'Survivor' Season 35 Player Profile: Meet Mike Zahalsky

Survivor 35 Mike Zahalsky - 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.

Entering Survivor, probation officer Joe Mena has three words on his mind: "Secure the bag." The next Healer on the board, Doctor Mike Zahalsky, hits the beach with four words on his mind — although they all source back to one original word: "Wait."

"I have a motto to winning Survivor," the good doctor tells me in the wee hours of the morning, one day before the game begins. "Always remember the word 'wait.' Why am I talking?"

It's a remodeled version of the old "think before you speak" adage, not to mention an easier acronym to pronounce. (TBYS was a great yogurt store once upon a time though, wasn't it?) And it's just one of the many mantras Mike is bringing into the game of Survivor, even if it's one he may have trouble with by his own admission: "I know I have to be sensitive to that one, because my wife always says I have verbal diarrhea."

Mike and his wife have been Survivor fans since almost the very beginning. Their first episode was the very last episode of the initial season, the same finale in which Richard Hatch became the first person to claim the title of Sole Survivor. Since then? "I've never missed an episode," says Mike. In the early days of his marriage, Mike and his wife allowed each other "hall passes," for any … ahem … encounters outside of their marriage. Mike's choice: Sarah Michelle Gellar. ("I was a little bit obsessed with Buffy," he says. "Who wasn't?") His wife's choice: Ethan Zohn, winner of the third season of Survivor. It just so happened that the Zahalskys were living in the same New York City neighborhood as Ethan at the time. Awkward!

"Fast-forward a few years, and we've named our son Ethan," says Mike. "And when we moved to Florida, we met another couple who had named their son Ethan after Ethan from Survivor, and when you then look at how often since Ethan won, Ethan has been one of the most popular names in America — like, top five. It's eight out of the last 13 years or something, because of Ethan, I'm sure. I bet he's never realized that, which is a cool thing. He's awesome. He won Survivor, he's a cancer survivor — he seems like everything good in America."

Mike has a lot of thoughts about America, as it pertains to Survivor. As much as he loves the show, he also feels the show has impacted the way people around the country approach their goals in life.

"I feel like I'm living the American dream," he says. "In my video, I talked about how Survivor is ruining the American dream, because people think they can just go on a game show and win a million dollars. I'm here to show them they have to work their butts off for everything in life, including when you go on Survivor. Then you can get a million dollars. But I feel like getting on Survivor is really a dream of almost every American, I would imagine."

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

It's certainly Mike's dream, and ever since the dream started becoming a reality (he received a call shortly after submitting his very first application, which he made after years and years of day-dreaming about the possibility), he's been preparing. First of all, Mike is a urologist by trade, a line of work he only ended up in after years and years of tremendous effort.

"I've succeeded at everything I've ever done," he says. "I'm not gloating, it's just a fact. I was valedictorian of my high school class. I was accepted to Brown for their college and med school program at the same time. I was the first person in Brown's history to have three concentrations and graduate in four years. I then did a master's while in medical school with a focus on epidimeology, because I had time on my hands. I did a five-year residency, a six-year fellowship in male and female sexual dysfunction and male infertility, and at the same time I did genetic research at MIT for a year. I came down to Florida with less than a thousand dollars to my name, a $200,000 line of credit, and now I have one of the busiest urology practices in South Florida: three offices, four doctors, three PAs, 29 employees."

In other words, "it's a go big or go home attitude," says Mike, "and I'm going to go big here." Since learning about his casting, Mike has spent time getting himself in the best physical shape possible to compete on Survivor.

"I approached this the same way I approached every other major aspect of my life," he says. "Since hearing about this, I've been training. I ran a marathon in January. I've had a trainer come to my house three times a week to help me on balance beams and throw bean bags into buckets. These are not things that come naturally to me. I'm a doctor. I was on the rugby team in medical school, but I was probably the worst person on the team! I've been going to the gym, I've been keeping up my running, I've had someone training me with my [swimming] strokes and diving — more like face-planting into the water, but at least it's not belly-flopping anymore so it doesn't hurt when I do it."

One area Mike hasn't worked on at all: the great outdoors. He's gone camping precisely once in his life, when he was a kid. With the exception of making fire with flint, this aspect of Survivor really isn't his thing.

"I didn't think about it," says Mike. "Do I know how to make fire? I have an astigmatism, so I can't do it with my glasses, I think. But if you give me flint, I can make fire in probably under a minute. But camping and building a shelter? It's not my thing. Hopefully it's somebody else's thing. I'm counting on it."

Instead, Mike's counting on his years of studying Survivor, as well as his years of field work as a doctor, to get him through the next 39 days: "I think I have so many plans in my head. There are definitely players out here. But in my life, I have overcome every adversity ever put in front of me. I think I'm the guy who finds the little loopholes or the little holes, and uses them to my advantage. In Survivor, that's the perfect way to play."

"I hope people underestimate me here," he continues. "I'm not the biggest threat. I'm not intimidating. In my life, because I specialize in sexual dysfunction, I'm good at sitting in a room and letting people talk and letting them tell me their deepest, darkest insecurities. It's up to me to now use that to my advantage, in a way that obviously as a physician you would never do. But we'll see how it works on Survivor."

With that said, Mike stresses that there are limits to how far he's willing to push the boundaries within Survivor: "I'm a physician. I do medical research. I know I have the highest ethical and moral code out there. But in Survivor, you have to have justifiable ethics and justifiable morals. You can't always tell the truth. You can't always necessarily do the right thing. But you also have to be able to justify what you do, and know that there are some lines you can never cross. Like, people who are bullies, or people who are just mean for the sake of being mean. Those people, no matter whose alliance they're in, have to be eliminated immediately. At the end of the day, Survivor is a microcosm of civilization, and in civilization, behavior like that can't be tolerated, even if it's the democratic favor, so to speak. Just because more people vote the wrong thing, doesn't mean you do it when it's the wrong thing."

Mike certainly hopes people will vote for the right thing when it comes down to it — and the right thing on Day 39 is spelled "M-I-K-E." If the good doctor Zahalsky enters Survivor with "wait" on his mind, he also comes into it with another "w" word: "Above all else, win. We're here to win, and I'm going to win."

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

That's Mike 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 Mike.

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

Mike Zakahlsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): Hey, Josh, what did they say about me?

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): I can't say.

Mike Zakahlsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): Sure you can!

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): I can't, but I appreciate you asking.

Mike Zakahlsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): Did they say I was the biggest threat?

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): I can't say anything.

Mike Zakahlsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): Did they think I was the fat old man?

Katrina Radke (Olympian, Heroes Tribe): Poor guy. He's got to calm it down.

Devon Pinto (Surf Instructor, Hustlers Tribe): Classic, classic brains guy right there.

Jessica Johnston (Nurse Practitioner, Healers Tribe): He's a brainiac. I can tell he is a brainiac. He's quirky, he's funny. I think he's probably kind of clumsy, but he's a good thinker, so I want to get into his head and have him help me.

Ryan Ulrich (Bellhop, Hustlers Tribe): He's the only other guy who's not a macho guy here. So he's probably not going to be on my tribe, just looking at it objectively with everybody in pregame. I don't think he's got very good social skills, and that is what this is. It's a social game. It's about, can you talk to other people? Can you fulfill the other people's needs that they need you to be? Who do they need you to be? He's also married, I think he's got kids. He's got the wedding band on. Could be a farce, I don't know, but he looks like that older dad demographic. He reminds me of David [Wright from Season 33], you know? He reminds me of that type: "I don't like the water, I hate the wind, it scares me." But he'll slit your throat at the end of the day, and that's a bit terrifying as well. 

Joe Mena (Probation Officer, Healers Tribe): I call him David 2.0. I think he knows the game, very social, very likable.

Lauren Rimmer (Fisherman, Hustlers Tribe): He reminds me of Adam [the winner of Millennials vs Gen X]. You know, the one that kind of runs around and "I'll be on your team. I promise, you have my 100 percent trust." He kind of reminds me of that type of person. Which is great. You got to have them, too. And, you know, they're the people you want with you. 

Chrissy Hofbeck (Actuary, Heroes Tribe): He's the corporate type. He's another one that I'm not so sure how far he'll get in this game. He shows up in his very nice button-down shorts, and everything he wears is Lululemon, so he's clearly got some bucks.

Ben Driebergen (Marine, Heroes Tribe): I think he's either a public defender or a dentist. Again, it's a book by the cover deal. I just, I see him as like a public defender, coming in with the suits that aren't really nice and fitted. Or a dentist, he comes off as having a doctor kinda deal. He was reading my tattoos and stuff like that, and trying to figure that out. Yeah, I think he's a smart guy. I think he's smart.

Ali Elliott (Celebrity Assistant, Hustlers Tribe): I feel like he's gonna get on people's nerves. Just even over there at the tent [while waiting for this interview], he was like, "Oh, can I get a towel?" And they went back and forth for five minutes. I was like, dude, just take the towel, you know? So it was like ... I don't know. He just seems kind of quirky and a little bit out of the box.

Cole Medders (Wilderness Therapy Guide, Healers Tribe): At casting finals, he was the only one with a notebook that said, "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast" on it. And he was wearing a suit and a nice watch. And I feel like he's the super fan who's finally gotten his chance to come on the show and shine. And he's going to be a really strategic player. But since we've been on the island, I've been making an effort to reach out to him and smile a lot with him and give him a heads-up and try to connect with him visually. And it's worked pretty well. And I'd love to have him as an ally cause it's one of those alliances that people may not see coming, and it could fly under the radar.

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

Ashley Nolan (Lifeguard, Heroes Tribe): He is adorable. He's one of the more adorable people I've seen in my life. He seems absolutely socially awkward. Doesn't know what to do with his hands. It reminds me a little bit of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I just want to hug him. The weirder the better. I love 'em weird, just as far as the human race. So I just find myself looking at him and giggling. I just want to hug you!

Alan Ball (NFL Player, Heroes Tribe): He's different. He is different. He is probably the superfan of this season. He is the superfan, if I'm going to peg him. He's almost like an adult, but a kid. He's like an adult, but I don't know if his social skills are what remind me of like a kid or what it is, but he reminds me of a kid. Just the way he hangs around. A conversation might be going on and he's just right there. Another conversation going, and he's right there. Something else, and he's right there. It's like he's always right there. It's like my nephew. He's just right there, all the time.

Mike Zahalsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): I tell my wife that I'm the cool kid the nerds like to hang out with, and she said I'm the nerd that the cool kids tolerate. 

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): Brutal.

Mike Zahalsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): She's awesome.

Desi Williams (Physical Therapist, Healers Tribe): He actually has a lot of weird tics. So we were at the table, just kind of sitting around. We can't talk to each other, so we're literally just sitting, watching each other, and out of nowhere, he just starts laughing. And he's writing in this notebook. He's not listening to anything, he's not reading anything; he just, like, bursts out in laughter. So I don't know if that's an intimidation strategy or if he's writing jokes in his book and just thinking of something really funny. I'm not sure what's going on in that notebook of his. But even though he has these weird tics, I like him. I'm drawn to him. He also likes to be around people. I think he certainly is yearning for some type of companionship.

Roark Luskin (Social Worker, Healers Tribe): He's the one who's constantly asking for time. And I'm like, "You've got to chill." And all of us are writing in notebooks. For me, I'm just recording the experience. I want to remember whom I spoke to, what happened. The air, whatever. I just want to remember all of it. And he's writing, "When will the games start? When will we play?" I'm like, "Dude, just chill." And I had a feeling he was going to come in so hot. He's going to come in so hot. And I'm a little worried for him. Yeah, I could see him being somebody I would want to trim early.

Simone Nguyen (Diversity Advocate, Hustlers Tribe): He's got to stop trying to psychoanalyze me. He is just observing everybody and trying to do the detached objective psychologist kind of thing. I don't know why he thinks that that is a good approach, because nobody likes their psychiatrist, but that's what he's doing, and he's not making any friends. He's not smiling, he's not warm, he's not friendly, and I just need him to stop getting in my business.

Patrick Bolton (Small Business Owner, Hustlers Tribe): He seems like a good character. He walked by my beanbag the other day and kicked it while I was drinking some water, and I tried to trip him up. We went back and forth at each other a few times. He's always trying to get into some trouble or make something happen. But I think he will be also somebody good to have on my tribe. But he seems like kind of a businessman. He's probably late 30s, mid 40s, somewhere in there, kind of my guess. But he's kind of different from the rest. Because, I feel like most people are not in the business world from what I've seen. Most people seem like either moms or just blue collar workers. He seems more like a suit and tie kind of guy.

JP Hilsabeck (Firefighter, Heroes Tribe): I think he might struggle a little bit on the challenges, or whatnot. But he's a lot smarter than meets the eye. He looks like he does business, or something like that. Definitely with this game, you never underestimate anybody. The ones you don't think about are the ones who make it several weeks down the show. All the sudden it's like, "Who is this guy?" You're several weeks down the show and it's like, "Whoa! Where did you come from?" So, you always have to watch out for everybody, you know? You can never count anybody out.

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

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