit," he tells me when I ask him how he's able to live in such a confined space — because, seriously, while pictures give you an idea, it's worth repeating that Cole is one of the most physically imposing human beings I have ever encountered. Thankfully, he doesn't have to worry about rolling around in his van all that often, as his job as a wilderness therapy guide keeps him busy in his preferred environment.

"Wilderness therapy uses the wilderness and the outdoors to treat a variety of disorders and hardships and disabilities," Cole says about what his job entails. "Specifically, I've worked with teens and youth who have been through a very difficult time in their lives. That difficulty has caused them to basically stop developing, and they can no longer cope with the real world. They come to the outdoors for up to 200 days straight sometimes. They're out there living in the back country, the wild and the dirt, for 200 days, and they learn primitive skills like making fire from scratch using just wood, building shelters, cooking on a fire, and that kind of thing."

How did Cole find his way into such a line of work? Clearly, it spawned from his love for the outdoors, but he also wanted to find a way to give back to that passion: "Mountaineering and rock climbing, in a way, it's a very selfish pursuit. It doesn't accomplish anything for the world. It basically just gives me my good feelings, my goals, my accomplishments. In order for me to give back, I wanted to ignite that love for the outdoors in a younger generation. For me, wilderness therapy has done that. It's my chance to give back to the outdoors that shaped me, and also make someone's life better."

Listen to the podcast below to hear Cole and the rest of the Healers in the third episode of our preseason series, "First One Out."

Cole hopes he's about to make his own life better over the course of the next 39 days, as he steps up to the plate to play Survivor. His relationship with the series predates his relationship with rock climbing, dating back all the way to the earliest days of the show.

"It was either season one or season two," Cole remembers of the first time he sat down to watch Survivor. "My parents told me, 'There's a cool new show coming on. We should watch it as a family.' So we sat down and watched it, and of course at that age — I was maybe 8 or 10 — the things that stuck out to me the most were these exotic challenges and this awesome wilderness. As I got into the outdoors, I didn't watch as much TV, but then I came back to it. I saw the social dynamics in it and how vicious that was, and how many layers there were. I felt like I would love to compete on something like this. I've never done that before. This would all be a new experience to me. It's at that point I decided I want to be on this show."

It goes without saying that when it comes to the physical realities of playing Survivor, Cole couldn't be more comfortable. But his readiness for the game goes beyond the survival aspect, and the obvious athletic assets he brings to the table when it comes to challenges. (He might be a secret threat in the puzzle department, too, given his lifelong affinity for Lego-building. This quote is just for you, Sarah and Lisa: "I think Legos played into why I love rock climbing so much: the problem solving and putting pieces together to figure out an ultimate solution, which is what climbing is. When you're 100 feet off the ground and you're pumped out of your mind and you're about to fall 30 feet onto the rocks below and you have to figure out the next sequence with your hands and where to put your feet, and then it all comes together perfectly? It's a good feeling.") Cole feels prepared for all of the lying and deception that Survivor entails, thanks to his day-to-day profession.

"I feel very comfortable with that," he says. "I feel very comfortable with picking out someone's lies, because of the line of work I'm in, which is wilderness therapy. You have these kids you're trying to treat, trying to manipulate you all of the time. You have to call them out on their crap, constantly."

Cole sees other ways his work as a wilderness therapy guide will help him in the days ahead: "In my job and in my pursuits for play, I'm always in a very difficult situation, and I know how to handle that. I know how to give therapy to someone who is also in a difficult situation. My ability to help someone is going to be an advantage. People are going to look to me, and come to me for that emotional support and help in a situation that I've been in. This sounds bad, but I can use that to have leverage over them and maybe manipulate them and twist them emotionally if I need to. That's not naturally my nature. I'm not normally a person to take advantage of someone. But this is a game for a million dollars, and I'm willing to use my strengths and attributes and use them in a way that I don't normally use."

With all of that said, Cole also sees how his professional pursuits might come back to haunt him in this game. He fully recognizes the possibility that his desire to help those in need could be used against him in the end. "I would definitely consider that a possibility," he admits. "I do have a big heart. I really do like looking out for people that I see are struggling. As much as I want to use that as a strength, it might come back to get me in the end." But even if it does come back to bite him? Cole can still walk away from Survivor feeling like a winner.

"For me, Survivor is not necessarily just about the money. It would obviously be great. It could buy me so much new climbing gear and a bigger van to live out of," he says. "But Survivor is definitely more about the experience for me. I want to get as much as I can out of it. If that means meeting someone that's incredible and maybe not going all the way to the end, but it still changes my life? I'm OK with that."

Watch the video below for more from Cole on why he's going to win Survivor.

That's Cole in his own words. But what does everyone else think? Over the course of these interviews, I showed the castaways pictures of each other from casting, to get their pregame impressions of their future competitors. Read on for their takes on Cole.

Note: comments from the castaways have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joe Mena (Probation Officer, Healers Tribe): He's definitely a jock. Literally, he has an eight pack. Have you seen an eight pack?

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): I've never seen an eight pack.

Joe Mena (Probation Officer, Healers Tribe): Cause I've never seen an eight pack myself. After the right dye, and the right lighting, and a good tan? I've got a six pack. I'm good with that, you know what I mean? But, an eight pack? And he drinks soda like there's no tomorrow. The dude drinks aspartame on a regular basis. Orange soda, every day, every morning, in Ponderosa. So I'm like, "I don't know how he does it. It must be his juice."

Ryan Ulrich (Bellhop, Hustlers Tribe): Okay, that's toe muscles guy. He's got the toes of which men can only dream. And I'm sure we will have a very good laugh when I tell him, "I was talking about your toes, man. You have to cut back on that a little bit. What are you compensating for?" But he's a physical threat. He'll get to the merge. He's someone I think I could align with. He seems like a laid-back kind of guy, someone I think I can talk to.

Devon Pinto (Surf Instructor, Hustlers Tribe): I've been kind of on and off with him. I've been going back and forth. He definitely seems like the most fit person here. Like, I could see him killing it in challenges. I could also see him and I getting along well, just because he might be into the same lifestyle as me. I think I saw him reading a rock climbing book or something. 

Roark Luskin (Social Worker, Healers Tribe): He is reading books exclusively about rock climbing, so I think he's really into the rock climbing.

Katrina Radke (Olympian, Heroes Tribe): He's the rock climber. Cool dude. Look at his fingers. There's no nails, and that's how [rock climbers] are. Their fingers, they're just always big. And the chest, the way the body works for a rock climber? He's a rock climber.

Mike Zahalsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): I think he's clearly a rock climber. He spends a ton of time in the gym. I would love to have him on my tribe. He seems like a really nice, stand-up guy. Would love to work with that guy.

Alan Ball (NFL Player, Heroes Tribe): I can tell he's adventurous. I think he's like a rock climber or something, he has to be. I looked at his bag, I've examined him. I think he's more of a thrill seeker, adventurous guy. He's built, you can tell he works out. I don't know what he does, but I'm just gonna throw him in the rock-climbing category for the simple fact that I've just watched what he's into. 

Ben Driebergen (Marine, Heroes Tribe): He's another outdoorsy guy. He's probably like a river guide or something like that, or like a kayaker guy. Strong, cut. there's a lot of young, young kids out here that are in really good shape.

Watch the video below for an early look at what Cole's victory speech might look like.

Desi Williams (Physical Therapist, Healers Tribe): He seems nice enough. I mean, I can't get a really good read on him. He's obviously extremely attractive — as all the guys are, for some reason. 

Ali Elliott (Celebrity Assistant, Hustlers Tribe): He's very attractive. (Laughs.) He took off his shirt the other day and ... I mean he's, you know, he's pretty muscular, you can tell. But when he took off his shirt ... I don't know, this doesn't normally happen to me, but I kind of glanced and I was like, "Whoa. Is ... is that all, like, real? Like, are you a real human being?" Because he's walking around like a Greek god. 

Roark Luskin (Social Worker, Healers Tribe): I'll fully admit, his body is so cut, it stresses me out.

Simone Nguyen (Diversity Advocate, Hustlers Tribe): He's so hot. He is so good looking, and he knows that he is good looking and he's trying to play it off like he doesn't know that he's good looking and he's trying to be a Boy Scout. I know he sees me seeing him. I'm far from home, it's nice to look at. I'm going to keep him around.

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): The three words you use to describe yourself: unreserved, dauntless, and flirtatious. Are you going to be flirting out here?

Cole Medders (Wilderness Therapy Guide, Healers Tribe): I'm definitely going to be flirting. 

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): Is there anyone back home who's going to be upset?

Cole Medders (Wilderness Therapy Guide, Healers Tribe): No. No one back home is going to be upset. That's the one downside to always being on the move. There's not a lot of time for romance. But I'm going to be in one place on the island for a bit, so who knows ...

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): Are you down for legitimate romance out here, or is it something for your game?

Cole Medders (Wilderness Therapy Guide, Healers Tribe): I think it would be for the game ...

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): But you did say you have a big heart! 

Cole Medders (Wilderness Therapy Guide, Healers Tribe): I do have a big heart! (Big smile.) A showmance is not what might be best for my game ... but if it happens? I'm going to embrace it.

Ashley Nolan (Lifeguard, Heroes Tribe): He's another gorgeous one that looks like a freaking runway model or something. He seems fine, he seems cute, kind of a boy-next-door looking kind of guy. But I'm not sure how bright he is. He's kind of just going with the flow. He's got this smile — I don't know if he's hiding much of anything behind it. 

Lauren Rimmer (Fisherman, Hustlers Tribe): I think that poor guy is clumsy. He is very buff and he's a cute little guy, but I've seen him several times hit his head. He went to the bathroom and he tripped over a stump. He tripped on it on the way out and on the way in. You know, how do you trip over the same stump twice?

Jessica Johnston (Nurse Practitioner, Healers Tribe): He observes the trees, but I haven't seen him observe people. I know because I'm observing people. He just looks around aimlessly. I can tell that he just loves life. I think we have a lot in common in really appreciating nature and the outdoors. Honestly, I think he is probably a really golden boy. I feel like I am kind of a golden girl. I try to live a good life and please people, please the Lord. I think that he's like that. I could be wrong. He might be a villain, but I doubt it. I can't wait to get to know him.

Click through the gallery below for photos of Cole and the rest of the Season 35 castaways.

Keep checking THR.com/Survivor for more coverage of the Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers preseason.