'Survivor' Season 35 Player Profile: Meet Ryan Ulrich

The bellhop from New Jersey is a long way from home, and just 39 days short of a lifelong dream.
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.

When it comes to Ryan Ulrich and Survivor, the conversation starts with Richard Hatch.

Relax, Survivor Reddit, nobody's trying to trigger you. Resume your fixation with Alan's repetition, Simone's takedowns, and things like that. The reality is that Ryan's very first vivid Survivor memory dates back to the very first season finale, where the very first winner of the game intentionally threw the final immunity challenge in order to secure his victory.

"I think I was 7 in the summer of 2000," Ryan remembers, speaking with me in the jungle of Fiji. "I remember watching Richard Hatch beat Kelly [Wiglesworth] in the finals, and I was mad. At that time — I always critique my 7-year-old self, who just loved the challenges — it made no sense. How could somebody who had won four challenges lose against Richard, who stepped off of the final immunity challenge?"

Several years later, Ryan realized the brilliance of what had happened: "If Rudy [Boesch] wins, Rudy beats [Richard] in the Final Tribal, and he was banking on Kelly to win. It was awesome, and something I appreciated years down the line." 

In addition to the passage of time, Ryan credits another group of castaways for getting him to appreciate the ins and outs of Survivor strategy: the men and women who hail from season 12, Survivor: Panama.

"That's my favorite season," says Ryan. "You have Terry Deitz, arguably the best challenge competitor of all time. You have Cirie [Fields, four-time Game Changer], arguably the best social competitor of all time. You have Shane [Powers, would-be Second Chancer], arguably the most entertaining character of all time. You have Aras [Baskauskas, who returned for Blood vs Water], who turned out to be a very solid winner. You have Danielle [DiLorenzo, Captain of Sports], who was brought back for a later season, so she wasn't that terrible. Look at that final five. And the final six? That three-two-one vote? Come on! So that's my favorite season, and that's when I started going back and examining episodes and really becoming a fan."

If Ryan was seven when Survivor: Borneo aired, he would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 or 14 when Panama aired (OK, that's a little bit triggering), an impressionable age to start developing a deeper appreciation for the game. But still not quite enough to actually want to play the game himself. "Obviously I wasn't old enough to apply," he says, "but I had every reason not to do it."

Listen to the podcast below to hear from Ryan and the rest of the Hustlers in the fourth episode of our preseason series, "First One Out."

Those reasons persisted over the years, with rationalizations such as: 

1.  "I don't look like I should be on Survivor. I look like I should be in an air-conditioned room, getting ready for a spelling bee, or doing something indoors."

2. "I'm not the world's greatest athlete. I would have to improve to suck."

3. "Adam [Klein, winner of season 33] just won. That's the last full season we saw. Obviously, Adam won and I'm not comparing myself to Adam, but just perceptively, we're sitting around and looking at each other, and I'm the guy who looks like a superfan and kind of looks like a schemer. Are those things true? Yeah. I really have to try to push that down."

Eventually, Ryan beat back those rationalizations with rational answers:

1. "I'll be in the turtleneck. Survivor first. It's what I'm comfortable in. People wear long sleeves all the time."

2. "I'm putting on the uniform. If I go on there and suck, at least I got the uniform on."

3. "I think it helped me get on the show, having [superfans on season 33 including] David and Adam and Hannah and even Will — those superfans who wanted to play and finally got their shot, and it was a really great season because of it. I think that really helped me out in the casting process."

Eventually, one reason rose to the surface above all else: "I've always been a fan of the show and I've talked the talk for so many years. It's time to walk the walk."

Ryan sent in three application videos. Dead silence on the first two. Third time was the charm: "I was sitting at home, studying for a test, and decided I didn't want to study anymore. I got out my laptop, single shot, three minutes, sent it in. I heard nothing. And then in October, they called and told me they liked my tape. I thought it was a joke! It was a girl talking, and girls don't call me, so this was actually for real!"

And now, it's really for real, as Ryan is just days away from launching into Survivor: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers proper, a member of the latter tribe due to the hustle involved in his work as a bellhop. Given his lifelong love for the show and the evolution of his thoughts on strategy, it's understandable why he's so excited.

"I'm incredulous to the fact that I'm here," he says. "I'm so lucky. How many people want to freaking do this? And I'm lucky enough to get the chance to do it. It's very bad to lose your words when it's a show about talking frequently, but that's what it does to me."

Truth is, Ryan has no trouble speaking, at least when he's speaking with me. What's more, he rightly feels that any success he has in the days ahead will all come down to articulating the right words to the right people, like the people who are into film and television, and the ones who prefer to get their entertainment through sports. (In that regard, Ryan insists: "I'm a die-hard, die-hard New York Giants and New York Yankees fan. You ask me anything about those teams, and I could tell you. Eli Manning is my hero.")

"It's a social game, obviously. Everything emanates from the social game," he says. "If you just watch the show, and even if you listen to podcasts, you fall into this lull that everything is about strategy. Obviously, it's a huge part of the game, but I always thought the most important moments take place off camera. In those moments, you're talking about Game of Thrones, you're talking about entertainment, movies. That's where you build connections with people. When you have a little bit of a relationship there, then you can parlay it into strategy. It's not just getting this hodgepodge together and working with it."

For Ryan, he feels it's a matter of finding those right topics with the right people, and endearing himself enough to them to make sure they overlook the fact that he's not going to be the world's greatest challenge asset. ("That's to my disadvantage in the premerge. I don't have that free ticket to the merge. You're not keeping me around for strength. I could struggle with the lock. I could struggle with a balance beam.") But even in the worst-case scenario, Ryan comes back to a single idea: at least this lifelong fan is getting to put on the uniform — or, putting it another way that's true to those Rich roots, he's getting to put his hand on the hard idol, as it were.

"It just means so much to me to be here," he says. "For it to go well? It would be immaculate."

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

That's Ryan 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 Ryan.

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

Ryan Ulrich (Bellhop, Hustlers Tribe): Probst keeps pronouncing my name wrong. He keeps saying Ul-rick. It's Ul-ritch. 

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): I assume you're going to correct him on day one, since you'll want him to call you by your last name.

Ryan Ulrich (Bellhop, Hustlers Tribe): I don't want anything that reminds me of a former winner in anybody's eyes. I will be going by the name Adam Klein, though. 

Mike Zahalsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): If you told me he's Cochran's brother, I would believe you. 

Roark Luskin (Social Worker, Healers Tribe): I've mapped him onto Adam Klein. Kind of a smaller brunette male. He seems smart based on what he's been reading. I think he's a New York guy. He wore a New York Giants hat the other day. This is the minimal amount of communication we've had: in my bag that I've been carrying, I [took out] my 49ers hat and he was like, "Oh!"

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): Football alliance?

Roark Luskin (Social Worker, Healers Tribe): A little eye contact. I just want to be on good terms with everyone, where it's like, "Oh, look at this little thing we have in common. Maybe let's talk about that later."

Ashley Nolan (Lifeguard, Heroes Tribe): The Harry Potter look-alike. He's the size of my pinky finger!

Desi Williams (Physical Therapist, Healers Tribe): He's a cute little guy, and that's really the only way I can describe him. 

Jessica Johnston (Nurse Practitioner, Healers Tribe): I love him. I don't know who he is, but I want to roll him up and stick him in my pocket. He is so cute. He's so funny. I think he's going to be really witty if I had to guess. ... I can't wait to get to know him. He seems nice and innocent and he's a big fan of the show.

Cole Medders (Wilderness Therapy Guide, Healers Tribe): I think he's incredible. He's also kind of got this goofiness. It's on a lower key. You wouldn't expect it from him because he's kind of a smaller guy. And at first he was kind of quiet, but once you show him like, "Hey man. I'm willing to goof around too." He kind of comes out of his shell a little bit. And this is all still being said without talking to him. So I can't wait to actually partner up with him on the island. And maybe he's one of those guys that would be in an alliance that would fly under the radar.

Ben Driebergen (Marine, Heroes Tribe): He kind of looks like a weasel. Skinny. He's gotta be smart. He's on the show for something. He's got a good personality. He talks to people, but there's, there's something more to him. He wouldn't be on the show if there wasn't something about him. I just haven't got a read on him yet.

Ashley Nolan (Lifeguard, Heroes Tribe): I don't know what he was thinking coming into this game. He might have some crazy mental tactics going on. Because physically, I don't see it.

Katrina Radke (Olympian, Heroes Tribe): I'm curious if he was an athlete at all, because he was wearing this USA Olympic shirt the other day. If he is, he has to be a cross-country skier or something, because he's pretty slight. He's either a runner, or a long distance skier. 

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

Mike Zahalsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): He wore a Russian Olympic shirt from Sochi, like from 2014 or something, so I can't help but wonder if he's an Olympic athlete. Right? Like, why else would you have a shirt like that? But he also looks European in the clothes he's wearing. But he has an American accent! So he really is a conundrum to me, that guy. 

Patrick Bolton (Small Business Owner, Hustlers Tribe): I think he might be famous. I'm not sure. I've seen several of the producers talking to him, more than the rest. Is that a bad or good thing? I don't know. Maybe he needs somebody to talk to. Or maybe they just are so interested in what he has to say. But I'm like, "All right guys. You all are always talking to him." Somebody's always at lunch, dinner or breakfast, talking to this man. What is it about him? I wanna know. I wanna know what this guy is all about. 

Ali Elliott (Celebrity Assistant, Hustlers Tribe): I like him. Yesterday we were taking our group picture, and he just seems obviously smart. He seems like a funny kind of character. I think that we would get along, which we don't probably look like we would get along. But I think that it would be good to have someone like him.

Lauren Rimmer (Fisherman, Hustlers Tribe): That guy better stay in the shade. He's very fair-skinned. I think he's very intelligent. Obviously, he's not going to be physically strong, but he looks like a very mentally strong person. He also doesn't look like he has a lot of social skills. He just seems very quiet and he looks like the type of person that keeps to himself. 

Devon Pinto (Surf Instructor, Hustlers Tribe): He's nice. He's for sure nice. I might have a hard time connecting with him, but I'm going to do my best. I think he looks like a New Yorker or something, like he cares about fashion, that kind of stuff, which is not me. I'm very simplistic. You know? I'm not into the materials. He seems nice, but I don't know — he seems kind of sneaky, too, like he's one of those guys that I could see myself trusting, and then having it bite me in the ass for trusting him.

Simone Nguyen (Diversity Advocate, Hustlers Tribe): He's got to chill for five fucking seconds, because everybody wants to work with him, and he's here thinking that everybody is going to judge him and that everybody is going to think that he is such a pipsqueak. But you know what, it doesn't matter. You can be as small as you want and you still might be really good at puzzles. I have no idea! But he really needs to chill. His nervousness is showing.

Alan Ball (NFL Player, Heroes Tribe): He talks a lot. He talks a lot. 

Chrissy Hofbeck (Actuary, Heroes Tribe): When I first saw him I thought, "That guy's getting voted out first," because he's just an easy vote-off. My second thought was, "He reminds me so much of David Wright that he actually can go really far in the game." And my third point was, "Wait, he'll remind everybody of David, so they're definitely gonna vote him off first 'cause nobody's gonna wanna him to end up at Final Four." I ended up with I'm just not sure about his chances. I mean, there aren't any other young guys for him to pal up with here like him. The other guys are like beefcakes. 

JP Hilsabeck (Firefighter, Heroes Tribe): He might have a little trouble with the challenges, and things like that. Maybe that's somebody you help out on the challenges or maybe with some of the physical stuff, and he helps you out in the long run. Scratch his back, maybe he'll scratch my back. I'm sure he's a great person with a lot to offer, and things like that. It's that team environment: everybody brings different things to the table as a team where I work, and things like that. We use all of our experiences to solve that one problem, that one goal. 

Joe Mena (Probation Officer, Healers Tribe): I had a feeling he was going to be on here. I saw him [at casting] in L.A. He's very unique. He has his own style. He's actually a funny dude. People will be like, "Why does Joe like him? And why do they get along so well?" I don't know, but I kind of like him! He knows the game, and by no means am I a fool, but I like the dude. I don't know why. I just like him.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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