Erwin native Gavin Whitson was the runner-up of “Survivor: Edge of Extinction.” Whitson traveled to Los Angles for the live season final. (Photo courtesy of CBS)

By Richard Rourk

He may not have won the $1 million prize on “Survivor: Edge of Extinction,” but Erwin native Gavin Whitson is happy that he got to experience something few people ever do.

“It’s bittersweet. I hate to see this adventure end because it’s been a dream of mine. I made it 39 days, and I’m super proud of the game I played,” Whitson said. “I had the title ‘Sole Survivor’ within my grasp, so not getting it leaves a little sour taste in my mouth, but overall I’m pleased I had the opportunity to play.”

During the season finale of the popular CBS show on May 15, Whitson joined Julie Rosenberg and Chris Underwood in the final three. Whitson and Rosenberg survived 39 days outwitting, outplaying and outlasting the other 16 contestants. Underwood, who spent 26 days on Extinction Island, was able to bond with the other contestants that were voted off of the main island and won his way back into the top three. Underwood pulled a major move when he gave up immunity to face off against Rick Devens in a fire-making challenge to secure a final three spot.

At the final Tribal Council, each member of the final three pleaded their case to the jury. Devens, who Whitson saw as a threat throughout the season, was quick to acknowledge that Whitson played the perfect game of Survivor. No one ever wrote Whitson’s name down to go home at tribal.

During the live reading of the votes from the Tribal Council, it was clear that Whitson and Underwood were the top two contenders for the million dollar prize. Survivor host Jeff Probst announced that it was Underwood, who was the sole survivor and winner of the $1 million dollar prize.

Whitson acknowledged that he would be ready if CBS called again.

“I would do it again, 100 percent, because I had the prize and it slipped through my hands. I would have something else to prove,” Whitson said. “With that being said, I would have to check with (my wife) Carly; it can’t be something I snuck up on her.”

Whitson would be open to competing with Carly on Survivor if CBS came calling for a “Blood vs. Water” edition of Survivor. If that call never comes, Whitson is happy with his adventure.

“If the opportunity never presents itself, I’m still coming out a winner,” Whitson said. “I have an amazing family and support system.”

Whitson, who became a fan favorite for many reasons including his infamous pineapple shirts, explained his wardrobe choice.

“Honestly, before Survivor, I don’t know that I ever wore anything with a pineapple on it,” Whitson said. “I decided if I’m going to Fiji, I’m going to dress like I’m going to Fiji.”

The random clothing choice took off.

“Once the show started, people who recognized me were referring to me as the ‘pineapple guy,’ so I embraced it,” Whitson said. “People have been so great and sent me pineapple flags and pineapple cups.”

Whitson opened up about the struggles on the island.

“By day 39, it felt like I was dying. I struggled to walk back to camp,” Whitson said. “To make matters worse, you were sleeping on bamboo with notches dug into your ribs, no toilet paper, and living on 100 calories of rice a day.”

During the final episode, Whitson worked diligently on a puzzle with a smile on his face, that even caught the attention of Probst, who said that was a first. Whitson explained his smile.

“I knew I was a winner for playing and was thankful for the opportunity,” Whitson said.

After spending 39 days on an island, Whitson acknowledged that he still remains friends with several castmates.

“I made several connections while I was there,” Whitson said. “Rick Devens and I have stayed in touch. It might not have showed in the game but Rick Devens and I were tight. I wanted him out of the game because I knew he could win, but he is one of the best dudes I’ve ever met.”

Whitson admits it’s a great feeling having the support from Unicoi County.

“I never thought being on Survivor would bring the community together,” Whitson said. “Just inspiring kids to do what they want in life, and to be a positive role model, has been as valuable as a million dollars to me.”

Whitson is very optimistic for whatever the future holds.

“Once I left tribal council and headed to the airport to come home, I realized that’s what I need, and enjoy life,” Whitson said. “I have a great life and my heart is full.”

Whitson was very thankful for the community and the show of support by Unicoi County.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better community to show support,” Whitson said. “At the (Union Street) taproom, I got to talk to the same people and the same kids every week, and one day those kids may be on Survivor. The support from the (Unicoi County) Chamber of Commerce has been unbelievable.”

Whitson also acknowledged his family as being such a support system.

Union Street Taproom Owner Michael Baker, who hosted weekly Survivor watch parties, was honored to host the events and get to know Whitson.

“Union Street Taproom is so proud of our hometown Survivor, Gavin Whitson,” Baker said. “It was truly an honor to host a weekly watch party in support of Gavin, as well as having him join us each week.”

Baker explained the impact that Whitson had on the community.

“The watch parties allowed families the opportunity to have dinner, meet Gavin, and watch the show every week with family and friends,” Baker said. “Union Street Taproom prides itself on being active in the community and supporting all things Unicoi County.”

Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp, who hosted several watch parties, was also proud of Whitson’s Survivor run.

“Congratulations Gavin Whitson, you played a remarkable and memorable Survivor game,” Delp said. “Our community is so proud of you and your accomplishments.”

On Friday, May 31, starting at 6 p.m., the Chamber of Commerce will honor Whitson for his successful second place finish on Survivor. Whitson will be on hand for photographs and to sign autographs.

“We’ll have food trucks, music, games and more,” Delp said.

The event will take place in downtown Erwin at the Gathering Place Park. For updates or more information, please follow Unicoi Chamber of Commerce on Facebook or call 743-3000.