Ben Wade gained reality TV fame as ‘Coach’ and ‘The Dragon Slayer,’ but in real life he is much much more
When Ben Wade was selected to compete in the 18th season of “Survivor” in 2008, he had a specific strategy: He wanted to be the biggest character possible and he wanted to play the game differently.
“I watched the game and realized they wanted to take the weakest to the end,” says Ben, who created a larger-than-life persona as an eccentric storyteller. “I like to do things differently—go against the flow. I wanted to take the strongest.”
That was his approach in the first two of his three appearances on the CBS reality television show. The third time, he decided to “go out and play the game.”
The result was a seat at the final tribal council, although he lost the $1 million prize to ally Sophie Clarke in a 6-3 vote.
In all, Ben spent 97 days stranded on islands in Brazil and Samoa—the latter one twice—competing with and against tribemates physically, socially, emotionally and even spiritually.
Through it all, the Susanville, California, soccer coach, symphony conductor and pastor became one of the most colorful characters in the game.
He was dubbed “The Dragon Slayer” after uttering “a Japanese samurai proverb” he s
ays he made up to explain how he planned to vote at an upcoming tribal council: “You must cut off the head of the dragon. It is him or me.”
A producer prodded him to proclaim himself The Dragon Slayer. He says he repeatedly resisted, but finally gave in.
“Producers are good at pushing you whatever direction they want you to go,” Ben says, conceding it is “cool” to be known by two different nicknames.
His other is “Coach”—a moniker earned from his work with college soccer teams. It also was used during “Survivor.”
“Ninety percent of the people in my life call me Coach,” he says, noting the symphony people know him as Ben.
“They made The Dragon Slayer a legend for the game,” he says. “It was a great adventure, but not my identity. It means nothing in real life.”
Ben lasted 36 days his first season, including three on Exile Island “in the middle of nowhere,” with no food or water.
“I watched that episode and wept,” Ben says, noting his weight dropped from 205 pounds to 149 pounds that season. “I didn’t realize how hard I had pushed myself. The body cannibalizes itself.”
The man known as The Dragon Slayer was loved by some and, to his dismay, misunderstood and even hated by others.
“It was heartbreaking to watch,” Ben says of the editing in his first season. “I had lots of sensational parts.”
Friends wondered if there was some truth to how he was portrayed.
“It was tough,” he admits. “It bothers me when people in Susanville call me arrogant because that is not who I am. I had to embrace the negativity or it would have consumed me. When bad things happen, they can correct you, forge character and make you shine.”
Two months after the airing of “Survivor: Tocantis”—before he had a chance to process what his initial appearance on the show meant to his reputation, he says—Ben was invited to be part of “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villians.”
To his surprise, he was cast as a villian, alongside the ruthless Russell Hantz. He survived 21 days before being voted out.
A year and a half later, producers asked Ben to return for Season 23, “Survivor: South Pacific.” He considered what it would mean to subject himself yet again to the glare of the camera—and the editing that was out of his control.
“Everyone wants to feel wanted,” Ben says. “I prayed about it.”
He missed a symphony performance and skipped a planned trip to Africa to give “Survivor” another try. He describes the third season as “refreshing.”
“After week four, I realized it (the editing) was going to be consistent,” he says. “Every week I watched and was happy.”
While prayer was a regular practice for Ben in all three “Survivor” seasons, he engaged in that mostly alone until “Survivor: South Pacific.”
His Upolu tribe came together to pray each day—and the producers chose to give that plenty of air time.
“In a way, at times, they tried to poke holes in it and make fun of it,” Ben says. “Your faith is something that is unchangeable. I am proud they showed it. We had so many people of the same mind.”
The mantra of the Upolu tribe was honor, loyalty and integrity—values that spoke to members of the tribe, even though the name of the game is to outwit, outplay and outlast. That means members are voted off each week.
It could have been much different. As one of two returning players, Ben’s tribe was determined by random draw. He and Oscar “Ozzy” Lusth crushed eggs with red or blue paint inside to determine who would join Upola and who would join the other tribe, Savaii.
“It would have been disastrous had I been on the other tribe,” Ben says.
After some initial reluctance, most members of Upolu welcomed Ben as their leader. When the two tribes merged and became Te Tuna, that role was critical in the outcome of the game.
John Cochran—a Savaii—found a mentor in Ben. His votes against his former tribe gave Upolu numbers, with six of the final seven survivors from Upolu.
Ben says the bond shown on broadcasts between he and Cochran was real.
“We will be lifelong friends,” he says.
Outside of not winning the $1 million prize as the “sole survivor,” Ben has no regrets on his third run at “Survivor.”
“The first couple of times humbled me,” he says. “I realized I needed to lighten up and not try so hard.”
He also relished the opportunity to be “a true maestro, like with the symphony.”
“I got to make people feel loved, valued and respected,” Ben says.
Orchestrating votes likely contributed to his undoing at the final tribal council. After all, he had a hand in voting off each member of the jury—and as the Upolu leader, his role was magnified.
But he says his portrayal in Season 23 made the experience worthwhile.
“It exceeded every bit of my expectations,” Ben says. “I connected to the audience in a way I never had before. Thousands of people have written to me and said, ‘You changed my life.’ I want to change people’s lives in whatever I do.It was a joy to be out there. Every day was a gift.”
Interesting Survivor Facts and Statistics
By the numbers: In 24 seasons, 386 players have spent a total of 978 days playing “Survivor” as part of 75 tribes (including merged and outcast).
A “perfect game”: James “JT” Thomas from Season 18 “Tocantins” is the only player in “Survivor” history to be credited with playing a perfect game. He survived all 39 days, did not have a vote cast against him at any tribal council and received a unanimous winning vote from the final jury. As a footnote, that was the first of Ben Wade’s three seasons on “Survivor.” Ben finished fourth.
The young and the old: The youngest player in “Survivor” history was Spencer Duhm, 18, from Season 18 “Tocantins.” The youngest winner was Jud Birza, 21, Season 21 “Nicaragua.” The oldest player was Rudy Boesch, 72, Season 1 “Borneo.” The oldest winner was Bob Crowley, 57, Season 17 “Gabon.”
Repeat appearances: Rob Mariano participated in four seasons, spending 117 days as a castaway. That was three more days than Parvati Shallow, who competed in three seasons. “Boston” Rob won the $1 million prize his fourth try, Season 22 “Redemption Island” (Nicaragua). Previously, he won the heart of and married fellow Survivor Amber Brkich, who defeated Rob for the Season 8 “All-Stars” (Panama) title on a 4-3 vote.
Out of the game: Ten players have been airlifted out due to injury. Seven quit.
The host: Jeff Probst was one of two finalists for the hosting job in 2000. The other was Phil Keoghan, who is the host of CBS’ other hit reality show, “The Amazing Race.”